MUSIC May 1, 2013 at 4:00 am

Sound Check

Save Seattle Drum School



Since 1986, Seattle Drum School has been a beacon of percussion and musical instruction for people of all ages and skill sets. The North Seattle and Georgetown locations are absolute assets to our city. Combined, they have roughly 600 students, 40 teachers, and four administrators. They offer bass, guitar, piano, voice, trumpet, saxophone, trombone, DJ, mandolin, and ukulele lessons, as well as rock-band classes, a Scottish drum corps class, and audio-engineering instruction. During the summer, Seattle Drum School offers camps, and they host all-ages shows and clinics with big-name hitters at their venues the Slab (Georgetown), and the L.A.B. (North Seattle, standing for Little Auditorium in the Back). But all is not rosy right now for the school—the city is threatening their existence. After 25 years of fire inspections with no problems, the Department of Planning and Development has decided to change Seattle Drum School’s risk classification to that of a public school. It would force them to install sprinklers, have a seismic assessment and retrofit, and make various other alterations—the cost could be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, effectively putting them out of business.

DEAR MAYOR MCGINN: Seattle Drum School should be flourishing, not on the verge of being shut down. Mr. Mayor, we cannot let places like Seattle Drum School perish. It’s a great, positive place for kids, employing good people. We need music. We need music teachers. We need music taught. Our city and its government should be helping places like this, not threatening them.

Seattle Drum School founder Steve Smith spoke.

What’s the latest on the retrofit/sprinkler issue?

A couple of weeks ago, I spoke with an assistant Seattle attorney who handles land-use issues. She was very kind and said she was going to contact her client at the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) to see if there was a way to bring us into compliance without resorting to a lawsuit. So far, I haven’t heard back.

What was it that made them change your risk classification?

When I first starting teaching here, I rented a 144-square-foot office and had no idea that there was a use classification I needed to be concerned with. Gradually, over the next 18 years, I took over the entire building—8,200 square feet. My landlord, who is now deceased, partitioned out the rooms per my specifications but never applied for any new building permits. With annual fire inspections for 25 years, we never had any problems until a year and a half ago. We had a fire inspection with a kind gentleman—I think he had just started doing inspections—who was apparently very thorough, and he noticed that we didn’t have any maximum-occupancy signage posted above our doors. He was required to file a violation, and that’s when it all started. We met with a “paid planning coach” for $250 an hour in June of 2012, and it looked as if we were going to be classified as a “B” occupancy, under the heading “Fine Arts Training Center,” which involves a risk assessment and safety standards that sounded fair and appropriate—as well as affordable.

But that assessment has now somehow morphed into an “E” classification, which subjects us to the same safety requirements and other standards as a public school that’s publicly funded, with 30 kids per classroom. The vast majority of our business consists of a single professional offering services to a single client, in one room at a time. It’s hard for me to believe that the DPD really understands the true nature of what we do here, how we do it, and how much money we have to do it with. One of the “corrections” they are requiring is the installation of wheelchair ramps to the stage in the L.A.B. and, interestingly, to the drum riser in my private teaching studio. I e-mailed the DPD, asking for validation and explanation of the “E” occupancy as well as the ramp to my drum riser, and asking them to provide me with a final termination date for operation before I begin incurring the $500 per day fine they were threatening. I received no reply. I have not had a single conversation with a single person in authority at the DPD since the meeting with the paid planning coach.

Why do you think they aren’t getting back in touch with you about it?

I don’t know why. I do know that they contacted the city attorney’s office and asked them to begin legal proceedings against us.

Are they aware that the change puts you in extreme financial stress? Who is responsible for their decision to put Seattle Drum School in a difficult spot?

Sprinklers would cost about $50,000. A seismic evaluation, according to an architect who knows this building well, would cost from $10,000 to $20,000. To repair the damage inflicted by the seismic evaluation could cost another $10,000 to $20,000. A seismic retrofit on a building that was built in 1929 could cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. I don’t know who at the DPD has the final say concerning our fate, but I think the problem comes down to the fact that our “use” of our buildings doesn’t fit neatly into any of their existing boxes. They may feel just as trapped and sad as we do.

Are they not music fans?

Everybody likes music.

What would be the best-case scenario?

Someone at the City of Seattle visits our school, falls in love with it, and realizes that it has to survive, and we come to a solution. Maybe they’ll come up with a new classification that applies specifically to us and other schools like us in our City of Music.

It seems like music programs are always getting threatened. School systems say they don’t have enough money for music and books, and they’re not paying teachers enough. Yet somehow our city has two enormous, state-of-the-art stadiums—one with a retractable roof—and we’re set to have a new gazillion-dollar basketball arena. I don’t mean to compare sports stadiums to music programs, but it seems like the money is out there. What’s the risk to society of taking away music programs?

Music and art are reflections of the soul of any evolving society. The value of society is measured by how well we care for our children. The defunding of music programs in public schools is irresponsible and tragic. I don’t think it’s a mere coincidence that the expansion of the gap between the rich and the middle class over the past decades parallels our diminishing music-education funding. The facts speak for themselves. We have to decide, as a society, that it is ultimately our responsibility to provide children with the opportunity to experience the fulfillment that music brings to their lives.

What is the philosophy at Seattle Drum School? Is there a philosophy? “SOLOS ALL THE TIME”? Or “Bonham ALL NIGHT LONG”?

Our philosophy is that if our students have fun, they’ll learn. We want to create an environment that is inspiring, relaxed, and loving. Combine that with access to world-class musicianship and a stimulating, challenging curriculum, and you’ll have success in learning. With young kids in particular, it’s more important that they have fun and get hooked. For them, it’s instinctive to learn—if we happen to trick them into learning some valuable musical concept, it’s a bonus. With older students, we try to balance short-term personal desires and goals with the wisdom of long-term planning.

Walk me through the basics of a music or drum lesson.

Every student has inherent strengths and weaknesses. We first identify those areas, so we can immediately capitalize on their strengths in order to build confidence and enthusiasm, and then we gently begin addressing the weaknesses with exercises and drills that develop awareness and concentration.

How many drum lessons does it take until you can solo like Neil Peart? Is that the fifth lesson? Which lesson is the Neil Peart lesson?

Every first drum lesson is different. After an initial evaluation, I have them play their favorite beat, or just play for fun if they’re a beginner. I try to identify one or two things to focus on that will ensure that they leave the lesson a noticeably better player than they were when they walked in. I’m a strong advocate of very relaxed technique—loose grip, fluid motion, letting the sticks bounce—and I stress the importance of developing a healthy respect for time and rhythm. This may involve playing a series of sticking patterns or drum-set patterns to a metronome. How someone responds to a specific set of challenges determines the next course of action. I rely a lot on instinct when I teach.

Most of my students don’t start soloing like Neil Peart until they’re at least halfway through their second lesson [laughs].

Seattle Drum School has a Death Cab for Cutie connection, correct? Can you talk some Death Cab?

Death Cab’s drummer, Jason McGerr, had taken lessons from me for a couple of years in the ’90s and later began teaching drums here full-time. Death Cab for Cutie had been rehearsing here for a few years—we used to offer rehearsal space for bands—and eventually we hired him. At that time, they were negotiating a record deal with Atlantic and had already achieved a great deal of success and popularity, especially among the younger generation. One day, a 15-year-old student was in our lobby and said, “That band sounds so much like Death Cab for Cutie!” Her instructor said, “That’s because it is Death Cab for Cutie!” I think she may have fainted.

Do you ever get any parents that are like, “We don’t want our child playing metal, or Ronnie James Dio, or any dubstep of any kind”?

[Laughs] I don’t recall any parents coming here with concerns about their child learning the wrong kind of music. Most of the people we attract are familiar with our approach and policy of being open-minded and respectful toward just about any kind of music. We have had parents who’ve requested lessons with a degree of strictness and demands concerning practice, which I understand and appreciate. I have kids of my own. But I usually tell them that it’s our approach to earn their trust and friendship to the degree that they choose to cooperate and realize that they will have a lot more fun if they work harder.

The Georgetown location is a stop on the “Georgetown Haunted History Tour.” What’s going on with that?

Since opening the school in Georgetown at the front end of the recession, we have struggled to keep its doors open. We were seriously thinking about cutting our losses when a strange coincidence came to light.

My wife and I bought our house from my sister-in-law’s grandma’s cousin in 2005, two years before the opening of the Georgetown school. Several years later, my sister-in-law was going through family memorabilia boxes and found an envelope with a funeral card in it. The envelope was addressed to her childhood home in Shoreline and postmarked 1953. The return address was 1010 South Bailey—the address of the Georgetown school. The card pictured the school with a neon sign that read: “Georgetown Funeral Home.” What are the odds? [Pauses] We had to wonder about the connection, and we took it as a sign that we were meant to start that school and would carry on.

Can we talk about the therapeutic qualities of playing the drums? Once a pattern is instilled, it’s Zen. A neuromuscular facilitation.

Drumming is incredibly therapeutic! Rhythmic repetition conjures a state of deep meditation. I think of the conscious mind as the lens of a camera, drawing into focus our experiences and aspirations, and the subconscious mind as the film, or hard drive, where we store and process information and immerse ourselves in creativity. The subconscious mind is 10 times more powerful than the conscious mind. If we think about walking down stairs when we’re walking down stairs, we’re 10 times more likely to trip. Drumming helps us tap into the subconscious and release the genius and expression that exists within us.

Learning and playing music is healthy for kids’ brains.

It is. Music provides us with an alternate language through which we can express and communicate who we are and how we feel. There are aspects of my personality that I can’t articulate through spoken words. There are dimensions of happiness and peace that I only feel when I’m playing the drums, especially when I’m playing with other people. The world is sound—music organizes it. On the practical side, learning music requires us to train our minds. It helps us to develop pattern recognition and to discover how systems can be employed to accelerate the learning process. It helps us learn how to solve problems. Music stimulates and integrates multiple areas of the brain, and it has positive effects on the development of language skills and comprehension of math and science principles.

And when you can play like Neil Peart, there’s no better feeling.

Absolutely. There’s some big-time math and science there. recommended