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Ralph Peterson: Music Teaches You Life

George Colligan By

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RP: There are a group of fantastic drummers at Berklee who studied with Alan. Alan and Joe Hunt started the program (When I had my back surgery, Joe Hunt subbed for me—I was out on medical leave ). Alan's body of work as a teacher would speak for itself in his students, right? So, I was always talking about my philosophy regarding any kind of musical information: take what you need and leave the rest. And don't buy in lock—stock-and-barrel to any philosophy that is not based in your own experience, because then you are not living your life. You are living somebody else's. And so, to the extent that the program is now moving back towards a complete embracing—of every idea that Alan had, every idea that Alan has is not going to work for everybody. And what Alan taught , he lived, and he might have taught it differently to Kenwood Dennard, and then differently to Terri Lyne Carrington, and that might have been different from the way he taught John Ramsay. Because Alan is making you do three rudiments at a time, and you don't get any more rudiments until you come back for the next lesson. Maybe it's because he doesn't think you can handle any more information than that. Maybe another student who has either a better work ethic, or ability to absorb information at a greater rate, they might get more. You can give information many different ways. But I'm personally not going to hold somebody back based on a pre- described formula.

I have looked at the ritual and found a way to develop it, using the principles of three-part writing, to do the exercises using parallel, contrary, and oblique motion. You apply those rules to your hands and the Rudiment Ritual and you come up with some very interesting things around the instrument. But I refuse to teach any drummer the motions on the ritual until they have memorized the exercise in their body. Because I don't want him read it while he's trying to expand it. So if you teach that way, it's kind of like peeling an onion in reverse. You stuff a layer and then you make sure that, that layer is internalized and then, once you are sure that layer of information is internalized; you put the next expansion on top of it. Like in the Navy Seals.... talking about the next evolution. When you go to a Navy Seal's training, they talk about how it ratchets up in intensity. Each ratchet is called an evolution.

That's my approach, and I think the power and greatness of the Berklee Program is the fact that these are maybe 37 great drummers there all with different approaches to teach you.

GC: Well, the way you play, the way Terri Lyne plays, the way Kenwood Dennard plays, these are all completely different.

RP: Completely different.; and Neil Smith as well. But each has its own value. There are times at Berklee when Neil will come over and just bring his student and sit in the room , while I'm working with my student. And vice-versa. Although truthfully, there are some union restrictions at Berklee with so-called team teaching; but informally, this is collaborative education. Where the individual components, when combined in the right way, offer a better education experience for the students than sitting in the room with me by myself.

GC: Is there a lot more to playing jazz drums, than just playing the instrument?

RP: Well, yeah, and that's been the niche I've kind of carved out for myself at Berklee. When I got there and I realized that even the best drummers there, the ones that were playing with Gary Burton didn't know how many bars are in the A Section of Benny Golson's"Stablemates."

GC: "Stablemates" can be revealing for a drummer...

RP: You know what I'm saying! Oh! Didn't know the tune at all! It became the "AHA!" moment when I realized why I was there. That this is what I have to contribute. This is why I've kept playing trumpet—even when I was studying drums. This is why I survived Ted Dunbar's class, as opposed to quit it or be failed in it. I kind of sidestepped by taking an independent study on it on a graduate level. Because when I was a student I loved Ted for what he stood for, and what he taught, but we were just like oil and water with regard to the drums to be melodic. So once he found out that I played trumpet, I had to play trumpet in the class!

So, my experience as a student cast the metal for what I teach now. Drummers have to learn tunes. The other thing I teach is break your dependence on the Real Book. First of all, 60% of the Real Book is wrong. The other thing is if you only learn repertoire out of the book? Then you won't learn application. You won't learn the syntax and the language. You will learn the syntax and the language by listening to the recording. And you can learn the melody, but, to hear how the melody was most creatively improvised on. You have to listen to the records .

GC: There are a lot of great tunes that aren't in the books.

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