John Mader’s Survival Guide for the Modern Drummer

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For drummers and musicians just getting started, finding the guidance of veteran musicians and hearing what they have to say about generating a thriving musical career is crucial. Our long-time friend and endorsee, John Mader, is exactly that kind of seasoned professional and educational sage. A performer, teacher, and composer with 30 years experience, John has toured and/or recorded with some of music’s biggest acts, including Josh Groban, Bonnie Raitt, Randy Newman, and Carl Verheyen. John is currently the drummer for the west coat presentment of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. Dixon Drums recently got together with John to talk about all things drumming, from technique and practice to the business side of things; an essential survival guide for anyone in the industry, from the dreamer to the professional…

DIXON DRUMS [DM]: Early on, what is important for a drummer to keep in mind when assembling their kit?


  • Use a rug. There is nothing more annoying than a sliding drum set.
  • Mark your rug for quick set up.
  • Set up your drumset so that your upper body lines up in a straight line with your snare drum and the first tom. This allows for the ability to hit any drum (standard size drumset) without having to twist one’s back.

DD: What are some essential starting tips, and how can a young player endeavor to separate themselves from the crowd?


  • Working with a good teacher will keep you focused, on track, and aid in your overall development.
  • Work a little harder and a little longer than most.
  • Give some time and attention to developing an aspect to your playing that is unique.
  • Play a melodic instrument. This will affect how you hear and react to the music.
  • Take some singing lessons. Study some mallet percussion. Most of my favorite drummers can play a melodic instrument. A drummer who has great time, feel, can read well, play mallet percussion, can sing a few background parts or lead, and has a great attitude is going to find opportunities.

DD: What’s a good routine to get into that encourages continual learning and inspiration?


  • Practice the same time daily.
  • Study privately with a good teacher.
  • Dave Weckl said, “If you want to continually grow, work on things you cannot currently play well.”
  • See live music often.
  • Listen to inspiring music often.

DD: How does a young drummer monetize his skills?


  • Give lessons to less experienced players.
  • Be as versatile as possible.
  • Learn how to read standard music notation for drums.
  • Have a good attitude. Be genuinely nice and supportive of others. People enjoy being around positive energy.
  • Reinvest in yourself. Learn a difficult piece of music. Form a band that plays challenging music that you like. Study privately.

DD: As a student becomes a professional and drumming becomes their primary income, what are some good steps to take in terms of approaching drumming as a business? (I.e., should they incorporate? Join a guild?)


  • Keep track of all of your expenses.
  • Hire a good tax professional. They will most likely have you file as the sole proprietor of your music business.
  • Befriend other talented drummers. This increases your odds of being recommended for a band or other music opportunity.
  • Take a few classes on business related skills. Some colleges offer specific music business courses.

DD: As a teacher, how do you go about finding students?


  • Secure a teaching position at your local music store. Music stores attract parents and potential students.
  • Visit school bands in the area. With the teacher’s permission, assist the drummers with their parts. School teachers most often will start recommending you as a private teacher to students and parents.

DD: What’s your favorite method of motivating students?


  • Working on their favorite songs.
  • Being genuinely enthusiastic.
  • Being invested in my student’s growth.
  • Having a good attitude.

DD: How did you go about getting gigs like your work with Carl Verheyen and the Hamilton show?


  • Stu Hamm recommended me to Carl Verheyen.
  • A few people recommended me, including a great sax played Mike Zilbur, for my first musical (RENT). They liked what I did so they continued to call me for future productions of various musicals.

DD: When on the road with a band, what is the key to a happy dynamic?

  • Exercise is important for me. I have a workout program that only takes 30 minutes and I can do it in my room. It’s a very effective stress reducer. As an additional bonus, I play better.
  • Eating healthy. As the gigs get better, there is more and better quality alcohol in the dressing room every night. I try to lay off of that stuff during the week. I might have a couple of drinks on the weekend but that’s it.
  • Get as much sleep as you can.
  • Stay positive. Attitude is EVERYTHING! Be thoughtful. Respect your bandmates’ personal space. Look out for your bandmates and crew.

DD: What attributes can a player work on that will make them a great session player?


  • Treat the song with as much care as if it is your own.
  • Be very comfortable with a click.

DD: How should a drummer/musician prepare for and deal with the pressure of a big show like Hamilton?


  • The biggest stress reducer is preparation. I spend three weeks to a month preparing for the first orchestra rehearsal. I set up my practice kit exactly like the drum kit in the pit. I will practice the material about eight hours a day for two weeks prior to the first orchestra rehearsal. I like to feel ready to actually play the show before the first rehearsal.


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