I took this interview with Atma Anur back in midsummer, 2008. It was published first as a blog post on Atma’s MySpace page in September later that year. I chose to republish it here, along with other “phosphorous heads” lit by Atma over the years. This interview was the result of putting together thoughts & impressions connected to his drum masterclasses at the Krakow Jazz School throughout 2008, and his first involvement in the 14th edition of the International Summer Jazz Academy that took place in Krakow in the summer of the same year.
Alina Alens: Atma, most of the people know you as an experienced musician, a charismatic drummer, to put it shortly, a mind-puzzling showman on the stage. Less people know you as a teacher, but I have to say that Atma the drummer, Atma the musician and Atma the teacher (and who knows how many other Atma-s) share not only the same knowledge, but also the same charisma. In other words, for anybody interested in music there is always something to learn, pick up and apply from your performance.
On January 23rd, 2008, you started giving “The Groove Lab” series of classes at the Krakow Jazz School. Then, between the 13th and 24th of July 2008, you were a guest teacher at the International Summer Jazz Academy. At the moment you are considering giving new classes, oriented, as before, not only to drummers, but to musicians-to-be, no matter the instrument they play. What I noticed visiting your workshops and your classes was that for you making music and teaching it are not two, but one, simultaneous and great experience.
Even though it has been a while since the first class of the “Groove Lab,” I would like us to go back to it and talk about some of the ideas presented there. Before starting, however, I would like you to briefly skim through your years of music teaching and give us the “when” and the “where” coordinates.
Atma Anur: Firstly I must say that I studied at some excellent schools and with some great teachers. I attended New York City – as school, then Manhattan School of Music and later the Berklee College of Music in Boston. I began teaching beginners when I was 17 in New York. After coming to San Francisco I began teaching privately. Then I taught at the Cazzadero Jazz Camp, the John Ford Music School, Duck Music Works School of Music and the Applied Experience Consortium. I also gave many drum clinics for Sabian cymbals and DW drums. I have taught at LA based pit as well. This has all been over the past thirty years.
Alina Alens: Why Krakow, why Krakow Jazz School?
Atma Anur: Well, I had moved from San Francisco to London early last year. A good friend of mine living in Krakow called me to do a tour here. I did 22 shows in 22 cities in 32 days and I was hooked. I moved to Krakow on September 1st 2007. Once I got settled in, I met many great musicians here. My new good friend Artur Malik told me about the Jazz School where he was teaching. Shortly after this I began playing with the local soul band Soulfinger. Kris Bodzon, the bass player in the group, also teaches there. It has been a good experience sharing what I have learned in my career with these young musicians.
Alina Alens: As a non-native musician living in Poland you might have felt at times the pressure of linguistic barriers. Teaching music using English in a non-English-speaking country is not easy, though definitely challenging. It must be just as challenging for your students, no doubt about that. By the way, who came up with the idea of that name for your classes?
Atma Anur: The name “Groove Lab” is my idea. I love that name. For me it is exactly what I think any new musician needs… a groove lab. A place to experiment and gain experience and confidence in making music. This class is about the nuts and bolts of physically making music. Music is really a universal language and groove has much more to do with a basic feeling than with words. Although I do have to communicate with some words, I find singing, playing and dancing to be of great communicative value.
Alina Alens: Indeed, the best way to learn how to play music is to do it. The students had their instruments with them and I remember there were a set of drums and keyboards in the classroom. You also used the “click” or the metronome, but we will talk more about it later.
So, everyone had their instruments ready to use, you started showing different beats to the drummers, humming one tune to the saxophone player, another tune to the guitar player and another one to the keyboard player – music in the making. They should have had no trouble understanding what they were supposed to do. Still, you had to guide and talk them through into the right rhythm and melody. How did you bridge the misunderstanding gaps when they occurred? I am thinking of “bridging” as that process of jumping from what is not clear to what is understandable.
Atma Anur: Really, the music is the best bridge for misunderstood words. I think that between humming and playing, between dancing and the feeling of what I want played by the students, they get it.
Alina Alens: As I see it, the main point of the “bridging” in teaching is finding the common ground that grants a common understanding to both the teacher and his students, no matter how it is built – using metaphors, unusual analogies or striking image associations – only a few elements of the possible construction material of the bridge. I remember you made some colour associations. You told the students that if they “experienced” the colour red it meant they were playing “too fast.” On the other hand, if they “experienced” brown or hazy, they were playing the song “too slow.” The way a teacher is “bridging,” the way he is building the bridge is connected to his signature, to his unique teaching style, no matter the subject taught. My question to you, Atma, goes like this: How do you build your bridges?
Atma Anur: This is a great question. The thing about groove is that it is really just a feeling, so one must actually make as many analogies to other common feelings as possible to get across the point. I also try to just get the students to experience the feeling I am talking about themselves, by me playing and singing and dancing for them. I think the best bridge is the teacher not being afraid to be totally open and honest with the students and let the guard down. When the students see your passion for what you want to convey, they just get it… internally.
Alina Alens: Your answers so far have let us in on the amazing atmosphere of your classes. I wouldn’t have expected otherwise!
Moving now to another topic, let us talk about rhythm. Rhythm is essential to music, even though any great ensemble, any great band, as you said at many of your classes, will never play to only one “right” tempo. Music can be played ahead or behind time, and it can still be called great music, or rather it is, for this very reason, great music. In spite of this, the playing techniques should be acquired while paying attention to a certain beat, to a certain rhythm. It is an essential learning experience, where the “click” plays a major part. The danger for the musician is to get too accustomed to always having such a “beat judge” and not being able to play without it. That is why you started with the “time master,” but then gradually had the students practise playing without it.
I found your talk about time in music extremely interesting, and I would like you to review the main ideas for us now. I don’t remember if you mentioned such a thing as an “internal click” or that was just my mind rolling inside your metaphor, but I think it is worth talking about.
Atma Anur: Briefly, music is an experience in time. Without time, there can be no music. For the listener to experience what the player wants to communicate, they must share a common sense of time. This is the groove. Musically, this time sense exists in the melody and the root motion of the chords. There is no music without rhythm, so this also makes the time experience quite simple. The internal click, as we say, is a very natural thing in mankind. When we relax it just comes. Many young musicians lose this as they try to learn technical things and try to copy others, as opposed to trying to create. Playing good music is the most important thing to developing an internal click. Melodies and chord motions have a natural slope that will indicate the best place to sit in the time for the musicians to convey the song or piece well. Ahead, behind and so on. This is also what makes a unique musician, his place in time…
Alina Alens: Any bridge building starts from the base. In this case, the question you asked was “How do you start?” and the answer “Getting comfortable with the instrument you’re playing.” Another important question was “Why?,” more precisely asking yourself “Why do I play music?” The motivation people have may vary up to a point, but the essential inner reason is the same: when you play music, you have to enjoy it!
Atma Anur: Yes, this is very true.
Alina Alens: What outcome did you predict for the first jazz lesson and in which way did the actual outcome differ from the one you predicted?
Atma Anur: I am not teaching jazz. The first outcome I wanted was that the students enjoy the process. I think they did. My only disappointment at that time was that more people did not actually play. Some because of shyness, and some because we did not have enough time.
Alina Alens: By the end of June, all this has obviously changed. You had more and more students interested in participating, in overcoming their shyness, in improving their skills as musicians, in spite of initial linguistic misunderstandings. This is all thanks to you, to your great knowledge and abilities as the engine of the “Groove Lab.”
I would like to thank you for taking the time to give this interview, but before wrapping up I would like you to answer one last question.
At the International Summer Jazz Academy this summer you had twelve students in your combo: two violin players, two guitar and two bass players, three drum players – one of them I think the youngest student in the Academy, two piano players, and one saxophone player, all of them brilliant, however, all of them beginners. Still, the song you chose for them to play was “Take Five,” a difficult song with an odd time signature. More than that, you gave each and every one of them the chance to play a solo on their instrument, which was again something commonly unexpected from a group of beginners.
The question I would like to ask is where – if at all – can the limitations be placed when it comes to making music, from the point of view of a teacher who knows his students’ abilities well enough to predict ways in which they might put these abilities to use successfully?
Atma Anur: Teaching is truly an investigation into human nature. Often one’s potential can depend on the limitations placed on them by the people closest to them, or those that have some authority over them. My intention is always to just assume that the student will succeed, so as I get to know someone I am looking to push them to the place that we see, together, as the next level. In class situations I look to do the most unlikely thing I can and push to get there. The students are usually quite happy and excited to be led with such hope and respect. People can feel when they are respected, and usually want to rise to the challenge when something great is expected of them. As a teacher a positive attitude is also your best tool in actually teaching something. Share your passion…
Alina Alens: Once again, talking to you has strengthened my opinion that your way of making music, whether it is the result of teaching or performing, will always give your listeners something to think about, to take with them and remember, no matter when and where they are. Thank you!