Get to know: Bobby Medcalf!

Here's a transcript from a recent interview with one of our fantastic instructors.

Where are you from? Beech Grove, Indiana. So, I'm from the midwest.

And how long did you live in the midwest before you moved to CA? Until I was 12. My dad is a pastor and he was called to lead a church in CA when I was 12 years old; so we drove out to the Bay Area (Redwood City, CA) and I've lived here ever since.

Are your parents still there? No. Eventually my dad pastored a church south of Fresno, in Toulary, CA. He's retired now and that is where they live.

When did you become interested in the drums? I wanted to play the drums for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid my parents bought me this toy drum and I just beat it all the way through. My mom says I would be drumming around the house singing Little Drummer Boy. In 3rd or 4th grade, you had to be recommended to play the drums at my school. I don't know why; they wouldn't just let anyone have sticks and bang on drums. [laughter] So my music teacher recommended me for drums. Then I told my parents "Hey, I'm going to play drums" and they were like "No, you're going to play the saxophone."

When did your parents buy you a drum set?  I took the saxophone for a number of years, dutifully did what they asked me to do, and I kept asking them every once and awhile, "Can I switch to drums?" They finally let me do it in high school. That was around the time in CA when they really gutted the music programs in high schools. What did they call it? Proposition 13? Somehow it really affected the funds for music in CA schools and so the music program, honestly, at my high school was really bad. So I told my parents "I want to learn the drums, but I'll learn on my own." There was a guy at our church named Brant and he offered to show me some things: how to hold the sticks and what to start practicing, things like that. I started to teach myself. I just learned by listening to music and trying to figure out what the drummer was doing and thankfully when I did take lessons, I didn't have too many bad technique habits, but my teacher did have to correct a few things. Since I was just kinda teaching myself, there were some things that I wasn't doing very well and he thought it was holding me back.

You have a lot of experience playing the drums. What are some of your drum playing highlights from over the years? I had only been playing for about a year; there was a band connected to the church that my dad pastored and they were all like out of college, but for some reason they asked me to be their drummer. They heard me practicing at church and they thought "Oh, that kid can play." So, I started gigging with them and I got to go into a studio and record a demo. Pretty early on I was playing gigs and I got some studio experience. It was a good experience. And then, of course, growing up in church there were opportunities to play drums for church events (Christmas programs, Easter programs, youth programs - things like that).

Do you have formal training in drumming? Did you take lessons? That’s another whole story. I applied, I wanted to go to one of the universities in the US that had a really good percussion program but I think my parents, in fear of me earning a living as a musician, steered me towards engineering and computers so I ended up not going for my music degree. I got a computer science degree. So, I don’t have any formal training. It’s all been just learning on my own.

And how did you do that? Did you use videos? Did you have friends that played? Yeah, all of the above. I taught myself a lot along the way. To learn guitar, I had a friend right after college that helped me buy an acoustic guitar, gave me a couple books, and showed me a lot of stuff. Then, I took piano lessons for a while to learn music theory because I really wanted to try writing songs and stuff like that.

As far as drumming, I took some lessons right before college because, even though I was going to study computer science, I wanted to try to make it into a jazz band on the campus where I was going and try to keep music in the picture. But, I found that I wasn’t as smart as I thought. The work was really hard and I didn’t have any extra time for music. I just had to focus on the school work so I could graduate. I kind of had to set music aside for a number of years. But I came back to it after college and mostly taught myself on drums.

It’s interesting when you watch things like American Idol, a lot of the singers got their start in church. And it’s amazing how churches can produce a lot of really great musicians because you’re playing all the time.  So what are some of your experiences just growing up and playing in church? Yeah, so it forced me to learn how to read music even though I would say it’s definitely still not one of my strong suits. The music director would give me this pile of drum charts and say “Here’s the Easter music. Start practicing it.” This was during my high school years, so I would have to sit down and learn how to read a drum chart and then work with a band. Also, usually the church itself doesn't have enough musicians to cover everything so there’s some hired guns; so you even get an opportunity to work with some players that are making their living doing this and so they come in and they can sight-read anything and you’re hoping not to mess up. [laughter] You know, I just hoped I could keep a straight beat and not speed up or slow down. Along the way, I learned I could sing too. My mom would tell me that I had a good voice, but I never wanted to sing. I was encouraged by some youth pastors: “Maybe you should try for a solo in the next Christmas production” and I said “Oh, okay, I’ll do that.”

I love hearing when you have a student on the drums, you’re strumming the guitar and singing. Yeah, I really enjoy being able to do that because I think it gives them an experience of really making music. They can learn a lot playing along to tracks but I think you really grow in a new and better way when you can actually play along with another musician.

So bring us up to speed to today, what are you doing on the drums today? When I travel overseas with the volunteer group, I’m teaching drums and I drum for events. We usually do musical events at community centers and stuff like that so I’ll drum when we do concerts there. When I’m home, I don’t drum that often at church and I’m not in any gigging bands right now. At church, what I do is I play guitar and I sing and I lead the music often on Sunday mornings. Usually once a month or so.

You also teach guitar. Tell us a little about that. Yeah, I enjoy that. I feel like my strength is getting people started and hopefully giving them a love for guitar and getting them going.  I think a lot of my students on guitar are like me. They’re more singer-songwriters. They want to learn how to play the guitar so they can sing the songs they like, and I feel like I can do that well. 

What is the advice you give most often to your students? Practice. There’s no substitute for practice. I used to have a pastor that said, “You're not going to get stronger by watching me lift weights.” If you don’t practice, you’re not going to get any better. Sometimes I don’t know if [the students] get that. But I always try to encourage them: even if you practice a little bit, practice a little bit as many days as you can rather than practicing for 1 hour and then not practicing for a week. With many instruments, it's just about repetition and muscle memory - especially when you’re getting started on guitar. It’s more difficult than getting started on drums, honestly. I think I can get someone started on the drums a lot easier. On the guitar, you just have to spend that time getting that first chord to sound okay without any buzzing and getting your fingers all in the right spots - it is a lot. And, then, if you want to sing on top of that, that is a whole other level of independence and coordination you have to work on. So, I think practicing is just so important.

Do you feel music is important for people? Yeah, listening to music. For some of my students, it is really important for them to learn how to read music, understand music, and notes. Even for the drummers. I think sometimes the context doesn’t require it, but I think it is just good to have it in your tool box. It is really valuable. And knowing some theory. Even as a drummer, it is nice to know some things about music theory. I didn’t really have any desire to learn about what keys were in a song, and what have you, until I thought about trying to write a song. Oh, now this is important. I need to know what a G chord is and what other chord sounds good with a G chord. That was why I took some piano lessons because my teacher said, “I’ll teach you theory and scales along the way.” I think that that’s really an important piece.

What are some things that you’re doing to keep yourself learning the drums and learning music and growing yourself? So, if a student cancels last minute, I always take it as a great opportunity for me to practice. I usually come at least an hour early for my lessons because I take that time to do a little bit of the paperwork, but then also to practice and prepare for lessons. I probably have too many books at home, but I have music books because I also love the bass guitar. I pick up the bass every once and awhile and fiddle, and I've got some bass books, exercise books and stuff. I always like practicing the scales and the rudiments for the drums. Those foundational things for instruments. I enjoy doing those things and, so if I don't have any really great inspiration, I just sit and I practice scales or I sit and I practice rudiments. I feel like that’s still building my technique. Even if I haven’t discovered a new great thing that I can practice, there is always a foundational thing that I can practice and that is helping me grow and helping me improve my skills.

What are some of the things you like about teaching here at The Guitarist? The other teachers that I get to interact with. Everybody is really great and really good at what they do. I always feel like I get to be a part of a group that I can learn from and honestly, I leave the door open when you [Rich] are teaching so that I can eavesdrop and hear how you're working. I'll listen to Jeff next door, or Tim, or Roger; and I’ll just listen to how everybody interacts with their students and the things they're doing and what they start with, or if things aren't going well - if it’s sounding really bad - what do they say? Things like that.

It is a great atmosphere to learn and continue to improve so I think that’s been a big part of me not being satisfied with where I’m at teaching. That was one of my big things coming into the year. You know when someone asks you: what’s your new year's resolution? I really came into this year thinking that I really want to be a better teacher.

I think a sign of a gifted teacher is that desire to always want to be a better teacher. I think that’s something that’s built in you. You know; a teacher is always questioning, what can they do to be better? How can I connect better with this student that I have? How can I motivate them, inspire them? It’s just built within us because we want to see them excel at what they’re doing. So that’s great that you’ve got that new years resolution of being a better teacher. I share that same one with you. We appreciate you, Bobby. Thanks for being a teacher here.

Thank you for the opportunity. It’s been just a huge blessing for me in every way. I’ve really enjoyed being here.

Bobby Playing with Local Musicians in Macao

Bobby Playing with Local Musicians in Macao