For the latest instalment of Rockschool Stories, Noel Wentworth sat down with drummer Justin Charney to discuss how Rockschool has shaped his musical journey.
When did you first pick up a set of drums stick, and why?
My introduction to drumming came in an unexpected way. It was at the end of sixth grade, and I was transitioning from my school’s violin program to the jazz band. To decide on our instrument for next year, we were allowed to bring one home for an evening, and initially I chose the saxophone. After attempting my first few notes in the living room, I was forbidden from playing it in the house, so I went to the back yard.
Within about five minutes of practising, my neighbours had walked out of their homes questioning in agony where the terrible noise was coming from, and I rushed to put the saxophone away before they could discover the cause. The next day, I traded the saxophone for a pair of sticks and a practice pad. From then on, I fell in love with the feeling of playing the instrument and wanted to learn all that I could about it.
How did Rockschool Drums guide you in the right direction?
Rockschool Drums was one of the best resources in developing the technical and musical capacity to achieve what success I have had on the instrument. The Rockschool program guides students to become well-rounded musicians by allowing them to explore several styles, develop techniques, and express their creativity on the instrument of their choice. There is so much more to drumming than simply playing rudiments and it is evident that Rockschool realises this through the background information they provide before each piece, the sections for improvisation incorporated in the music, and the ear tests at the back of the book.
Drumming, like any other instrument, requires giving the music phrasing, dynamics, and tone. Rockschool Drums excelled at teaching me not only what to play, but most importantly how and why to play what I do. Furthermore, the program provided me with challenges, rewards, and a way to track my progress, all of which are vital when learning something new.
How did your teacher combine his knowledge with this material to help you learn the fundamentals of the drums?
Justen Gordon is a fantastic instructor who, like the Rockschool program, focuses on teaching his students how to become proper musicians. One of the most important lessons he taught me was how to listen to everything that fits together to create what we call music and be aware of what I can add to elevate the piece. In music, there are places to give space, to inject silence, mirror, or counter what other musicians are doing depending on what you wish to say on the drums.
Now, before I play, I remember this lesson with one of my favourite quotes: “The powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?” – Robin Williams, Dead Poets Society. When I think of the first part, it settles me into the moment and reminds me of the gift music gives us all. The question at the end prompts an answer, which I hope to give sufficiently by the time I put down my sticks. To me, that’s all that music is: the answer to “what will your verse be?”
Is there a technique you struggled with most, and how did you overcome it?
Linear independence and being able to play everything I can with my right foot/hand using my left foot/hand is a challenge I am still working on. The best way I know to build the weaker side is by putting on a song with a consistent and relatively simple beat and playing that beat using my weaker hand on the hi-hat.
Everyday I increase the complexity of the beats, and now I work on switching between playing beats with my dominant and weak hand during the middle of songs while practising, seeing how similar I can make them sound. For my left foot, I find that playing a shuffle works well to develop my double strokes, and overall, phrasing the beat using my voice before playing often helps me pick up complex patterns that require high levels of linear independence.
Favourite track from Rockschool Drums, and why?
My favourite track is “Razorhead” from the previous Grade 7 syllabus. The focused mindset and advanced techniques that track requires are what make it very rewarding to play because it forces one to think ahead and be intentional in every note they play. There is very little room for error given the tempo, dynamics, and song progression. It always puts a smile on my face whenever I "lock in" and play it in the way a song of that calibre deserves.
Do you think this platform of knowledge allows for personal style and approach, and why?Rockschool exposed me to so many different styles of music that it helped to refine my sound on the drums. In music, it is just as important to know when to “say” something on your instrument as it is to know what to say. By allowing students to improvise, especially in the higher grades, Rockschool allows them to take all that they have learnt and use their tools to build whatever comes to mind. The feedback from the examinations is also crucial in developing style and approach because the examiners hear the piece holistically and have a depth of knowledge regarding whether what is being played fits or not.
Did you feel prepared when you took your skills into higher education?
Right now, I am studying bioengineering at McGill University, so drumming is more of a passion than an occupation currently. Although I am not studying music, I feel that the Rockschool program prepared me well for what I am doing now because it taught me about the discipline and perseverance needed to perform at the highest level, which is something that is required in any field.
When did you feel ready to take your skills into professional settings and what were you earliest experiences collaborating with other musicians/artists?
I have always had a sense that I could step up to the level required of me in any environment, and I think certainty is important in achieving any goal. Goal setting along with consistent review and disciplined action played a large part in helping me achieve success early on. Therefore, because of these systems, I knew that when the time came for a professional gig, I would be ready. Some of my first professional experiences include recording at Circle House Studios in Miami Florida and playing at Evander Holyfield’s ESPY’s afterparty. Both of those moments were pivotal in shaping my future in drumming and solidifying what I wanted to do next.
We heard you secured a tour playing with French Montana! How was that, and what has been your favourite professional experience so far?
Touring with French Montana was a fantastic experience, unlike anything I expected. I was thirteen when I first started playing with him, and within a year, we went from performing for 2,500 people at the House of Blues to 15,000 people in stadiums alongside the likes of Chris Brown, Migos, and many others. Playing on stage gave me a sense of contribution and creativity while opening my eyes to the power we as musicians and people, in general, have to influence each other. Reflecting on the experience, I feel very fortunate to have been able to work with him and his team. They supported me frequently with the novel challenges inherent in touring, and became like an extended family, which made the whole experience about much more than just music.
Is there a style/genre you feel most comfortable in, or do you feel prepared to tackle anything musically?
From the very beginning I wanted to be something of a chameleon in the sense that I could change my style to fit any genre. This goal is something I continue to work at, because like any aspect of life when you think you’ve reached the top, you discover there is always another level. That being said, progressive metal is one of my favourite genres, and I have always found comfort and joy in playing it. Many of my earliest drumming idols perform primarily in that genre, and it is a great feeling to play songs they recorded that once seemed impossible for me.
Would you consider using your knowledge to work as an educator?
Realising the role educators have played in my life, I think there would be no greater honour than passing down what I have learnt to make the next generation of musicians better than myself. Musicians today are drowning in information from the plethora of resources and that makes it more difficult to know where to go to learn the most important knowledge. Because of this, I would be glad to teach others what has worked for me and guide them to reach their own goals on the drums.
Why do you think Rockschool worked for you and would you promote its use for other young drummers?
Rockschool gave me a platform that provided me with great resources, a healthy amount of challenge, and, most importantly, quality feedback. Reaching a goal requires first knowing where you are and then deciding where you want to be, but many people miss that first step. Through the Rockschool examinations, I was able to measure my progress, and that was crucial as I continued to work towards my goals because the feedback provided me with necessary motivation and insight about where I was along the way. Therefore, I would absolutely recommend other young drummers take up the program because it creates a solid foundation for continued growth on the instrument.
What drummers do you admire the most, and why?
Some of my idols include Thomas Lang, Matt Garstka, Dave Elitch, Jojo Mayer, Benny Greb, and Gerald Heyward. These names came to mind first because I have had the privilege of studying with many of them and I think each of them excels in their respective category. That being said, many other fantastic musicians have inspired me throughout my time playing and I am always finding new inspiration, so this list is ever-growing.
What plans have you got for the future?
Right now, I am focused on attaining my degree in bioengineering and starting a biotechnology company. Although, I always keep a pair of sticks close by and enjoy learning more about the instrument I love whenever possible.
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