Steve Smith has loved performing since he took the stage as a kid in green-and-orange-striped bell-bottoms, a Nehru jacket, Apache scarf tie, and Beatle boots.
“I was the rock star in my elementary school talent show,” recalls Smith, an accomplished drummer and founder of the Seattle Drum School.
Now, he and his singer/songwriter wife, Kristy, thrive on helping other aspiring musicians perfect their craft through their music school, one of the largest in the Northwest. Here, students of all ages (from age 3 through adults) and abilities can learn to play a wide range of instruments, including drums, guitar, bass and saxophone, as well take vocal lessons and learn to DJ. They even have “Rock Band” classes and camps where musicians are grouped into bands and learn rehearsal skills, teamwork, and how to compose original music. Every other month, students perform solos or in bands and ensembles in showcases at the school’s 60-seat Georgetown venue, the S.L.A.B.
“It’s just a joyfest,” says Kristy, who grew up in a family of 10 children and recalls playing a mean tambourine and singing Simon & Garfunkel’s “Feelin’ Groovy” as a young girl.
Fittingly, music brought Kristy and Steve together. They met as students at Central Washington University, where Steve played in a band with Kristy’s sister’s boyfriend. She was a freshman and he was a grad student, so nothing developed until years later, when she called him out of the blue and asked if he wanted to get together. He stammered and said he would call her back. Ten minutes later, someone gave him free tickets to a show the following night, so he asked her to join him. They’ve been making music together ever since, passing their shared passion on to their children and thousands of students over the years.
“Both our kids are really musical and grew up at the Drum School studying music,” Kristy says. Their daughter is a singer who met her husband when she joined his band. Their 2-year-old grandson already displays an affinity for singing.
Steve started the Drum School in 1986, giving lessons in an abandoned parking lot office in downtown Seattle with no heat or bathroom. His first official space was a single 12-by-12-foot studio. Today the school has two locations: the performance venue and recording studio in Georgetown and the main teaching facility on Lake City Way, where it relocated from its longtime North Seattle location earlier this year. A faculty of about 40 instructs approximately 400 students. The Smiths pride themselves on hiring active musicians who are passionate about sharing their talents.
PHOTO: JOSHUA HUSTON
The Drum School recently moved to a new location on Lake City Way.
“Being a good teacher is more than being a competent player,” Steve says. “I truly believe that kids get it instinctively when someone really loves and wants to share their art.”
More than 13,000 students have trained at Seattle Drum School over the past three decades, and Steve has been the engineer on more than 3,500 recordings featuring his students. Many have gone on to great success, playing with bands including R.E.M. and Death Cab for Cutie, as well as the Blue Man Group.
Steve and Kristy have spent their lives performing in addition to teaching. They came close to hitting it big with their band Billy Moon in the ’90s. They opened for the Dave Matthews Band, Bonnie Raitt and other big names, got radio airplay and a record deal. They had a taste of the high life — photo shoots, limos, traveling — but their record label eventually folded. Today they still regularly play as a duo as well as in bands (Steve’s is the instrumental group the 350s, and Kristy’s is Wild Child, a tribute to the ladies of rock).
But their main focus is teaching. “I let go of the fame dream years ago,” Steve says. “I get to play with phenomenal musicians and work with my students. I’m all about teaching the 5-year-olds.”
At Seattle Drum School, they make an effort to promote inclusiveness (signs on the wall read “Music has healing power” and “You belong here”), offering scholarships and donating lessons to school auctions.
“It’s important for kids to have places where they feel loved and accepted the minute they walk in the door,” Kristy says.
And they stress that music is for everyone. “Parents should know music is really good for children of differing abilities,” says Kristy. “Music is exceptional that way. It doesn’t see disability.” They make accommodations for anyone who wants to play. Kristy has a student with dyslexia who finds that music enhances her learning. Steve has a student who tapes drumsticks to his hands.
When it comes to selecting an instrument, the Smiths encourage parents to let their children try a variety. Some parents don’t want their kids to start something they might not stick with, but Steve says there’s value in letting children explore. He recommends being open-minded, pointing out, for example, that drumming is not just for boys. One of his former female students recently appeared on the cover of a national drumming magazine, and another has played with the 8G Band, the house band on NBC’s Late Night with Seth Meyers.
Once a student chooses an instrument to specialize in, mastering that instrument takes practice, patience and discipline.
“But I don’t want them to think it’s discipline,” Steve says. “I want them to think it’s really fun, so they keep music in their lives. If they learn something along the way, that’s a bonus.”
Learn more about the Seattle Drum School, including upcoming summer camps, at seattledrumschool.com