Thanks to: Barnaby Gold, the writer, Phillip Heydon, the photographer, and particularly Frank Corniola, the publisher for allowing a reproduction of this article.
Few know more about technique than Jim Piesse. His profound impact on students and professionals is expressed time and again by participants in his national workshops, who say, “That was amazing!” But Jim is not all about chops. “It’s about achieving a musical sound that projects,” he says, “and it’s important to have strong technique so that you can simply get on with playing the music!” An authority on ‘natural hand techniques’, Jim draws his teaching concepts from over 20 years study with living legend, Joe Morello.
Could you talk about your musical development, including your teachers and influences?
“My Dad loved all sorts of music and there was always music playing in the house. I grew up in Melbourne and my first teacher was the inspirational Graham Morgan. I lived way across the other side of the city and would take a bus, train, and tram to Flemington. Mine was the first lesson of the day, and I’d want to get there in time to be sitting at the studio door when Graham arrived. I knew that if I was waiting, he’d ask me in to the studio before lesson time and I’d be able to watch him as he warmed up. I’d be walking on air on my way back home, feeling so inspired. And Graham is still inspiring his students!”
“I grew up listening to Jimi Hendrix, Cream, and The Beatles. A school friend turned me on to John Coltrane, Bob Dylan, Sonny Rollins, and Art Blakey. He also had some Dave Brubeck records, and we’d listen over and over to the beautifully played, logical, musical solos of Joe Morello. If you haven’t heard them, check them out!”
“Mitch Mitchell was an early influence, as was the playing of Jimi Hendrix. I’d never heard anything like Hendrix, and this led to listening to people like B.B. King. Later, I heard Tony Williams, who just floored me. I like all sorts of music, and all sorts of drummers; Steve Gadd, Mel Lewis, and Ricky Fataar are great groove players who really move me.”
“When I moved to Sydney, I attended the Sydney Conservatorium. The American saxophonist and educator, Howie Smith, was teaching there and he had a huge impact on me and many other students. Thanks to him, I filled in for Warren Daly for some months, and this led to a gig with Galapagos Duck. Here I met and played with master pianist, Paul McNamara, with whom I’ve played ever since. I owe a huge debt to guys like Graham Morgan, Paul McNamara, and Warren Daly, who were so encouraging and who believed in me. Sydney drummer John Pochee took the time to hear me play and always had something constructive to say afterwards. Having time to share your gift is so important, and rewarding.”
“I saved my money and went to the U.S. in 1980 with the object of having lessons. I studied briefly with Ed Soph who was a fantastic teacher – direct, clear, and very inspiring. I studied with Murray Spivak for some months in L.A., and then went to New York.”
“By a series of coincidences, I found out that Joe Morello was teaching. When I auditioned for him, he began instructing me within seconds. He has radar hearing, and was able to hear exactly how my hands were influencing my articulation.”
“The first lesson was somewhat of a surprise for me. Joe showed me something that seemed so simple that I nearly missed the point. It was the foundation of everything else he showed me technically. He knew that I wasn’t a beginner, yet he showed me something that seemed so easy that I thought it was for beginners! It took me a while to understand the real significance of what he was showing me. It’s now something that I teach in workshops.”
Speaking of Joe, what is it about his teaching that is so valuable and inspiring?
“He’s the guy who everyone goes to when they need technical help. Trilok Gurtu shrugged his shoulders and said to me “Who else would I go to?” He wanted a check-up, and I believe Joe told him “Don’t change a thing!”
“The techniques that Dave Weckl, Steve Smith, and Neal Peart now use came from Billy Gladstone. Joe studied with Gladstone and George Lawrence Stone for some time and so knows exactly what they taught.”
“Joe is a great musician who happens to play the drums. He doesn’t teach ‘styles’. He simply shows you how to get more sound with less effort, using natural principles. It was quite an eye-opener for me when I first went to him. He was able to answer so many questions for me.”
What are the benefits of these techniques and of what do they consist?
“Fundamentally, Joe teaches you how to get a good sound. He first teaches you how to develop a reflex action so that your hands simply track the stick in a very natural way. This is a subtle thing and takes a bit of work. It’s the part that I didn’t quite get in my first lesson. I thought I could do it already, and I soon found that I needed to develop more sensitivity to what the stick was telling me.”
“Joe teaches what he calls ‘moves’. He begins by showing you how to develop a reflex action – employing the energy that you impart to the stick when you throw it down, to enable it to return to where it started. As you progress, he shows you how to add your forearm to get lots of volume with little effort. This is Moeller technique. Later, he shows you what he calls a ‘modified Moeller technique’. This is used for playing accents, within groups of two, three, four, or more notes. Later, he adds the fingers. He calls them a ‘light, fast gear’.”
“His techniques use natural principles and employ your hands the way they naturally want to move. This is why the principles work! He really removed a lot of the mystery for me about how to develop good chops. He shows you how to naturally integrate your wrist, forearms, and fingers so that you use just what you need, according to what the music requires. What he teaches is just as applicable to very loud playing as it is to quiet playing. This way of doing things helps the drums sound round and fat, and helps them project.”
“Personally, the benefits have been huge. I have a full, round, big sound now. I’m more relaxed than I’ve ever been. Everything feels better. And it’s just more fun! It’s helped me to play more of what I hear without freezing. It has helped get technique out of the way so the music can speak. I’m still working on this stuff, and still it continues to teach me.”
Are these techniques more valuable to players who want technical control over a broad range of dynamics, or are they also beneficial for people who just want to get more volume?
“I’ve found these techniques so useful in both loud and soft situations – from playing outdoors on a big stage to piano trio work. I have students who play in full-on rock bands and ones who play acoustic jazz. I’m currently teaching a fine drummer named Rob Bidstrup who plays in High Stakes, who have recently supported The Angels on an Australian tour. He plays pretty loudly! I’ve also been working with Andrew Massey, who is playing drums for The Lion King in Sydney.”
“Darryn Farrugia has studied this material with me, as has Andy Gander. So the technique isn’t limited to one style or one volume. Drummers as diverse as Steve Smith, Danny Gottleib, Dave Weckl, and John Riley use this technique.”
How much do you focus on these techniques in your own teaching?
“I’m fortunate in that some very accomplished players come to me, specifically to learn Joe’s techniques. My friend Craig Simon is a good example. He’s an excellent musician, with very clear ideas about how he wants to play. Craig recently placed second in the National Drum Competition at Wangaratta.”
“With others, focus on this material is not appropriate. We’ll talk about musical rather than technical considerations. This technical stuff is just a means to an end, and no more than that. The end is to play good music! Some great players have little technique, in the traditional sense, but they make great, spirited music. I want to help my students explore their own potential, just as I want to explore mine.”
As a member of the Sydney music community, can you describe the kinds of work that is available and the gigs for which you are currently called?
“I spent a lot of time on the road, working as Music Director for the Four Kinsmen. I worked in Las Vegas, leading a predominantly American band, and did lots of touring through the U.S. Now that I’m back in Sydney, I get calls for all sorts of gigs. I’m in a new percussion group with Hamish Stuart and Phil Treloar. Phil lives in Japan, so the logistics are challenging! I play from time to time with Paul McNamara, and am on a Duo record under his name on Rufus Records. I do a lot of reading gigs, where there’s sometimes little or no rehearsal. It’s very challenging playing a wide variety of music.”
Do you have any future plans to visit the States, or Joe?
“I hope to go back to the U.S. this year. I’d like to spend some more time with Joe. He has so much to offer, and there’s so much to learn.”