Gaz picked up his first drumsticks at the age of six after seeing his older brother perform at a live show. He started private lessons and, from there, discovered the Trinity syllabuses and worked his way through the grades. Gaz now enjoys a fulfilling portfolio career as a session musician, teacher and Trinity examiner. We caught up with him between lessons and gigs to find out more about how the Trinity exams and books have helped him to carve out such a varied and successful career - both as a musician and as a teacher.
I’ve learnt a great deal about the industry through one-to-one time with some big session names like Craig Blundell (Steven Wilson) John Field (Georgie Fame) and Mick Avory (The Kinks). But the Trinity books definitely gave me the confidence to become a touring and session musician. I’ve done a lot of touring over the last two years - big festivals across the UK, and private work or gigs abroad.
All of those gigs were based around sight reading and chart reading. So I owe a lot of that to the books I studied. I wouldn’t have those skills if I didn’t study. I can still remember songs from the books from years ago. Whether I’m playing a jazz lounge, complex funk or a rudimental-based performance with intricate notation, I will often cherry pick the structures from the books to include in my performances.
I always start with a clean slate with everyone that I teach. So if someone’s not interested in reading, then I might play them some songs from the Trinity books or use the brilliant app, and then try and gauge what kind of music they’re into. I like to get an idea of what each student wants to learn, and what kind of drummer they want to be.
Most of my lessons now are Trinity book based. All the songs that you get are songs the students really love; they span across so many contemporary styles and develop improvisation skills, sight reading skills, and they achieve goals. And they’re externally regulated but they’re internationally recognised, which is a really important aspect of education. If you’re playing abroad or if you’re starting a new college somewhere, they're globally recognised.
All the behaviour techniques that you need, in order to be a working musician have been worked in. There are skills the books highlight, like dynamic control - that’s so important for every musician and so often overlooked by non-sight readers. There’s everything from different genres of music, to articulating dynamic contrast, to tempos and learning time signatures. If you’re starting out teaching and you want something that’s going to set goals and work each week for your students, it’s really good for that. And the app is great - it’s designed like a studio mixer which is really handy. And playing to a click track is so important. You’re definitely going to need that to be a session musician.
If you’re in a band, or auditioning for a band, and they say, “Can you play double time, half time, or styles of music like reggae, swing, or the bossa nova?” and you’ve never learnt these before, then you’re going to be in a sticky situation. It's important to learn all genres of music. There are eight songs per grade, so you can learn a lot about different genres and styles. You also have the freedom of choosing your very own composition or free choice piece, as long as it meets the parameters of the Trinity framework which is all available online to check.
The students I’ve mentored up to this point have really surprised me. One of my students auditioned for School of Rock in London and he got handpicked by Andrew Lloyd Webber. He went on to do Matilda after that and now secured a main role starring in the West End production of 'Big'. But when he first started he wouldn’t even play in front of me! I don’t know if he would have achieved all this if he hadn’t done the exams first and built his confidence. It's been an important journey for him and it all started with the Trinity training.
After touring in bands for many years in the UK and abroad, I got home, I did some teaching locally and then my name got put around - someone recommended me and it just snowballed.
I used to work for a music agency. I left and started my own private company Professional Play Music specialising in performance and graded exams. Since then I've put hundreds of students through the Trinity grades over the years, and I think that’s another reason why I get booked up quickly - my pass rate is very high. I’ve never really advertised, if I’m honest. I got three phone calls this week for lessons and they’re all from different sources but, unfortunately, I’m fully booked up at the moment.
I’m definitely a performer. I’ve always been a performer, since I was young - I couldn’t give that up. But I really love teaching. They’re both completely different. But the gigging side of it is fleeting. You’ve got to cherish those moments and understand that it’s just a moment and you have to give it your all.
The teaching is really rewarding for me. I trained an elderly gentleman who was in his late eighties and he had Alzheimer’s. It was his first drum lesson in 40 years. He went on to perform in my stage production event in front of a sizeable crowd, and that was the biggest buzz - seeing him walk off stage with a big smile and get a huge round of applause.
Session musician, drum teacher and Trinity examiner
Adam Trisk picked up his first drumsticks at the age of 13, and has been working as a professional drummer and drum teacher since he graduated from Leeds College of Music in 2008. Since then, he’s built a successful business as a teacher and musician. Here he shares his story, and how he balances a life of playing and teaching - from performing at Glastonbury, to maintaining a 100% pass rate for students entered for graded exams.
Success doesn’t just happen overnight - if you’re looking to attract new students you’ll need to advertise. Adam suggests trying advertising locally, and leveraging any free websites you can advertise on:
“I started just by advertising with leaflets in local newsagents. And then lots of online advertising. I initially got quite a few enquiries through musicteachers.co.uk - there are lots of free websites out there.”
Adam has now built up a solid customer base over the past ten years - he teaches around 40 students and doesn’t really need to advertise, getting most of his work via word-of-mouth or direct enquiries on his website.
Once you’ve got a book of students, it’s down to you to motivate them to keep coming back for lessons - and from there, you can start building that all important word-of-mouth reputation. Building relationships with students takes time, but finding new ones takes longer, so it’s worth the investment. Adam recommends starting by talking to your students to find out why they wanted to learn to play in the first place:
“The first lesson I have with anyone I always start by asking them what got them into drums. Because often that will be based on some music that they’ve heard. And if it isn’t, then I’ll just ask them what they like listening to. What gets them thinking “I’d love to be able to play along to that song.” Find out what their taste is, so you can get a good idea of what they might like.”
Adam has a remarkable 100% pass rate with students entered for graded music exams - and the majority of these were awarded merit or distinction. When asked to share the secret to his success, he says it’s all down to confidence - on both sides:
“I generally don’t put people in for exams unless I am 99% sure that they can get a least a pass, if not more. I want my students to go into an exam feeling confident.
“I always say, especially for students that are doing their first exam, that it should be an enjoyable experience - an opportunity for them to go and perform something that they’ve worked really hard on, to someone who will appreciate it.
“The feedback from students who I’ve entered for Trinity Rock & Pop exams is that they’ve had a positive experience - and not what you might expect if you’ve experienced a more traditional style of exams in the past...it was just a really nice way to get the students into the idea of doing grades, which often was appreciated by the parents as well.”
Adam says the answer to this is really about what matters to the student, and what’s right for them:
“For me, the most important thing is that the student is getting what they want from it. I will always suggest looking at grades, but I always say to them that if it’s not what they want to do, then I’m not the sort of teacher that would say it’s grades or nothing. So I do have some students that don’t do it.
"Most students like the idea of going through graded levels, getting the certificates and the sense of achievement that comes with that. And to do it whilst learning songs that they recognise and like is a good combination.”
When gigs and other opportunities arise, there will inevitably be times when you’ll need to reschedule lessons. But you don’t want to let your students down. So how can you manage to fulfil your teaching commitments and still take the jobs you really want?
Adam balances this by leaving himself enough breathing room, and not over-committing himself on the teaching side:
“I’ve managed to get it to the stage with gigging versus teaching where I’m not operating at capacity with teaching, so I have a degree of flexibility, and I can usually offer people an alternative slot.”
“I first got to do Glastonbury a couple of years ago, which was a highlight. But I’d say the main thing is to be able to get to a point where I genuinely get a lot of variety in my playing. So I do the CBeebies, it’s just completely wacky and different from anything else I’ve done. Doing function and wedding bands is different again, and then there’s pantomime. Sometimes I do musical theatre playing, or just small jazz gigs. So I think just having variety is what keeps me going."
“More than the exam success, it’s the students I’ve had who have gone on to study music, or who have gone on to play in bands just for fun. The fact that they’re getting out there and enjoying playing the drums, which is ultimately the main reason they start in the first place. To me, that’s more valuable than having a grade eight distinction.”
Mighty Fine School
As a youngster, Toby Davies played as a percussionist in local youth orchestras and jazz bands, before studying music at Kingsway College, Westminster. He then became a musician who was lucky enough to play all over the world.
Deciding he wanted more stability, Toby became a peripatetic teacher, progressing to full-class instrumental teaching. He then brought his extensive experience to Trinity when he started working as an area representative before taking on his current role as the National Advisor for their Rock & Pop syllabus. He has on-the-ground experience of how different teachers across the UK deliver the exams in creative, enjoyable ways – and explains why you don’t have to be an academic to get great results from your students.
One of the things many music teachers say when Toby speaks to them is that they don’t know where to start when it comes to offering exams. They don’t always come from a background of academic music or teaching, and instead see themselves primarily as musicians who offer lessons as an additional service.
Toby explains to these teachers that, as well as adding obvious value to the student, the syllabus is designed in a way to help teachers’ delivery. Toby believes the structure of the syllabus makes teachers’ lives easier. There are materials and resources to help them understand the marks. Additionally, the teacher’s knowledge and experience as a musician is valued:
"The teacher is trusted, as a competent musician, to recognise a good performance on the instrument they specialise in.”
If students see their teacher genuinely enjoys the music they’re teaching, it will nurture that attitude in students, too. Toby says they want students to see a relevance to lessons, beyond exams:
“Bringing what you do on stage into lessons and making that connection with students is really important. They’ll feel inspired to work harder, and the musicians themselves aren’t having to learn new material all the time as the songs they are teaching are the standard function band songs they are playing week in, week out”.
Rather than have a standalone section of the exam for rudiments or scales, those technical elements are embedded within the structure of the songs, as Trinity still very much values the importance of these elements and students still need to learn these skills within the Rock & Pop syllabus:
“This is a massive appeal to a lot of musicians, who haven't necessarily learned music in a conventional way – they might be self-taught.”
The accessibility and relevance of the syllabus makes Rock & Pop all the more enjoyable. If students are told they’re going to perform Adele’s ‘Hello’, they’re likely to have already been singing it for three years so will be enthusiastic to use it as an exam piece:
“As a teacher, knowing the material that you will be teaching is really important. The fact that the syllabus features real, well-known songs makes this much easier when working with students.”
No teacher or student need ever feel like they’re on their own. As part of his role, Toby regularly visits Rock & Pop teachers. These valuable face-to-face meetings are an opportunity for teachers to show Toby how they’re delivering the materials:
“It’s always great meeting teachers who are coming up with new and exciting ways of using their own musical backgrounds and skills to teach the syllabus.”
Another supporting tool popular with teachers and students is the Play Trinity Rock & Pop app. It's designed to help both learners and teachers. Through the app, a teacher can set goals for the student to reach by the end of the lesson, and record the progress made:
“I really love how the app enables the student to become both the artist and producer. Students can isolate instruments, change the pitch, loop sections to tackle the more challenging bits of songs, and practise in the way that best suits them – then demonstrate their progress to their teacher via a recording.”
Teachers and students also have access to a great range of support material online to help with some of the trickier aspects of performance:
“If a student asks how to improvise a certain style and the teacher doesn’t feel confident demonstrating it, they can go to the Practice Room on the Trinity Rock & Pop website where there are lots of video examples of improvisation in various styles.”
Toby is adamant that it’s possible to strike a balance between gigging and teaching with the Rock & Pop syllabus:
Mighty Fine School
“There is room to do both, you just have to plan it. When you're teaching, I’d recommend using your experience as a performer. There's not a kid in the world that wouldn’t light up and beam if their teacher told them, "I was on stage last night”.”
We recommend teachers share videos of themselves performing live. It’s great to use real-life experiences to guide students through their own musical journey – when stuff goes wrong on stage, the same would apply to when something goes wrong in the exam. You can discuss things like how to get over it and carry on.
Teachers find the syllabus so easy to use that previous teaching experience isn’t always necessary to get brilliant results from your students:
“We're not saying you need to have gone from Grades 0-8 yourself; gone to music college; have a doctorate in music – to be able to teach this. You don't. You could be a self-taught guitarist, on stage, regularly gigging – and also teach this particular syllabus. It lends itself perfectly to that background.”
Trinity recognises that great teachers come from all backgrounds, and as a previous performer and teacher himself, there’s no-one better suited than Toby to help guide Rock & Pop teachers and students through this exciting syllabus.
Mighty Fine School