The Center for Musical Arts has a variety of talented teachers. In this interview we spoke with percussion instructor Zack Ritchie about his path to the drums, his experiences in local jazz bands, and more.
Center for Musical Arts: Hi! My name is Erica Reid, I’m with the Center for Musical Arts, and I have the wonderful job of interviewing our faculty members to get to know them better and learn how they teach, learn what they teach. Today I’m talking to Zack Ritchie. How are you, Zack?
Zack Ritchie: I’m good. How about yourself?
Center: Great. I understand you are one of our newer members of the faculty. Is that true? Can you tell me how you came to be at the Center for Musical Arts?
Zack: Well, I was actually referred by one of the other faculty, Michael Lenssen. I think he’s doing trumpet at school. And yeah, I’ve been teaching for a while now and at some other institutions and privately, and Mike described what the Center for Musical Arts was about and it really spoke to me. So I decided I wanted to give it a shot. I jumped on this last semester here.
Center: Wonderful. Well, welcome. I understand you teach percussion. Can you tell me what drew you to your instrument and to teach percussion?
Zack: Yeah! I mean, truthfully, I’ve just been fidgety my whole life. I kind of vibrate at a base rate, so it’s kind of a natural instrument to choose. I’ve always tapped and liked tapping, so channeling into a more constructive and musical outlet was a pretty natural progression.
I just pursued it my whole life and found I had an act for it and really identified with it and just loved making music through rhythm. And then I went to school for it. I studied jazz drum set at CU Boulder, and then when I graduated, just found a lot of joy sharing what I had learned with… really anybody who would listen. [laughs] So, it was kind of a natural progression.
Center: Do you remember when you first met percussion as an instrument, and not just a feeling of drumming on things? Do you have a memory of that at all?
Zack: Yeah, a little bit. When I was in third grade, a friend of mine gave me a pair of plastic drumsticks, again, because I always tapped on stuff. He’s like, “You would like these.” That was my first encounter, actually, with the instrument, with the tools of the trade, so to speak.
But then a few years later, when I got into middle school, I actually had the opportunity to pursue it as an instrument. My band teacher had an arrangement where he wouldn’t teach you drum set. He would only teach you the brass or woodwind stuff to start. So I played trumpet for about three months, and after struggling deeply to play anything at all on the trumpet, I finally just got drum lessons, and then I’ve been doing it ever since.
Center: I really love to hear when people find the instrument that fits them, and even the faculty members I’ve talked to who do teach and perform on multiple instruments, they tend to have one that just speaks to something about them, somehow. So I’m glad you didn’t give up getting to the drum set.
Center: So tell me a little bit about how you teach. What is your approach to teaching?
Zack: Well, I guess, primarily I lean towards sort of a student-led approach, because at the end of the day, I’m going to do drumming. I’m going to play music whenever I want, but the goal of a lesson is to impart whatever I can on somebody. But you can only receive what you’re ready to receive, or what you want to receive.
I could wax poetic about the finer points of improvised music all I want, but that doesn’t mean that anybody cares. [laughs] So when students come in, I just try and figure out where they’re at, what they want to get out of lessons, and primarily just foster it as a fun thing to do.
I think at its core, music should be enjoyable. I don’t believe in rigid drills or things like that. Obviously, there’s structure to it and there’s good practice and bad practice and things like that, and that’s what I’m there for. But primarily, I just want to give people something that they can enjoy doing. And then if they do find that it really speaks to them, then we can go down the rabbit hole of what’s it really about, what are you really doing.
Center: Okay, perfect. Do you work with students of a particular age group or the full gamut?
Zack: It’s the full gamut. I’ve taught as young as five, and my oldest current student is in his 70s.
I do find that it’s really challenging to do much beyond basic rhythm and game-based stuff in the early elementary school ages. You hit about fourth or fifth grade, and then you can start getting a little more refined and more musical, less just tapping like I was referring to earlier. And it all has its place, but I’d say most of my music instruction starts around the age of eight or nine.
Center: Okay, thank you. So I understand you perform in more than one band in the Denver and Boulder area. Can you tell me a little bit about your performance experience and how that fills out your love for percussion?
Zack: Yeah. Well, I do play in a handful of projects. Most of my weekly playing, anyways, is in the jazz realm. I do a night or a weekly residency at a tiki bar in Boulder, playing in a jazz quartet. And that’s sort of how I cut my teeth starting out in Denver, just kind of in the improvised freelance jazz world. And then similarly took a side step into a little more, I guess, mainstream type music.
I got into the jam band scene, because it’s kind of jazz influenced, but a little more in the rock funk realm as opposed to traditional jazz. That’s where I’ve stayed for the most part, is in the jazz jam world, drum-wise. I play once or twice a week doing that.
I also recently started playing bass in another project, just because that was going back to how I found percussion. It was kind of a fork in the road for me. I liked bass, I liked drums, and then I chose drums. After schlepping my drum set around for years, I finally decided I wanted to try something with a little less gear. So I picked up the bass again and joined a band. So just broadly performing in a lot of different situations, I guess.
Center: Can you tell me a bit about why you like these experiences, what it means to… I mean, you have this teaching track. Why is performing different? Does it help you as a teacher? Does it help you as a performer? Or is it just something that gets you up in the morning?
Zack: I mean, well, I talked about waxing poetic. Well, I’ll do that a little bit, I guess. [laughs]
Center: [laughs] Please do! Please do.
Zack: I really feel like performance is where music gets into its social and sort of spiritual wheelhouse, if you will. I think functionally within society, it’s this sort of communal gathering aspect.
For my benefit as a performer, I like doing it. It’s fun. It feels good to have the energy of people in the room, play off of it, and particularly in the jazz world, incorporate that into the performance in a lot of ways. But then I’m a music lover first and foremost, and so just… I’ve been to shows and had those sort of experiences that really are life-affirming and bring very deep joy and emotion to me.
And so performing, I feel like is my way of paying it forward and trying to impart some of that on the community at large, and do my part.
Center: Thank you for waxing poetic for me. [laughs] So when you are not teaching music, playing drums, playing bass, performing with your bands and your projects, what else are you doing? What else is filling your life these days?
Zack: Well, I mean, it’s kind of just a broad array of learning stuff. I really enjoy learning things. I’ve been reading a lot lately and listening to podcasts. I was kind of fascinated by philosophy and the evolution of thought and things. So history as well. So most of what I do is just watching, listening, reading stuff—
Center: I can see why you would be friends with Michael Lenssen.
Zack: Yeah, yeah. Well, we kind of bond over that a little bit.
Zack: And interestingly enough, Mike Lenssen does this too. I play a lot of disc golf. That’s kind of my main fun outdoor thing.
Center: Awesome. Wonderful. Well, is there anything else that we have not covered today that you think would be interesting to know for a student who is considering starting percussion or anything like that? About you, about your approach, or about percussion as an instrument?
Zack: Well, I guess, one just word of warning to whoever wants to play percussion is it’s a lot of repetition. That’s the name of the game. You just do the same thing over and over and over again. And for me, that’s, again, where I’ve found sort of a connection to it, it’s very meditative. I find it as sort of just an act that really centers in on the present moment because of the repetition.
But obviously that’s not for everybody. That’s usually in the first lesson. I’m like, “All right, so here’s rudiments. Here’s how it works, and here’s what it’s going to be like. Do you like it?” And then if they like it, then it’s great. And if they don’t, there’s one lesson.
Center: There are certainly types of people, right? And I’m sure there are some that gravitate toward it and some who it would be a turnoff.
Zack: Yeah. I can’t say there’s a personality, but there are definitely people who like it, and people who don’t. So there’s a lot of repetition, I guess, is all I would say.
Center: All right. Good to know upfront. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today, Zack Ritchie. It’s been great to get to know you.
Zack: Of course. Thank you so much. Appreciate it.
Center: Thank you.