Seattle Drum School is 17 years old and has found the rhythm to success
Steve Wilhelm
Staff Writer

You cannot separate Steve Smith from his music.

It’s also hard to separate Smith from Seattle Drum School, which he founded in one room in North Seattle, and has slowly expanded since. He’s so engaged he’s only taken one real vacation in 17 years, a week in Mazatl├ín last year, and that was only after a lot of pressure from his colleagues.

“We’re always getting on him, saying, ‘Dude, get out of here,’ ” said Mike Peterson, an instructor for the last four years. “He can’t. It’s his life.”

For Smith, 47, the defining passions of his life have been drumming, teaching music … and quantum physics. From this unlikely mix he’s built a drumming school, and an approach to teaching, that have made his school a Mecca in the Seattle music scene. Many drummers have launched their careers from there.

“When you really found something that you truly love, and believe in, it’s not work anymore, it becomes more a mission than anything,” said John Wicks, a former Seattle Drum School teacher who now plays in Los Angeles, about Smith.

“He’s more of a man on a mission”

Wiry and electric, Smith seethes with theories. During a recent visit he leapt behind his drum set as he tries to explain his ideas about the connections between music, physics, and the ratios of rhythm.

“What constitutes form in rhythm and music is exactly the same mathematical relationships that constitute form in matter,” he said, demonstrating this with complex webs of percussion. “Rhythm is completely comprised of twos and threes. There’s a built-in natural pulse divided into twos and threes.”

Then he laughs. “One of my biggest fears is that someone who’s a real physicist is going to confront me on these issues.”

But don’t laugh too fast. Smith has the background: His father was a physicist at the Hanford nuclear site in Richland, where Smith grew up. And Smith himself is well-versed in music theory, having earned a master’s degree in music from Central Washington University, when it had one of the leading jazz programs in the country.

Perhaps more important, Smith’s math-based approach to teaching percussion gets results.

“His method, as crazy as it does sound, it’s worked with me. As a working drummer, the skills he gave me are some of the more important skills I could had gotten” Wicks said.

Peterson agrees: “He lets you teach whatever you teach, but all of a sudden you start understanding his stuff, and you say, ‘I’d rather teach his stuff.’ ”

Almost in spite of himself, Smith has learned to be a careful businessman, although he squirms slightly at the term.

“I never thought of myself as much of a businessman; I’m a teacher and artist,” he said.

Maybe so, but Seattle Drum School is profitable and growing. The company employs 20 and pulled in $328,000 in revenues last year, Smith said. It as grown steadily through the post Sept. 11-doldrums, and revenues are four times what they were six years ago. He maintains cash flow and avoids excess debt. He expects revenues to hit $400,000 this year.

“I’ve paid myself enough to get by and pay for what’s needed for myself and my family.” he said. “I’ve never been in trouble. I’ve always reinvested.”

Smith’s daughter works part time at the drum school and his son sometimes plays there. His wife, Kristy, is a singer-songwriter who just returned from a two-week concert tour in Europe.

Smith advertises in local publications but most of his students come from referral.

One of them, who ran in for a one-on-one class with Smith on a recent afternoon, is Jeff Baird, King County prosecuting attorney.

“This is the place!” said Baird with enthusiasm, just minutes before he starting wailing on a drum set in the back room, wearing a white T-shirt and not looking like an attorney at all.

Smith has literally built his school room-by-room since 1986. He rented a second room in the same building when he started generating enough business to need teaching help, and slowly expanded throughout the same building as other tenants finished their leases or moved on. Now he occupies every inch.

Seen from one perspective, the 8,000-square-foot place is a warren of studios and teaching rooms, decorated with a mixture of Boeing surplus fabric and carpet remnants. Smith calls the ambience “drum school ghetto charm.”

Sleek it isn’t, but it’s consummately competent, including four recording studios with the newest digital recording equipment, 10 mixing boards, and 18 drum sets.

The rooms may look cluttered but the sound is clean, and one of Smith’s passions is tuning the acoustics of his rooms and performance spaces. He tries to explain how he calculated the wavelengths of the sound in his newest space, a small theater in the back of his building, moving one wall less than an inch to get it right. The payoff came very late one night, when he first booted up the theater’s sound system after one of his trademark all-night work sessions, when the sky was graying with dawn.

“It’s been a blast because it all works, the sound is absolutely phenomenal,” he said. “I love this stuff.”

The Lab features a tight little stage, and enough Boeing surplus chairs to seat 150, with space for more people when the chairs are pulled back. The sound system, in a short demonstration, generates a wall of powerful music that seems clear as space. The club was designed to showcase musical groups of all ages. No alcohol is allowed. Bookings are brisk.

“It was a junky garage, and he turned it into a whole awesome club,” said Peterson. “I couldn’t see his vision. He’s amazing.”

Smith seems to think of himself as surrounded by artists more than as an employer, and it comes across in his attitude towards the people who teach at Seattle Drum School. He said he’s amazed by some of their skills, adding that all of them have strengths as musicians that he doesn’t.

“Everyone one of these people does something that is jaw-dropping good,” he said. “They’re not just players who love to teach, they’re world-class human beings.”

While he acknowledges he’s had to let a few people go because they weren’t fitting in, he said the current staff pulls together in harmony around the music, and the students.

“I don’t have to be a boss with these people,” he said. “There is absolutely zero ego and competition in this building.”