music mindfulness

what is the sound you are meant to play?
what is the song you are meant to play?


Be aware of the drum in front of you. Does this instrument draw you to make a sound?

Whether you’re a beginner or an advanced player, become open to a new way of making your sound. The drum is now new to you whether you’ve never played it or you’ve been playing it for many years.

“Welcome to the Zen Guitar Dojo. Please leave the door open.” -Phil Sudo

Phil Sudo wrote the book “Zen Guitar.” The following five lessons are inspired by his writing and teaching. I try to blend my own experience in teaching and performing with a personal interpretation of the Zen Guitar philosophy. These are only suggestions. You may find your own interpretation suits your playing better. I’ve included more information on the book after the lessons.

Beginner Materials :
A snare drum in good repair or a rubber drum pad,
A pair of drumsticks size 5B or 2B
A method book with photographs of posture and hand placement.
You also might want a teacher or more experienced drummer ready to help you.

Adjust Your Mindset

Be open during each session to know just one thing.

If you prefer a schedule, I would suggest at least 15 minutes a day for about a week before you go to the next lesson in the series. Never rush though a lesson; take the time. If it takes a week to do just a small part of a lesson; that’s fine.

Now, hold an empty cup (refer to Zen Guitar page 26).


(The following lessons are a total revamping of lessons I wrote for the Zen Guitar Dojo. All the content on this page is mine.

Each session begins the same way.

wear the white belt

pick up your sticks


Lesson One: Make a Sound
Week 1

Hold an empty cup

1 Place the drum or pad in front of you at waist level. Hold the drumstick with your left hand- then place it into your right hand. Follow the photograph in your book. Wave the stick up and down with your wrist, the stick should feel like a lever with the hinge being between your second knuckle on your index finger and the pad of your thumb.

2 The rest of the fingers should cradle the rest of the stick.
Now rotate your hand so that the back of your hand is facing up (the picture in Lesson One continued shows this position). When both hands are like this, it’s called matched grip.

3 Make a sound with the right hand. Strike the drum with a snapping motion; almost like cracking a whip. Try playing steadily. Make sure the stick snaps away from the drum; you don’t want it to thud and remain on the head (at least not at this time). Sometimes a beginner’s stick will bounce more than once when you strike. That’s normal. Don’t get tense when it happens, just keep listening, observe when that happens and when it doesn’t. That bouncing will be an asset later when you start to play rolls.


4 Repeat with the left hand. You may notice one hand is stronger than the other. Listen, feel and observe. You strike by bending the wrist, your elbows should be relaxed and your upper arms stationary.

Lesson One continued
Week 1

5 Now play with both hands alternating or together. The sound of the drum is its most characteristic away from the center of the drum head. Try hitting around until you find the ‘sweet spot.’ Remember the tip of the stick should always hit off center.

Pour your heart and soul into the sound. Don’t worry about the steps, just live in the moment.


Lesson Two: Sound and Silence
Week 2

Hold an empty cup.

1 Review the previous lesson. Play the right stick, play the left stick, now alternate LRLR, etc. Listen to the sound or listen to the no sound.

2 Go to the first lesson page of your book. Each quarter note is one hit with a stick. Most method books start with 4 beats to each “measure”. The “L”s and “R”s tell you which hand to use when striking. The symbol that looks like a fancy E is the quarter rest. When you start an exercise, say out loud, “One, Two, Ready, Go.” Or you can replace those words with your own words. Count out loud the numbers of each beat as you play each note. When you come to a rest, say the number but don’t play. Eventually you won’t be counting out loud during a rest but it’s good to do it now. It helps you keep your place in the music. More advanced players can count silently if they choose.

3 Know one thing: Play an exercise and focus on just that exercise. Don’t worry about anything else. Don’t worry about “Am I learning this fast enough?” Let each note sound, let it make its space in the air.

The placing of the silence is just as important as the sound. They are equal partners.

Lesson Three: Rhythms
Week 3

Hold an empty cup.

1 Review the previous lessons. It’s always good to start with the previous lesson at this beginning stage, but eventually (especially with more advanced players) you may want to do your warmup studies instead.

2 The next page should be introducing eighth notes. Count outloud and feel the sound of your voice “One-and two-and three-and four-and.” Start on the exercises, keep it slow and steady.

3 Say the rhythm outloud; for example– 2 eighths, 1 quarter, 2 eighths, 1 quarter– would be counted like: one-and twooo three-and fouuur. Or it could be counted: short short looong, short short, looong. Tap your foot to the steady beat if you can.

4 Say and clap; Say and clap the rhythm simultaneously.

5 Say and play; Say the rhythm while playing the rhythm with your sticks. Along with playing the rhythms accurately, pay attention to the sound your sticks make. You want them clear and crisp.

6 Check your hand position and posture.

One thing at a time, if it sounds good it is good.

Lesson Four: Pulse
Week 4

Hold an empty cup.

Record your teacher playing the exercises. If a CD comes with your method book, listen to it. Close your eyes and feel the pulse. Move your body or pat your legs or play with your sticks on a pillow while listening. The more comfortable you feel with a variety of rhythms, the more of a ‘palette’ you’ll have to create your own grooves.

Know one thing: Your hands and mind are being trained though the exercises. Instead of focusing on your ‘spirit’, focus on the playing and how the sticks are becoming more and more natural feeling. This will eventually set your spirit free to express itself through the music. Just as the steering wheel and pedals in a car gradually become comfortable, so will the playing.


Lesson Five: Songs
Week 5

Hold an empty cup.

Continue with your lessons in the book if that’s your direction. Pick a song or study on a page or create a song with the rhythms you know. If you find expression in a song or piece, your spirit will guide you to practice the technique you need to play the piece well. Each song has its right tempo and some even say its right key. Each moment of the song is its own moment. Listen to a piece of music you like on a CD. Put on a favorite song or musical selection.

Play along with the groove (even if you’re just doing a steady beat). Doing a groove is playing the rhythms in a way that’s right for the piece. For example a song may require the bass drum to be very slightly pushing the beat while the snare drags the backbeat. You have to be adept enough in your playing for this to feel natural. Over-thinking it makes it stiff and false.

Just think of a school of fish in sync with their own personal body rhythm and in sync with the group rhythm. Every song is unique that way. The key is to be so well versed in the mechanics of playing that it goes automatically while you search for the spark in the music.

Tuning: As opposed to melodic instruments, tuning your drum is a separate event. You do a major tuning when you first get the drum or are replacing the head; then you tweak it periodically. Once the drum head stops speaking, you need to totally retune or replace the head.

Drumset: I rarely recommend a total beginner to start on drumset. There are too many limbs to worry about. Your teacher will know the right time for you to expand to that. If you’re doing this on your own, I advise starting on drumset when you can play about 30 pages into a beginner snare drum method book. You should be able to tap a steady beat while you play most of the exercises on those pages. Your playing should be strong, confident and accurate.

For advanced players who are already playing drumset, please take some of the suggestions I have on practicing snare drum with a Zen philosophy and apply them to your own practice.

-photo by Kim Milai

“One sound, one song.” – Phil Sudo
Tokyo Mon Amour 1992


Kim Milai drums, Phil Sudo guitar, Patrick Derivaz bass
-photo by Bob Johnson with Kim Milai’s camera

I met Phil while living in New York City and together with Patrick Derivaz we created a punk trio. After we disbanded we kept in contact and and then we still kept in contact after he moved with his family to Maui to write “Zen Guitar.”

Some Final Tips:

In these first lessons you are training (or retraining) your muscles to do the physical actions of playing music. Doing this with regularity will let your spirit naturally speak through your playing. Do not strive, just do in the moment. Listen to yourself. Observe what is good in your playing and also on how you want to improve.

If you find yourself stuggling and are too self conscious, step back to what you were previously playing well and live in that sound. Then experiment with the new thing you want to do. I use a lot of imagery in my teaching i.e.: “Hand the phrase over to someone on a silver platter,” “Hit the back of the auditorium with your airstream,” “Think of each phrase as a sentence in a story,” “Strike the drum like your stick is your finger and the drum like a hot potato.” Imagery can be a valuable tool in your practice.

If you find yourself getting too self conscious while performing, think of a runner running through the finish line (Zen Guitar, page 64). If you concentrate too much on aiming towards the final moments of the piece, you may make mistakes along the way. Using follow through lets you finish the piece without putting too much undue importance and weight on its final moments.

Thank you for your time in looking through these lessons. I welcome any thoughts you have about them and welcome your sharing of your practicing and playing experiences.

zenguitarbook Learn more from Amazon: Zen Guitar This book has literally struck a chord- not only with musicians, but with anybody seeking to find their center of creativity. Read the reviews and decide if this is the direction you need to go.

amazonglennie Learn more from Amazon: Touch the Sound Evelyn Glennie is a Scottish percussionist that happens to be profoundly deaf. She is classically trained and plays barefoot so she can feel the vibrations. This is a great documentary; very inspiring. Well forth renting or purchasing.

zen anecdote
Have Drum Will Travel


The Background: In 1992, I used to play in a group with Phil. The group was called “Tokyo Mon Amour.” While packing my drums into a taxi to go to a “Tokyo Mon Amour” show at a club in NYC, I mistakenly left my primary snare drum in its case on the curb. When I realized it was left behind, I frantically grabbed a taxi back but it was long gone. I regretted losing it, but chalked it up to fate. It was a Ludwig steel drum in a black case with my old address stenciled on it and a little sign taped on it that’s been on it since high school that read “Have Drum Will Travel.” Luckily I had an extra snare so I could do the show without a hitch.

A year or so later, “Tokyo Mon Amour” was no longer together but I was still friends with Phil and we kept each other informed of any projects we were doing and other goings on in our lives. At that time Phil had told me he was jamming with some different musicians in someone else’s studio; It was for his solo project that would eventually evolve into the accompanying CD for “Zen Guitar.” I think we had been hanging out one evening and in Phil’s casual way he sort of looked at me quizzically and said, ” Did you lose a snare drum a while back?”. I said “Yes” and described to him the drum and case I had lost. He kind of paused a little and cautiously said something roughly like this, “I think I saw it in the studio where I’ve been rehearsing. I can’t promise you I can get it, but I’ll see what I can find out.” I thanked him and told him if he couldn’t get it, not to worry.

Later on in the week Phil told me (sort of mysteriously) that whoever had the snare was willing to give it back but I had to go to this specific address and pick it up by a third party. It was sort of a “no questions asked” thing. I’m not sure if this was because the person with the drum was afraid of me being angry or what. I’m not sure if it was the person Phil was jamming with or if it belonged to another band using the same studio. For some reason I was so enthralled in the mystery of it all I didn’t want to ask any questions.

I went to the address at the arranged time and a girl opened the door. I wasn’t allowed in but she gave me the snare in its case. I can’t remember if it was she or Phil that told me the drum and case had been in Boston for a year before coming back to NYC.

It was a little beat up but in great playing condition. I still have it although I no longer play drums live (at least right now). I was amazed to have the drum come back to me full circle. I was amazed that it was Phil that got it back to me when I had lost it at one of our past shows. In addition, I feel that Phil had a hand in encouraging the person to give the drum back.

He inspired them to do the right thing. The energy that flows around our spirits and around music is a small particle of the worlds beyond this world. Phil both consciously and unconsciously tapped into that energy. I am so honored and grateful to have had the opportunity to get to know Phil and to have played music with him.

-photo by Kim Milai
The Zen Guitar Dojo
Phil Sudo’s biography including his cancer journal.