Tammy Mitchell-Woods is an inspiration. When I first met Tammy I had a feeling she’d be just like she is in her writing, drumming, videos and photos. Smiling and positive energy. She believes in living a life of honesty and transparency. Tammy founded Drummer Girls United, teaches drums and hosts drum workshops. We spent 45 minutes speaking of life and drumming.
Gary: Hi Tammy. First off I’d like to thank you for taking the time to do this interview. You’ve been very inspiring to me. Your bravery as a woman drummer and your positive outlook in the midst of many challenges is an inspiration. Not to mention your excellent drumming!
I’d like to start off by asking you about the group Drummer Girls United, which you founded. I hear you had your first Drummer Girls United weekend bash. How did that go?
Tammy: Yes! We did our first Drummer Girls United Weekend Bash in March and everybody loved it. We had people that watched online as well attended in person. We're planning the event being an annual thing. I am going to have it here in Tulsa every March or April and if I have enough interest I'd like to also start having it other places throughout the United States so girls that can’t afford to fly here can still attend. I am thinking about having a couple of other regions, maybe East Coast/ West Coast at different times of the year. I am hoping to start that by next year. Everybody loved it and they were so happy that they got to come. Of course your KickStraps went over like hotcakes and everybody was so happy to have them. Thank you again for supplying those.
Gary: You’re welcome. I was happy I could be a part of it. If you have a West Coast one I’ll definitely be there!
Tammy: I have tons of drummer girl friends that are out in West Coast direction so it would be easy for me to find clinicians that could come and be part of that. That's something that I really, really want to do.
Tammy Drumming Compilation:
Gary: It’s very inspiring that you have overcome and are overcoming obstacles in drumming and .music. Being a woman drummer is only one of your challenges. You were diagnosed with Lupus and other autoimmune disorders that you have to deal with on a daily basis. Were you diagnosed with lupus recently?
Tammy: 4 years ago I actually got my official diagnosis. Looking back, I probably have had it for several decades. There's so many overlapping symptoms that none of my doctors put it all together into one condition. Generally Lupus attacks the lungs, heart, liver, kidneys, skin or central nervous system. It has been attacking my lungs for at least 30 years. I was getting chronic bronchitis and pneumonia and I'm not a smoker and I'm not around anybody that smokes. They couldn't figure out why I kept having trouble breathing. It was different than your run-of-the-mill asthma and they couldn't figure it out. About four and a half years ago I was having trouble breathing and they were really worried that I wouldn't be able to breathe. They were treating me for asthma but nothing was really helping me breathe. Then I also started developing this butterfly rash across my face. A rash that kind of looks like the shape of a butterfly across your cheeks and your nose. About 30% of people with Lupus get that.
When they put all of my symptoms together they were pretty sure that's what it was. After doing a lot of tests it was confirmed that I have Lupus among other autoimmune disorders but Lupus is the one that's wreaking the most havoc.
"When I was having so much trouble breathing the doctors were telling us if we can't get this under control it could go south really quickly and we are actually talking about my funeral.."
Gary: Wow. Does lupus affect your drumming? Do you feel pain when you’re drumming?
Tammy: Oh yeah, it sure does. When a normal person gets a foreign invader like a virus or has germs or bacteria, their body will attack like it is supposed to it but my body thinks everything is a foreign invader foreign so my own cells. A lot of times people with lupus will have joints swell up and along with that lots of pain. Also a lot of people with lupus also have fibromyalgia, which is another sometimes unbearable pain and fatigue disease. So yes, I have a lot of pain. But when I'm playing, I don't know if it's euphoria or maybe I'm just thinking about what I'm doing, but I don't really feel it while I'm playing. I just play and I'm happy that I'm playing so somehow, while I'm playing, I'm good. Once I stop playing then I can feel it.
Gary: That’s amazing. I play and yes it is sort of a meditative experience but I can’t imagine turning off that kind of pain. I know that Cooper Groove sticks have helped you out a lot
. Tammy: Yes, so much! He actually heard my story. I was talking about how I was playing one Sunday morning and I couldn't keep the stick in my right hand. My muscles were cramping up to the point that I couldn't make a fist and I couldn't hold my stick. I was really thinking that I would have to tape it into my hand so I wouldn't drop it. So I talked to Carlo over Facebook and he said, “When you come to NAMM next month come see me. I want you to try these sticks out”. So I got a pair of sticks and I took them home and I played with them for a month. I was like “oh my gosh! This works!” That was definitely a game-changer for me and I haven't played any other sticks since. They have truly helped me play longer and helped me play with less shock to my hands.
TAMMY Playing "Little Drummer Boy" :
Gary: When you’re playing music you say the pain goes away or you don’t feel it. But, when you’re getting ready to play do you ever think “I don’t feel like going up there and playing, I’m in too much pain”? What keeps you moving in the direction of saying “I’m going to go for it”?
Tammy: I don't think it's ever that I don't want to play. (laughs…) since I was 12 I can't think of a time where I really didn't want to play. But sometimes my breathing is so bad that I really can't play even if I want to and lupus also wipes out my energy. I call it chemo-tired. It’s kind of like the worst flu you’ve ever had but it never goes away. To get motivated to go up and sweat it out for an hour and a half is a hard thing to do. I think, “Do I have enough energy to do it?” But usually I can talk myself into it. I also make myself take videos and put them out there on Facebook and I don't want to embarrass myself or embarrass other female drummers that are out there with me. I want to keep getting better I don't want to get stagnant or complacent.
Gary: I’d like to ask you about being a woman drummer. When you started out you were 12 and at that point there weren’t as many women drummers. Now it seems more accepted. Does being a woman still hinder your possibilities or do you think it’s getting easier?Tammy: Oh I think it's so much better now. When I was 12, about 1977, I did not know, personally, any other female drummers. That was actually still true until about about five years ago. Back in 1977 I know Karen Carpenter was a drummer but I didn't know it then so I felt like a a lone-wolf but I didn't care. I just knew I had to play and I loved it. I didn't care what the guys or the girls thought. I just wanted to play. By the time I was a junior or senior in high school the Go-Go's really hit the scene. There was finally another female drummer so I was very excited that now we've got some representation . That was about the same time I found out that Karen Carpenter was also a drummer besides being this incredible singer. In my opinion though, during that time it was very hard to break into music as a woman drummer. If you were auditioning for bands they usually wanted all guys. But when i I did try out I would get the gig just because I'm pretty easy to work with and people like my style so it's tended to work out well for me. I feel very fortunate there.
About a year ago I was invited this local open mic night at a bar and they wanted me to come and sit in. I had never done one so i didn’t really know what to expect. So I showed up with my sticks and they called my name. As I was walking through the crowd to get to the stage a couple of guys said, “oh, a girl drummer” like it was a really bad thing. The way it works is, If you play the first song and you do pretty good they'll generally let you play another couple of songs. So I played the 3 songs and when I came off the stage I walked right past them and they both stood up and gave me a standing ovation. So I felt there was some justification …(laughs)...
Gary: That’s beautiful. It’s great to change someone’s perspective like that.
Tammy: I'm seeing change a lot now when I go to the NAMM show too. About three years ago there was almost no female drummers walking around playing the drums but this year there were so many younger women and older women. It seems to have changed a lot. Maybe it's just at NAMM but it seems to have changed all over. There's a lot more representation. Now with my group Drummer Girls United women from all over the world are starting to come together and I'm realizing how many of us there really are out there. So it’s getting better. There’s a lot of us. There’s some amazing, talented female drummers out there. Not just “good for girls” but just really talented drummers. So yes, it's changed a lot especially since the 70s and 80s.
Gary: Has your Lupus diagnosis changed your outlook on drumming and life in general. Has it given any insights or changed your perspective?
-"I have two drum sets setup across from each other. I also have students that are out of state or even out of the country so I teach Skype lessons."- See links at bottom for lessons
Tammy: Yes very much. Back before I was diagnosed there is not one picture or recording of me playing the drums. When I was having so much trouble breathing the doctors were telling us if we can't get this under control it could go south really quickly and we are actually talking about my funeral and what I would want etc. We had to get those conversations out of the way just in case. So Bruce, my husband, said “not to be harsh but it would be tragic if you passed away and there was not one picture or video of you playing” and I was like “you know you're right”. But at that time I didn't think I was a very good drummer and I was afraid to put that out there. I thought I would be crucified on Facebook by the guy drummers that had a lot of education. Bruce said “come on just suck it up and let me take a video.” So he took a video of me playing at church and put it on Facebook and I just got overwhelming encouragement. People were so kind. They really made me want to continue to do what I'm doing and what I love. So every few weeks I allowed him to keep making videos and we would put them out there and other drummers would find me. I started creating this kind of community of drummers on Facebook. That has changed the way I viewed things. I don't ever think I'm competing with anybody. If I find a good drum video out there I'm the first person to put that up. I want to share it and want everybody to see who they are. Yes, it's changed my perspective a lot. I'm just trying to get as much done as quickly as possible and I want to inspire people and live a good life however long I get to live.
Gary: You post some great videos of your drumming. My old drum instructor, George Edwards, whose an incredible jazz drummer, after watching one of your videos commented on what an incredible relaxed feel and great groove you have. So I want to ask you a bit about how you developed that. As a younger drummer, one of my main issues with timing and groove was rushing. Have you ever dealt with speeding up or slowing down and how did you work on it?
“Watch your breathing. If you’re having a solo break or a part you’re really apprehensive about you’ll tend to hold your breath a little bit. "
Tammy: Yes as a kid I tended to speed up especially if there were lot of solo breaks during the song. My adrenaline would be pumping and I’d tend to do everything a little louder, a little faster. I asked the question on Facebook one time “What is the best advice for people that tend to speed up while they're playing?” and someone replied “Watch your breathing. If you’re having a solo break or a part you’re really apprehensive about you’ll tend to hold your breath a little bit. Your natural response in your body, when you're holding your breath, is that you're going to do everything a little bit faster”. One thing that I try to do when I'm playing is to keep my breathing steady, whether I'm playing a solo or whether I'm grooving, or if it's fast, slow, quiet or loud I keep my breathing the same. That really helps me to play consistently and hear that imaginary click in my head.
Gary: Did you have to concentrate on keeping your breathing steady?
Tammy: At first yes but now I don't ever think about it. If I notice that I'm starting to play a little louder or a little quicker then I make sure to loosen up my grip on my sticks and I keep everything really nice and loose. My breathing is nice and slow, I'm sitting straight, I loosen my grip and everything just kind of calms down in my body which means I'm going to really hear that click in my head and everything will be much smoother.
Gary: Do you ever use a metronome?
Tammy: Yes especially when I'm doing practice pad stuff. I didn't have lessons when I was a kid. I'm self-taught so I didn't learn a lot of the rudiments and things that you normally would learn as a new drummer so I'm going back now and learning some of those things. When I have a practice pad out or when I'm working on a specific groove or a new fill I will have the metronome on on my phone and I'll practice to that to make sure that I have it right. Otherwise I play so many sets during the week and always learning new music so generally when I'm on my set I'm playing to recorded music so that automatically has a metronome effect.
Gary: So you don’t generally use a click when you’re playing live?
Tammy: A lot of the churches that I play for are not using a click so I'm the click. They expect me to keep it very, very steady. I've become a very visual player because I was a singer throughout junior high, high school, and college. I was always watching the director so any movement of the director, his hand or body language, I would follow that as a singer so now I do that as a drummer. When I'm watching the director do anything, even if his back is turned to me, I watch his body language. If he's getting bigger I will get bigger because that's how he's feeling the music.
Gary: That brings me to the next question. You went to Southwestern OK State University with a scholarship for voice. So, like you were describing, that training has helped you to listen better?
"One thing I wish somebody had told me when I started was to get a good teacher. Get someone that is an encouragement to you and that you feel comfortable with."
Tammy: Yes, and watch better. Because I wasn't focused on charts, for me it was all about what I was hearing and what I was seeing. That's how I would play. I didn't focus so much on the sheet music. I would memorize the music and then everything was by feel. I think much of that is attributed to my training as a singer. As a singer, I knew what I wanted from the band behind me so now I know how to give that to the singers that I play for. As I see the singer get bigger or smaller with movements or emotions in a song, I will try to copy that. So whatever they're doing I try to give that back to them. Some singers will ask “How did you know I wanted that?” and I say, “Well I just watch you.”
Gary: That’s a great technique. I’m going to do that on my next gig. Watching my singer. I can see where that would really help with dynamics.
Tammy: Yeah for dynamics specifically. When a singer is really feeling something their bodies are going to tell you. And then if you can go there with them, the band will follow. It’s going to make song sound like one person is doing everything instead of six different people doing different things.
Gary: You’ve answered my next question which was “has your schooling in voice helped your drumming?” and obviously it has.
Tammy: Yeah, I think so. I only played drums in band in jr. high and I didn’t play in band in high school. I was focusing more on my voice because I was focusing on getting a voice scholarship. Although, when I wasn’t singing in high school they would let me play drums with the choir so happily I got to do both. When I got to college with my voice scholarship I still really wanted to play drums so I tried out for a couple of the coveted spots. I figured the senior drum and percussion majors would get them. But I tried out for the Jazz Band and the basketball band anyway. There was only one drum spot for each but I got both the drum spots! All of the drum majors hated me (laughs). Here I am this little freshman and I didn't even play drums in highschool or any othe collage band programs and I grabbed these coveted spots. That was really so much fun. I had a blast and that made me realize it's drums that I love so much. I loved singing but if I had to choose I would choose to play drums. So I left college after that year. I didn't want to teach voice. I wanted to play the drums. I changed my whole focus.
Gary: What do you think that was? A feeling inside that drew you to drums instead of voice? Why did you choose drumming over singing?
Tammy: I noticed that when I was getting ready for my classes, my voice classes and theory classes, all the things that had to do with my voice major, I just kind of dreaded it. I enjoyed singing but I dreaded all the other stuff. So I thought “Is this really what I want to do for the rest of my life”? But, no matter what time of the day or night they wanted me to play the drums, I only looked forward to it. It didn't matter what else I had going on. I couldn't wait to get there to play. That's when I realized “I want to have that job! I want to have a job where I can't wait to get there.”
Gary: So it seems you felt “the calling” inside you.
Tammy: Absolutely, yeah. It was pretty blatant.
Gary: You play in your church for the worship band?
Tammy: I do. I’m the staff drummer for my church Southern Hills Baptist Church in Tulsa and then I play in a different band on Monday nights at Asbury United Methodist Church. Also different churches around town call me.They will call me and ask me to play for special events or to sub and I'm happy to do it.
Gary: I know for myself my spirituality and everything is combined when I playing the drums. Do you find the same thing for yourself? Is there any kind of separation? If that makes sense...
Tammy: I do feel kind of like a worship leader when I’m playing at church. That’s one way I can worship, through my instrument because it’s what I have to give. I’m grateful that I get to do it and it feels very worshipful to me.
Gary: Does it feel different when your playing a worship service as opposed to a secular band?
Tammy: I wouldn’t say I enjoy one over the other but it does feel different. Yes.
Gary: Why do you think that is?
Tammy: Uh..I don’t know. I think when I’m playing church it’s easy to focus on what I’m thankful for and have that kind of heart. When I’m playing a gig in front of an audience I’m not focusing so much on that. I’m thinking about having fun and how to do this to the best of my ability and putting on a good show.
Gary: Are you playing in a band now?
Tammy: I was. I was playing in In a band here in town for a couple of years and we were having lots of rehearsals but we weren't playing a lot of gigs and I though for as many hours as we were rehearsing and for as good as we were, we should be playing more. For the rest of the band it was kind of a hobby but for me it's the way that I make my living so I needed to be gigging more often. I eventually broke from the group and they were very supportive. So now I'm looking for a group. I get asked by different groups almost every week but a lot of it is not the kind of music I want to play or we don't have the same values ( I wont tolerate drug use in a band I am in) so I'm looking for something that's going to be just the right fit and I don't mind waiting until I find it. I'm also looking to start my own project this year so I can start playing some music that I really, really enjoy and maybe do some co-writing.
Gary: What kind of music?
Tammy: I really like fusion. I love the jazz pop fusion style. I think it's really fun for all the instruments so I want to start doing some of that. Also I love party covers, funk, soul, R&B. Anything that will get people on their feet to dance or sing along.
Gary: You took several years off of drumming. Did the time off help inspire you or did it hinder you? How did that time off affect your drumming?
Tammy: Oh, there was an effect. I didn’t want to give up drumming. My husband joined the military so we sold our house and he did his basic training and we were moved to Alaska. There was no way to have a drum set. Back then there wasn’t any practice pad sets or E drum sets. This was back in the 80’s. So I wasn’t able to play. Then we had kids so I was busy raising kids. Once they got older and we bought a larger house, I was able to get a drum set. I couldn’t wait to start playing again! So it was good. There was a little bit of time, maybe six months, where I was...not relearning...because it’s like riding a bicycle but I was rusty. After that I picked up where I left off and never looked back.
Gary: Now you’re also teaching drums?
Tammy: Yes I have a home studio so I have people come here. I have two drum sets setup across from each other. I also have students that are out of state or even out of the country so I teach Skype lessons.
Gary: For a beginner do have any tips to get started drumming?
Tammy: One thing I wish somebody had told me when I started was to get a good teacher. Get someone that is an encouragement to you and that you feel comfortable with. It may not be the first person that you interview. I think you should interview teachers and see who is a good fit because then you'll get excited, you'll do the work and you'll want to keep going back. I think it's very important to get someone you feel comfortable with because you're very vulnerable. They're watching you do something that you have no idea what you're doing and you don't want somebody that looks down on you, mansplains to you or that you feel intimidated by. I want everyone to find somebody they feel very encouraged by and then they'll really want to keep going to learn. I think that's the most important thing. You don't have to have an expensive kit or any expensive equipment. Just get the basics and find somebody that will encourage you to learn and you will start to see results.
Gary: As an instructor do you have a particular method or style or do you temper your lessons for each individual?
Tammy: I'm a laughy, happy person already so my lessons are just like my life. We tend to have a lot of fun. I also have training outside of drums as a social worker so I've done a lot of mental health and psychological health training. I can see when people are getting frustrated. I can see when things need to take a turn during a lesson. If I've got an 8 year old that is starting to get kind of squirmy in their seat, I realize that anything I say from that point on is like hearing the teacher on Charlie Brown. I know they’re not going to hear me. So right then I'll say “Okay, you know what we need to do? Play anything we want.” And we will start to do this thing back and forth where I throw out a fun beat and we will trade fills. We can play fun music and laugh and they can be happy. Then once they get all of that “wiggly” out we can get back to concentrating again. That makes it really fun for them. Plus, I always save something for the end that they really love to play so we start off with that and go back to that so they get to end on a high note every lesson. They always learn and they enjoy it. So that's kind of my style, it's focused but it's also a little bit free because we don't all learn the same way. I find what works for them.
Gary: You sound like a great instructor. I wish I would have had someone like you as a kid. Do you have any special rudiments or books you work out of?
Tammy: Actually for a few years I hired Anika Nilles for a few skype lessons and she would send me things to work on so I draw from those. I also hired Emmanuelle Caplette and she sent me a few things. Also, I joined mikeslessons.com with Mike Johnston. love his teaching style. He teaches the way like to teach. He’s very easy to listen to. He’s very encouraging. And he teaches in layman’s terms. So I draw from his style of teaching. I’ve learned a lot from from his videos.
Gary: Is there anything that you want to shout out or anything you want people to know about?
Tammy: I was interviewed by Cindy Goldman. She's doing a documentary called “Beat Keepers” about women playing the drums. She's been doing this documentary for several months and she's finishing it up. She's gone through the United States and Canada video documenting female drummers and getting their side of what it’s like to be a female in this industry. It’s going to be an amazing documentary. I'm one of the girls she interviewed as well as lots of the girls in my Drummer Girls United group. The actual documentary is coming out in the fall so a big shout out to Cindy Goldman for that.
- Link to Tammy’s Facebook page Tammy Mitchell-Woods Drums - Home | Facebook
- Link to Drummer Girls United Drummergirls United Public Group | Facebook
- How to get in touch with Tammy for lessons Contact my FACEBOOK music page here
- Cindy Goldman Beat Keepers link The Beat Keepers - Home | Facebook
- Tammys drum set up: I have several sets but generally play my 1999 DW Collectors Series, 2 up, one down or my Gretsch Renown Maple, 2 up 2 Down, my Vintage 1962 Ludwig New Yorker, one up , one down or my Mapex Armory , one up 2 down. I love them all.
- Tammy’s endorsements: Kick Strap, Heartbeat Cymbals, Cooper Groove Sticks, The Sweet Spots, Pinch Clips, Sledgepads, Big Fat Snare Drums, Praywithdrums Gear