Barry Birmingham is the first one to admit that his life-long obsession with playing the drums comes with one unique perk — you can take out all of your aggression on some metal without any repercussions.
“If you are having a bad day, playing drums gets all your aggressions out, you just feel so much better,” Mr. Birmingham said. “You should hear me play when I am angry, I am phenomenal.”
Thankfully, Mr. Birmingham doesn’t keep those good vibes to himself — and hasn’t for decades.
The co-owner of the Santa Barbara Drum Lab is a local icon, albeit for his weekend gigging with bands such as Do No Harm or Crooked Eye Tommy, to the hundreds upon hundreds of students that have spent hours learning to play the drums under his tutelage.
“He’s like a friend first, even when you first get to know him,” said Ethan Kelly, one of Mr. Birmingham’s newest students.
Nowadays, those bonds are being made via Zoom, Skype and even FaceTime.
It represents a revisitation of an old idea for Mr. Birmingham, one that showed zero return just under five years ago.
Now, it’s a lifeline, for dozens of students — and the Drum Lab.
Mr. Birmingham has longed to tutor students across the globe, even building a website for Skype lessons a few years back. It didn’t seem to resonate.
“Nothing happened out of it, just nothing, and we advertised it,” Mr. Birmingham said. “We did on Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus and nothing happened. Within the last six months, I got one student, a little kid from Santa Maria, and I still teach him today.”
But with potential students cooped up at home due to COVID-19, the digital model is growing legs.
“I have 15 Skype lessons going on right now,” Mr. Birmingham said.
Students that had been in-person regulars are making the switch to virtual, including UCSB graduate student Crystal Bae.
Ms. Bae has taken lessons from Mr. Birmingham since 2018, and initially went digital every other week and recently moved back to weekly lessons.
As a mother of a 3-year-old, Ms. Bae is finding value in the ability to multi-task, especially with local daycares closed.
“I didn’t know what to expect initially, but working with Barry is so easy, and it allows me to be home and continue to learn how to play the drums,” said Ms. Bae, who is also juggling writing her Geography dissertation. “It’s like I’m playing with a friend, that’s how we all feel with Barry. It’s great to be able to continue to do the lessons, even when we all have to stay at home.”
Prior to the state’s stay-at-home mandate, Mr. Birmingham and his business partner, Craig Thatcher, hosted nearly 80 sessions per week, the bulk 30-minute lessons, while some choose to go an hour.
They are currently at less than half of that.
“Right now I’m seeing a loss. Half my students are doing Skype or Zoom with me and then the other half is saying, ‘We’ll get back together when this blows over,’ which I don’t know when that will be, no one can predict when this is going to be over,” Mr. Birmingham said.
But members of the community are committed to keeping the doors of the Drum Lab by continuing to pay for lessons that they aren’t taking.
“I have a handful of students that still, regardless, they want to support the drum lab and they say, ‘Hey, I know we’re not going to be there this week, just bill us anyway, it’s totally fine,’ because they don’t want to see the Drum Lab close and they have a good time at the Drum Lab,” Mr. Birmingham said.
The San Marcos High grad fell in love with the drums working in a local drum shop, where he took an after school job helping do repairs, inventory and tending to the shop. In the early 1980s, an opportunity to become a teacher became available, and it has stuck ever since.
He did follow his dream to tour, taking to the road with his band Exit in the 1980s, even putting a record together.
“We barely broke even and it wasn’t a good match,” Mr. Birmingham said.
While he made the choice to not live life on the road — even convincing his own son to not follow in his footsteps after high school — Mr. Birmingham does enjoy telling his students about his time playing live gigs.
He has even inspired young Ethan, a standout musician at La Colina Junior High, to follow a dream — to start a garage band, likely one influenced by rock music.
“I’ve got some time right now to really think through how I can do this, and it’s cool to hear about Barry’s experience,” Ethan said.
Mr. Birmingham, who has owned the Drum Lab since 2012, has learned a lot about business over the past eight years, adjusting to the ebbs and flows of making it in Santa Barbara, which he will lean on during the pandemic.
“When you are owning a business, you’re constantly worried about money, that’s the No. 1 thing when things are due and when insurance is due and taxes and I didn’t realize how much is involved in owning a business,” said Mr. Birmingham. “It’s very stressful and then there’s times that can be very rewarding.”
What his students adore is that Mr. Birmingham’s focus is always on the latter — making sure that learning is an enjoyable experience at all times.
That’s something that Ms. Bae says is infectious, even for her 3-year-old.
“He loves playing, well as long as his attention span will allow for it,” Ms. Bae said. “He sees how much fun I have doing it, so it’s impossible not to want to do it, too.”