Interview with Iván Nesztor

Today I’m interviewing Iván Nesztor (67), my drum teacher who is also one of the most acclaimed drum and music teachers in Hungary. He raised some of the most prominent contemporary drummers of our country. His books are widely popular and are used abroad as well. Our meeting point is the Újpesti Conservatory. Nesztor’s office is full of different kinds of drums and other instruments. It is a perfect place for a pleasant discussion.

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M: Let me start with a general question. When and how did you get interested in music?

Nesztor:  Music has excited me since my infancy. Our family was in a sad financial state because of the war. There were no instruments around the house. I remember clearly the first time I’ve heard classical music. It was on the radio, and as I was listening to it, I had the feeling that I can predict what’s coming next. Then when I was about 6 or 7 I wrote a letter to the Holy Baby in which, I told him that I’ll be a very good boy if he brings me a violin. I don’t know why a violin. Anyway, I didn’t get it, because my mother had some terrible childhood memories about a violin player neighbor. Then in high school…no wait a minute, in elementary school, when I was around eleven, my parents brought a piano accordion which was of very cheap quality. That wasn’t my cup of tea. That time the guitar was on its rise. I’ve heard  contemporary Rock & Roll star Tommy Steven on the radio of Vienna. He played a wild solo and I was blown away. Then also came the Shadows, one of my favorite bands, so when I was a 3rd grade student in elementary  I told my parents: Mom, dad, I’m buying a guitar. How much is that guitar son?-asked my mother. 600 hundred forints- I said (it was a cheap-and horrible- acoustic guitar). She told me that they buy it, if I paint the hall, the kitchen, and the bathroom. So I painted all the three rooms, and I got my first guitar. From a lexicon, I learned how to tune it and I also bought a tuning whistle. First I learned on my own, then I went to a teacher but all the time I was listening to music, playing stuff merely after hearing them. It turned out to be useful later on. So this how I started to play the guitar.

M: And how did the drums come in to the picture later on?

N: Well, it was very interesting. At a rehearsal the drummer guy suffered with a Shadows drum cover. Shadows  was the first band to put a long drum solo into a pop song. I felt how it should be played while the guy didn’t and I helped him out. I realized that I “feel” the drum and the rhythm.  So I had a natural talent to it, but there was no chance for me to get a drum. However, I kept practicing the guitar and from pop music, I slowly got to blues, funky, and jazz. At the time I was in a band with János Másik, a pianist. The jazz department of the Music Academy was established only a year or two before and János  applied there and got in. I started to panic as at time I was living in Győr, which was a small city. I had little chance to find new band members to play with. So I decided to apply too. But, there was a little problem with that. There was no department for guitar players. There was one, however for drummers, so I decided that I’ll be a drummer. I started to practice severely and I also bought a kit. After six months of playing I applied to the Jazz department. Looking back, I knew nothing at the time.

M: But you got in didn’t you?

N: Well, yes. At the preliminary examination I had to play for Gonda János and the legendary drummer, Gyula Kovács. They asked me to do a stroke roll (pergetés). I held the drumsticks that were shaking in my hands anyway, to the snare drum (pergő dob) and that was my stroke roll. I saw that their eyes met and then they asked me that for how long I’ve been playing. I told them that I’ve started 6 months before. They looked at me like this(he raises his eyebrow). They tried to figure out what could they do with me. I asked them to listen to me playing together with a pianist. We had to play in 4 and I turned around the rhythm, tricking the pianist guy.  It must have impressed them, as they decided on giving me a chance. I got in, and that was it.

M: Since then some time has passed away. Right now you are among the most acclaimed music teachers in Hungary and not only on drums. What are those qualities and abilities that you try to hand over to your students?

N: Well I had difficulties in my own process of becoming a musician. I had technical weaknesses, that I had to overcome, and I had to do it all by myself. I received very little help from others, I had to teach myself everything. I encountered all the possible problems that can occur in the process of learning. Naturally there is limit in ability under which it doesn’t worth starting to play. If one is above that limit there is another element which I consider to be necessary. It is the student’s unconscious and constant need to thrum (ütöget) on the table, on every solid surface that gets into his or her way. This need shows that there is orientation, that there is talent. Mere ambition is not enough. Everyone has ambition. When parents come to me and say that their child loves drumming, I usually say that I love theater, but I would never walk up to the stage to recite a poem. So ambition is really not enough. The need to do it has to be there first. I realized quite early in my career, that the most important thing in pedagogy is the ability to hand over all of our knowledge on the highest possible degree. The other important step  is the improvement of the abilities of the students. It’s important that abilities have to be there first to be improved. Abilities has to be activated. Sometimes they are hiding and you have to uncover them, by tearing down the inhibitions. Another obstacle that I have overcome as a teacher is the disease of our civilization, namely, laziness.  Our society is totally flabby and soft.  Kids don’t have anything to do except picking up the clothes that their moms put on their beds. There are many -many talented but lazy people. I think the minimal level of talent that is necessary to start is one’s ability to acquire the basics of the popular genre. Those who have this ability are rewarding to work with. I also think that the foundation of the process of learning should be the joy of discovering things together, instead of giving the students readymade formulas. I also believe in learning through listening. No books, no readings, no thumbing. Instead of these things, I try to mechanize the creative power, the playfulness of the student by common practicing. Because of our civilization we must learn what we shall do in certain situations, what others expect us to do.  So civilization teaches us schemes, therefore it makes us conformists. Of course these things are necessary. However, I am obsessed by creativity. I do not explain rules, but rather show new things to my pupils by playing the instrument. János Pilinszky explained beautifully what I’m talking about. He said that a poet is not interested in the regularity of things, but in the process of their formation. I believe that this process is the most important. I always emphasize- and I hope that I’ve told it to you as well- that besides discovering new regions together, one also has to discover his own worlds, and practice on his own, according to his own terms. But the appropriate way of practicing also has to be taught, because it’s not an automatic thing. I teach you to learn, I show you some things to learn but my role ends here, and this is where your work of search and improvisation begins. I think if I take my children to a hiking I shouldn’t tear down the violet for them. I should only lead them to the place where it grows, so they can tear it down for themselves. The joy of discovery must be inspired all the way through.

M: I think, that besides overcoming the technical difficulties, one of the hardest challenges for musicians is to find their role in music by not playing too much nor too little. In your opinion, what is the role of the drummer in music? Others musicians usually pick at us that drum is only a secondary instrument.

N: What others think, doesn’t really matter. All that matters is that I enjoy playing. That’s all. Secondly, drum can fulfill many roles in music. I usually say that you can cook a gulyás from three ingredients, but you can also cook it from forty. Drum might have an absolutely primitive and basic function if that’s what the music requires, but it can be something complex as well. It depends on the music and the musical era. There were times when rhythm had to “hide” behind the other instruments. Today we have a scale where every kind of drumming has its place. In certain genres you can manage to survive with very basic rhythm (pop) while in others you have to play tough things such as parallel solos with other instruments (jazz).Everyone has to find himself,  his own style, the way of playing music that makes him happy. There are so many styles that all of us can find something. The fashion of a given era, however, is usually cruel. I mean, the oak tree is very fashionable in the forest but there are violets as well. Violets can’t grow up to be oaks, but they are beautiful, delicate, and sophisticated.  You should make efforts to be what you can be, and nothing else. There are spiritual techniques to help students in acquiring this mentality, and this is very -very important. As I mentioned the scale is very wide, everyone can find what fits for him. You don’t have much technique? Choose something where you don’t have to play too much! Or choose something where you don’t have to play anything at all! ( he laughs)

M: And if someone lacks talent, but has a lot of free time to practice, he can still become a metal drummer.

N: Look, I always say that dissuading someone from doing something can be as important as persuading him to do it. I’ve sent away many children since I’ve begun teaching. Of course I’m doing it in a humane manner. But if a kid lacks the need to play, or the basic sense of rhythm there is not much to do about it. It is better to dissuade someone in the beginning than to let him build up dreams and buy instruments for large amounts of money. There are many musicians who are determined to fail because no one told them in the beginning that they have no future. I test children by asking them to play with me and to improvise. I ask them to whistle, to see whether they have an ear for music or don’t. These tests show everything.

M: On one hand you are teacher. On the other you play music actively. How are these two connected to each other. Is there a ranking of importance?

N: Obviously I started to play first. However, it soon turned out that I have an instinct for pedagogy. I had my first experience with teaching in elementary school. I coached a little boy in Russian, as he had very weak results. They lived in a very poor family so they couldn’t afford a private teacher. He got better after a while and it fell very good. I enjoyed explaining things to others. I love transmitting my knowledge. It must have inherited this from my ancestors as there were many pedagogues among them.  I’ve always taught someone while I was learning. And it was also profitable. I earned money from it so I didn’t have to play in bars each night until dawn. And it feels good to teach. I love people, and the whole process has a great psychology. At a point I became unsure whether I do it right or not. I bought some books on teaching, but I realized I don’t need them. I can teach. There is no universal method that can be applied to each kid.

M: I think that might be the secret. To recognize the personal needs of each child.

N: Yes, exactly. Of course there is given set of knowledge that must be taught. But how I connect someone to that is always unique.

M: I guess improvisation plays an important part in that.

N: Yes. The first thing I do when a kid comes to me is that I play something and he has to improvise an “answer” to it. You remember, we did the same thing years ago. This conversational approach is always there in my teaching. It opposes, however the general method of reading scores (kotta). I believe in teaching through hearing, and not reading. I have a very simple explanation for that. When kids start to attend primary school they can already speak, before they learn reading and writing. It is the same with instruments. Playing on them, speaking on them is always more elemental and instinctive than reading sheets with notes. Of course scores are necessary to a certain degree, after a certain point. But to acquire a basic, enjoyable level of playing, they aren’t needed. You just have to buy a drum and start playing it.

M: Many people start to play music this way.

N: Yes and that’s healthy.

M: Let’s move on to something different. You were also engaged with collecting Hungarian folk music. What motivated you to do so?

N: Well it’s quite simple. I think the impulses we receive decide everything in our lives. I’m coming from  an intellectual family( my father was a lawyer, my mother was a teacher), but musicality was always present.  There was also an attraction towards a simple rural life and towards the people of the village. I started to long for these things when I was three years old. We moved to the countryside for a month with the family and our friends in 1949. We, the kids, were taken around on a hay wain (szénás szekér). There were horses, ducks, cowpie, in short, everything we wanted. After that moment I became engaged with rural life. Genetics might have played a part in it as my ancestors from my mother’s lineage were millers. Later on I’ve spent a few weeks each summer at the countryside. I loved folk music as well. Of course I love all kinds of music, but I’ve always had a special kind of attraction towards folk. Needless to say, during my youth there was no folk-music teaching in the country, the whole genre was suffocated and oppressed. Each week there was only half hour of authentic, original folk music at Magyar radio. No matter what, I always listened to that. Then came the 60s and I had the luck to hear a folk recording of Benjámin Rajóczky. The first thing I heard was the sound of a flute and I instantly fell in love with it. However, another twenty years had to pass until I could start to learn playing on it as there were no teachers to learn from, no schools to go to. It was ridiculous. But I was very enthusiastic and finally I started to play the flute in the 80s. And then I got lucky again and had the chance to go to Moldva and to Gyimes, to collect the authentic Hungarian music of those regions. I joined to an expert team of collectors, but after a while I started to go on my own way. I realized that there is much more out there than music. Those people have stories, jokes, recipes, and they possess important knowledge about life. Their life style represents values that we’ve lost or that we could use. All in all it was a priceless experience.

M: What do you think, is there an improvement in music in general?  If yes, in what way?

N: Of course there is improvement. It was only a few hundred years ago that people discovered accords and complex harmonies. We constantly discover music for ourselves. It is usually the talentless people who think that there is no more to do, that there is nothing new under the sun. But luckily, there are always talented musicians. Music is limitless, there is an infinite number of opportunities. Just listen to contemporary African pop-music. They’ve just started to use the tribal sounds in their modern music. Every day, new doors open. Ethno music has an important role in this as it mixes different genres, sounds, and styles. Music is never ending, the same way as literature. Each era immortalize itself in it, and the result is always something new and different.

M: Do you see a potential in electronic music as well?

N: Sure, there is a huge potential in it. There are new sounds and new instruments. There are certain things as well, that can’t be done with acoustic instruments, only in electronic music. Tunes can be  modified  in their microscopic regions. It is very interesting.

M: So finally, what is your message to the drummers and musicians of the future?

N: I think having mentality, a morality, is the most important thing. Those who play an instrument only as some kind of self-abusing activity that could be substituted by anything else, can’t be excluded from playing. However, it is the community, the feeling of belonging to the others that lifts music into higher regions. I recently reached some kind of conclusion.  I realized that there is no such human being, who knows everything that all the other human beings know. There can’t be. It follows that we need each other inevitably. If someone recognizes this, he can exceed his own little dimensions. He will become able to  view himself in the light of higher norms, a stronger morality. We can’t be perfect and we will always need the others. We should always try to become more and more, while we care about the others as well.

By: Máté Müller

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