In a freewheeling interview with Cochin Herald, Michael Benöhr – the wonderworker of percussion – talks about his musical sojourn, his two schools of music in London and how he beat pandemic blues
Renjith Leen –
As they say, every city has its soul which comes alive in more ways than one. It goes without saying music is deeply embedded in the psyche of the Latin American city of Concepcion. The second largest city of Chile, this musical hub is the birthplace of many Rock stars. No wonder people say kids here prefer musical instruments to toys and little Michael was no exception. He developed a fascination for drums and grew up hitting pots and pillows. Today, the musical world knows this boy as Michael Benöhr, the percussion thaumaturge who weaves magic with his drum beats. Having played for leading British artists for many years apart from performing in international events and high-profile venues, he is also one of the top notch music educators in the UK, running two prestigious institutions – the London School of Music and East London Drum School.
During a virtual tete-a-tete with Cochin Herald, he spoke about his musical sojourn and how his music academies overcame the pandemic crisis. When asked about how he traipsed into the world of percussion, Michael said he was obsessed with drums from childhood and used to watch his brother rehearse. “He used to take me for performances where I used to sit next to the drummer. As I grew up, I saved money to buy a drum set. Once I saved half the amount, my brother convinced my parents I was passionate about drums and urged them to spend the other half and get me the set,” said Michael, who is known for his tasteful drumming style, technical versatility and positive attitude. He began to play the drums systematically from the age of 13 when his parents arranged a tutor. He soon proved his prowess by giving his first public performance when he was barely 15. “I first started a band with my brother and later another one with my schoolmates. It was then I decided that this was what I wanted to do for a career,” said Michael, who went to Germany for his higher studies in music.
But why Germany? “I have a German background and I grew up bi-lingual speaking both Spanish and German. That’s the reason,” he said, adding that it was a visit to his brothers studying in Germany that convinced him to do his musical studies there. “I went to a music college there and spoke to some students and teachers. They gave me what I needed for the audition. Back in Chile, my teachers prepared me for it. At the age of 20, I did my audition in Germany and started studies at the University of Arts Bremen with drums as the first instrument and piano as the second,” said Michael, who went to the California State University in Long Island, USA, as part of an exchange programme for a year. While in Germany, he also used to work in drum schools and tour with different bands. After studies, he had the privilege of being groomed by drummer greats such as Portinho, Billy Hart and Craig Blundell.
Adding beats to the chimes of the Big Ben
It was in 2008 that Michael shifted to the British capital, straddling the twin roles of teaching music and touring for performances. Four years later, he went on to establish the London School of Music to mould future talents and catapult them into the world of music through the Rock School examination.
Asked about what led to the formation of the school, Michael said, “I had been teaching music since 2006 and had been working in three different music schools. One of the schools was in its fledgling stage when I started working there and I saw the process of how it was built up. I had the knowledge of how to do it.” Since their inception, the two music schools have made a name in the nation’s music circuit.
They prepare candidates for the exam by offering two different formats. One is for online exams, which are live, and the other option is to have recorded exams where the student records the performance in one go and uploads it on to the board’s platform. And the board has nine different levels-from debut to grade eight. After grade eight there is the option of taking a performance certificate or teaching certificate depending on the student’s requirement, said Michael, whose Latino exuberance and Teutonic eye for detail lend a special flavour to his beats in all genres – jazz, funk, Latin and rock.
Tiding over the crisis
Michael, who has conducted several master classes in Britain as well as in China, said that when the unexpected happened – read the pandemic – he was quick to improvise as the curbs were slowly lifted. As he had set up facilities for online classes even before anyone heard of the novel coronavirus, the transition to virtual lessons was really a cakewalk for Michael. “We told people if they wanted to have online lessons, they were free to go ahead. It was really good that most of the students continued and a couple of weeks later, we started getting new students for online sessions,” he said, adding that students started practicing more as they were at home most of the time.
Replying to the question whether teachers at his music schools evaluate kids’ skills live or ask them to send recorded videos, Michael said the lessons and assignments are live. Most of the lessons are one-to-one except for classes on music theory, he said. “Things are not going to go the way they were in the past as some students would prefer online lessons to avoid travelling. Online lessons will still be a big thing in the future. Even the exams conducted by the British exam board have been made online,” he said, adding that there were online masterclasses for students by noted musicians from Jamiroquai, including bassist Paul Turner and Derrick McKenzie, who is a guest tutor at LSM, coming every three months to teach at the school.
For the past six months, they have been able to provide face-to-face lessons and they have even started having online classes for students in Spanish speaking countries. But the pandemic times are also causing some discomfort – band practice classes have been made smaller and LSM concerts are being done online. But the arrival of the vaccine has made him optimistic. He is also looking forward to resuming guitar courses, singing modules, percussion lessons and DJ courses for corporate company staff. “We have done this for Spotify and Barclays Bank. All these are group sessions and now they have been put on hold,” said Michael.
From this month London School of Music is starting to offer online lessons with British tutors to students in India. For more information on how to book lessons with LSM in India visit www.londonschoolofmusic.co.uk/india or email firstname.lastname@example.org