Steve Houghton: Jazz Drummer, Author, Entrepreneur and Educator
This month, Project Jumpstart interviews Steve Houghton, Jacobs School professor, jazz drummer, author, and innovator!
Always developing new projects, Professor Houghton has recently released three new albums: A Beautiful Friendship (Steve Houghton Trio), Brother to Brother (AHA Trio), and Driftin’ (Steve Houghton, Steve Allee, Rusty Burge, and Jeremy Allen). He has also created a video series available online at Vic Firth’s website, entitled The Jazz Trio: An Inside View.
Steve Houghton exemplifies the power of versatility in an ever changing artistic world. While he is consistently working and producing his own artistic material, Houghton is also always thinking of new ways to teach that reflect the current musical climate.
Houghton supports and plays Yamaha drums and percussion, Zildjian cymbals, Vic Firth sticks and mallets, and Remo world percussion products/drumheads.
“My teaching has always been based on reality. Very simply, I try to prepare my students for whatever is out there, playing wise while providing the understanding of how it all works in the music business. My career has been based on versatility and a high level of musicianship along with good decision-making and that is what I try and teach my students.” – Steve Houghton
PJ: How have networking and collaboration played a role in your career development?
SH: The music business is all about relationships and networking. I’ve always maintained that your network starts right here with your classmates. I’ve spent my whole career nurturing and carefully maintaining relationships and most of my relationships happen to be good friends by now, but it all started in college. Maintaining relationships is all about communication and simply staying in touch and being sincere. My first big break was a result of staying in touch with a mentor/early hero, drummer Ed Soph, who I met at a clinic in high school. He eventually recommended me for my first big gig, the Woody Herman Big Band (a band that I saw in high school and dreamed of being with one day). My early success in Los Angeles was also a direct result of my networking. Upon arriving in LA, I proceeded to contact my friends and contacts from Wisconsin, Dallas, the Woody Herman band, the Disney College Band and North Texas who had relocated to Los Angeles. That led to numerous gigs very quickly and continues to this day.
PJ: What tips do you have for young musicians trying to break into “the business?”
Houghton: I think first and foremost, figure out WHO YOU ARE. This is very important and often difficult, especially for the younger player. I find that college students want to do many things, which is great, but you have to get in touch with your true passion. Which music really gets you going? Which part of the music business suits you best? What is your skillset? What are your strengths and weaknesses? Start developing your plan for moving forward after school. When you finish with school, you must have a resource network, a flexible strategic plan and above all, a great product that has no musical or social holes in it.
Becoming a player can be a long, tough journey that has many twists and turns. Every successful musician pursues a different route or path, but they all possess passion, commitment and dedication. I’ve learned to become very flexible in my thinking, always trying to maintain a high musical standard while being as versatile as possible. My early love for jazz remains strong, with creative projects (gigs, concerts, CDs) being the life-blood that keeps me engaged and inspired. However, being a well-respected musician/drummer/teacher has supplanted the early single goal of being a “jazz drummer.”
PJ: What sparked the idea for your video series The Jazz Trio: An Inside View? How did you come to partner with Vic Firth?
Houghton: I’ve developed a large number of video drumset lessons for the Vic Firth website over the years, but it always bothered me, just a bit, that these lessons were just talking about playing the drums. So, 4 years ago, I produced a series called Rhythm Section 101, utilizing a live rhythm section with a full big band, which has been very well received. However, I still wanted to offer a series where we weren’t just demonstrating certain styles, but were really playing music and talking about the performance experience. Therefore, I created this latest offering – The Jazz Trio: An Inside View. This series allowed us to play real music in a performance setting and then present companion videos we titled “insights” where we take the viewer “ inside the huddle” allowing them to see what we were hearing and thinking as we played. We performed twelve tunes with companion “insight” videos and it’s being very well received. Our performance of “I Mean You” released a few weeks ago has already received 75,000 views. I’m very pleased that we’ve been able to bring live jazz music to the Vic Firth website.
PJ: You seem to work with your students a lot on developing an online presence. Why do you feel this is so important for emerging musicians? How are you encouraging your students to do this?
Houghton: It’s quite obvious that the music business has changed drastically over the last 10 years and the norm is to now have an online presence – specifically a YouTube presence. I’m encouraging my students to start thinking about creating such a presence, as that’s the new business card. Know that there is a lot of junk out there, so I don’t suggest putting just anything online. However, there are some incredible performances going on each and every day at JSOM and it’s important to capture some of that.
I’m working very hard to provide an atmosphere where my students can develop a project or a group, or even just a song or a solo and document it, either on video or audio. The jazz department has provided me with audio gear while the audio engineering department has offered much technical support – so my teaching studio has kind of turned into “Houghton Sound.” Each week, there are numerous projects coming in and out to record, playing music that they identify with while putting together groups they feel represent who they are. I try to make our work relevant to their lives.
PJ: How has your work performing with professional musicians at a very high level influenced your teaching style and the work of writing your educational books?
Houghton: Playing with the jazz artists I’ve been fortunate to work with along with my work in the LA studios put me with a class of players that were “the best of the best” and really did a lot for my sense of preparedness, high musical standards, decision-making, and perfection. Knowing what to do in every situation is a valuable trait that I still use every day and try to pass on to my students.
You know, I don’t come from academia – I was a “working musician” starting at age 20, “without a safety net”, for 29 years before coming to IU. I can only share what I’ve learned along the way, on the road all over the world with Woody Herman for 2 years, in Dallas (4 years), and in LA (25 years). I’m a sideman, bandleader, solo artist (classical and jazz), author, international jazz and percussion clinician, recording musician, and now a professor. I’ve always tried to prepare my students to be as diverse as possible to compete in today’s varied, constantly changing music scene, which I remain a part of. I do think that today’s musician needs multiple revenue streams.
I teach a Rhythm Section Masterclass that tries to emulate a live recording session. We sight-read music each week and record on the spot. In addition, the students are challenged to put together a band and bring it in to record with one rehearsal. These are real life paradigms that I find valuable. For the students to hear themselves back immediately enables them to make better choices in the future. The process of doing this every week has led to wonderful results in sight-reading, sound, style, groove, time-keeping, and most of all, confidence and consistency.
PJ: With such a wide variety of projects on your plate, how do you choose what to invest your time in? How do you balance performing, recording, writing, and teaching?
Houghton: Since my background is as a working musician, I’m very used to doing many things at once, to survive. It can be very stressful as well as tiring, but at the end of the day it is very rewarding to get a book published, release a new CD, or perform a successful concert. There is nothing more rewarding than seeing my students perform well at a concert or recording session. I consider all of these areas an important part of who I am. I don’t wish to let go of any of them anytime soon, so the challenge is just doing a good job and completing the projects with success and integrity. It’s very much like what the students go through here at school. Everyone is stretched thin and has too much going on. Well, when you get out of school, you can only hope that you have too much going on. Take this time and learn how to organize and prioritize and develop the ability to work/practice efficiently. Those are solid life skills.
PJ: What words of advice do you have for aspiring musicians who hope to make their mark on the musical world in an innovative way?
Houghton: This is an interesting question, as I didn’t set out to be an innovator. As a jazz musician, I just want to be creative and inspired every time I play. I certainly have my heroes like Elvin Jones and Tony Williams who were innovators and actually changed drumming. I wanted to play like them, but didn’t set out to innovate drumming, and I didn’t. I simply developed my own style and concept that I find comfortable.
I do feel that being proactive and making things happen puts you on the road to being innovative. Years ago, I wanted to play concertos with orchestras, but there was no literature available for solo percussion including drumset. So, I started to commission pieces so that I could play with orchestras and wind ensembles. I funded those through the Steve Houghton foundation (my wallet) and I now have over a dozen pieces that I take out to play with various ensembles. This would never have happened without me making it happen and spending some money. I guess I would call that innovative, but at the time, I just saw it as being proactive, driven and a bit stubborn.
As for being an innovator in teaching or writing, that’s a little different. All of my books are a direct result of my teaching. My jazz and drumming publications were the first of their kind (rhythm section, styles, chart reading, soloing) so I seemed to be ahead of the curve and somewhat innovative, which makes me smile. I just saw a need and filled it.
I take my teaching very seriously, and consequently, it changes each year. I would hope to be considered an innovative teacher with the way I do things. As a teacher, you must adapt and try new and innovative teaching strategies to keep things fresh, while never forgetting the fundamentals. I’ve implemented things in my teaching that I haven’t seen or heard about anywhere else. I’m not so much interested in being innovative, just extremely effective and always looking forward and keeping it relevant.
PJ: What obstacles have you overcome along the way and what resources have you found to be beneficial?
Houghton: I can’t say that I’ve had obstacles, but more like challenges. I’ve found that my journey continues each and every day, with my focus and interests constantly adjusting to life challenges, family, economic survival, health, musical trends, educational activities, employment opportunities, and the musicians I interact with. My family and friends have been my source of strength.