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Modern Drummer August 1999

Determination, Dedication, And the power of Discipline
By William F. Miller

The rumors are flying.

In fact if the stories are true, Virgil Donati is one of the most dedicated drummers of all time.
How much do you practice? How much of your life do you commit to drumming? In Donati’s case, word is he lives for the drums, lives to improve at his craft. Six-, eight-, even ten-hour daily pratcice sessions are the norm for this man. And when he’s not practicing -or working- he’s excercising or composing music.

A representative  from one drum industry manufacturer told me a story of how Donati requested that a set of drums be available for him to practice on when he visited their factory. No problem. It was the weekend, the place was closed, and the drummer said he would call when he was finished. Hours later, no word from Virgil, and the reps began to get nervous. They went back to the factory and found him stripped to the waist, covered in sweat, and wailing away at some “unbelievably complex pattern.”

Another Virgil vignette comes from a different manufaturer, who flew Donati out to officially welcome him as an endorser, meet the staff, and select some new equipment. They prepared a nice greeting and a factory tour, which went well. But then, when the reps wanted to take the drummer out for a celebratory meal, Donati declined, saying he had to get back to his room “to get some work done.”

I knew these and a few other Donati tales before we hooked up for this interview at last November’s Percussive Arts Society convention in Orlando, and he still managed to surprise. I showed up at his hotel room door, knocked, and when the door opened, WHOOSH!, I was bown back by a sauna-like hot-air blast. The room was filled with a post-game locker-room haze –that dense thick scent that comes from physical exertion. It was drippy. Even the windows were fogged over. Next to the bed sat a practice pad, sticks, and a bass drum pad with a double pedal attached; a high-tech metronome clicked rapidly nearby. Virgil must have noticed a funny look on my face, because he looked at me, shrugged, and apologetically offered, “I’ve been practicing.”

If you’ve seen Virgil Donati perform, there’s no need for apologies. He is methodically –and painstakingly- expanding the limits of our instrument, both in terms of sheer physical ability and in the creative concepts he’s developing. Speaking of chops, Donati’s hand technique is a powerful combination of speed and endurance –using traditional grip no less! And –of course his phenomenal double pedal technique is mindboggling; Virgil plays all manner of fast singles, but he’s also the first drummer to succesfully employ double-stroke combinations with both feet. Toss in hos showy performance style –twirls, tosses, stick-clicks, cross-sticking, and you have one amazing player.
It seems like Donati came out of nowhere…well…he did. It’s been three years since he left his native Australia, where he had developed a solid career recording and touring with many area rock and pop acts. But Virgil longed to break out, come to America, and see if he could make a name for himself on a world-class level.

Three years worth of clinics in North America and Europe, including solo spots at some of the most prestigious drum festivals have earned Virgil star status among drummers. His impressive solo albums, Stretch  and Just Add Water, and videos, Power Drumming and Virgil Donati at Modern Drummer Festival ’97, have further helped to cement his reputation. Simply put he’s taken the drum community by storm.

Now this unique individual is setting his sites on the rest of the music world. Donati is ready to contribute, and little by little the calls are coming his way. C’mon…with his intense drive and dedication, there’s no doubt Virgil Donati is going to succeed.

WFM: Virgil I’m sorry to have to say this, but wird is you’re a bit of a freak in terms of how much you practice. You must lead a monk-like existence.

VD: Well I don’t consider myself a monk. [Laughs] I do feel that I’m a committed musician and drummer. Actually I’m totally committed to my craft and to the development of my personal skills and musical abilities. To me music is such a profound art form. To really contribute to it, to really move it forward, requires a lot of time and effort. It’s as simple as that. I have a deep desire to take it as far as I can. So I openly admit that I practice and take the time to develop my skills.
WFM: So the rumours about all of the hours are true.

VD: Well…they are at times… depending on my work schedule.

WFM: It’s nothing to be ashamed of.

VD: Oh no. I’m not ashamed at all. I’m probably one of the few drummers striving at this level who admit to doing a lot of practicing. And I do it with a lot of passion.

WFM: So when you’re home in LA, and let’s say you’re not working, whats your practice schedule like and what do you work on consistently?

VD: My schedule involves a lot more than music alone. I make a total lifestyle commitment to my drumming. And drumming being one of the most athletic and physical of the musical instruments, require a certain degree of physical fitness. Plus you need to take special care of your health, because we are really hammering our bodies –in particular our legs, hips, shoulders, elbows, forearms, and wrists. They take quite a belting if you work hard at it.
So there are certain things that I consider apart from the drumming itself that I work on consistently. I am concerned about proper nutrition, feeding the muscles and joints correctly so that they can repair themselves in time for the next onslaught. I take care not to dump a lot of junk down my pipe, and I try to strike a proper balance of carbs, fats, and proteins. I’ve been following the diet described by Barry Sears in his book Entering the Zone. I’ve noticed it to be very helpful to my energy level. So diet is certainly one important aspect I consider.

The degree of intensity that I like to perform at requires quite a high level of fitness. So I train to enhance that. My main exercise apart from drumming is running; I go out to the beach pr up to the mountains –the Hollywood Hills- to get some miles in. I also like to swim whenever I can.
A usual day for me would start out with some type of training in the morning –running or swimming. Then sometimes I attend yoga classes in the Iyengar style, which is very dynamic and involves intense stretching. I’ve been doing it on and off for ten years, and I’ve found it to be very helpful both physically and mentally. After that I’ll eat and then I’m into the music for the rest of the day. And that can range anywhere from practicing to writing new material. Most of the time it gets broken up by my having to attend rehersals for someone’s project or a session. But then I’ll come back to my rehersal space and do some more work later in the day. So it’s a very full schedule, and I try to stick to it.

WFM: Many top-level pros at one point in their lives have put in a lot of time on the instrument. But in most cases, as their personal lives have gotten busier, they couldn’t keep up that commitment. What fuels your desire to stay focused and to put in these hours?

VD: A totally honest answer would be that it stems from the frustration I have at knowing what is possible –the things I imagine myself playing- and trying to develop them.
The other thing about me personally, which might seem strange to some, is that I cannot live with complacency. The “field of the known” should not be a part of any creative musician’s makeup. I don’t want to play what I know and rest on that. I have to step into the field of the unknown on a daily basis. That’s where you find all the possibilities. I guess that’s what really drives me.

WFM: Are you finding yourself in musical situations that allow you to take advantage of those abilities?

VD: Oh yeah. Sheer chops is not the only goal. These things can exhibit themselves in very subtle ways. It’s not always about some incredible difficult technical challenge or some drumming onslaught around the kit. Things loke touch and feel are concepts I work on as well.

I get called to do a lot of rock and pop music, which may seem very simple on the surface. But I enjoy playing that music. It may not be technically challenging, but there are element invloved that are deep: groove, touch, dynamics. Also involved in that is the movement of your limbs –the grace and beauty that you develop, which comes through in the music. I have no problem with playing 1 and 3 on the kick and 2 and 4 on the snare. That can be challenge in itself; there’s a set of difficulties even in simplicity.
Touch on the instrument is really important to me. And by spending a lot of time with the sticks in your hands and with your feet on the pedals, you develop touch. But it’s something that is almost, I guess, quantum-mechanical or metaphysical. It’s something you can’t explain, it’s intangible, and something that just develops with time.

WFM: Some people, though, can pick up a pair of sticks and have that touch right away. They can sit down and play a groove and it just feels good immediately. Would you say that you had that initial talent?

I think we all have a pure potentiality within us, which manifests itself more in some than in others. We all have aptitude in certain areas. Some people sit down on the drums and it’s just rigid, stiff and akward-looking. Where does that come from? And yet others can be really loose and have a natural aptitude. With me, I started at such a young age that I can’t remember what it was like. But I do have video footage of me playing at three years of age, and believe it or not, it looks okay. The touch looks alright…well…alright for a three-year-old![Laughs]

I feel that these things can be developed. I’ve felt it develop more and more over the years in me. That’s the beauty of working hard consistently; you feel the growth. Sometimes it will hit me overnight. I’ll pick up the sticks, and all of a sudden it just feels totally different –stronger, better.

WFM: That’ll keep you inspired.

VD: Oh it’s a wonderful feeling. It’s a reason to live.