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Each year, thousands of drummers across the nation line up to enter the world's largest drumming contest, Guitar Center's annual Drum Off!, hopeful of the opportunity to rise through the various stages of the competition and eventually be crowned as the top drummer in the nation at the Grand Finals event in Hollywood. While many may call receiving such an award a success story all to itself, a number of Guitar Center Drum Off! winners have gone on to attain significant notoriety in the drumming scene.
Cora Coleman-Dunham and Tony Royster Jr. are two young Drum Off! winners who have since taken their well-earned status to the next level. At the age of 11, Royster was the youngest drummer to clinch the title, beating out drummers decades his senior with his unparalleled handiwork. In 2002, Coleman-Dunham was the first female to be honored with the same prize, once again shattering the “boy's club” drumming mold. Both of these supreme stickmasters have since racked up impressive credentials, playing behind a bevy of popular artists, including Jay-Z, Prince, Pink and more. Still in their twenties, these are the next—if not current—generation of drumming greats. And, as we've learned after recently catching up with them, they'll be the first to tell you that their participation in the Drum Off! competition was a key element in the launching of their remarkable careers
With both Coleman-Dunham and Royster, the inspiration to succeed as a drummer was fostered early on, both through discipline and determination, plus natural talent, to boot. Coleman-Dunham, who had tapped around incessantly from the start, because “everything turned into a drumstick,” was faced with a challenge at the beginning of her school band days, when she wasn't able to enter the program. That just made her work harder.
“If I'm defeated or challenged, it kind of pushes me to do it anyway,” she says, noting that she eventually landed the drumming throne during her junior year of high school.
Royster says that the rhythm was inherent and evident as a toddler, as he'd dance around to music videos, and eventually got behind the kit during one of his father's band rehearsals, playing a beat right off the bat. “He then told me to stop and start again, to make sure it wasn't a fluke,” Royster recalls. “I started playing again and from there, it just happened.”
These “just happends” didn't come without a heaping of motivation and an internal drive to further their craft. For Coleman-Dunham, it was being placed in a leadership position in school band that found her stepping up her game—and once more as she performed in the marching band and jazz ensembles as a Howard University student. Royster notes that earning his first check winning a talent competition winner at 9 was enough to convince him to maintain his drumming course, as he delved forged ahead without formal training.
“It wasn't about doing chops,” he says. “It was listening to different styles of music. Trying to be disciplined by using dynamics and making music from everything I was playing.”
Coleman-Dunham moved to Los Angeles and quickly found motivation that would eventually have her entering the Drum Off! competition—she needed a new mode of transportation.
“I would come in [to the Guitar Center store] and practice right there,” she says. “I didn't have a car at the time, so I would take the bus from Inglewood, (Calif.), ride up here and play in here for free until they were tired of hearing me—then I'd get on the [Roland] V-Drums.”
Noting her outstanding talent behind the kit, a Guitar Center manager convinced urged her to enter the Drum Off! competition. Little did Coleman-Dunham realize that working her way up the competitive ladder would eventually reap more than just four wheels and an engine.
“I was like, that'd be cool, I could use a car, that'd be nice,” she recalls. “Each level that I'd win, I was like, ‘Man, I could probably get a car.' I won at the end, and it was like ‘Wow, that's great, I have a car!' I wasn't even really thinking that it was the beginning of my career, that I've arrived. It was like, ‘Cool, now I don't have to rent a car to get to the gig and have the gig pay for the car,' or whatever.”
Not even a teenager, Royster rose through the same ranks to achieve the top drumming title via Drum Off!. In an instant, he was in the limelight of the drumming industry, performing at the NAMM show and was even invited to the Modern Drummer Festival, performing alongside legends and top-rated pros.
Coleman-Dunham found her Drum Off! win as the launching pad for further success, including landing gigs with Phil Upchurch, Pink, Frank McComb and Ill Divo. In fact, it was during a McComb date that she landed her largest career opportunity to date— playing with the legendary rockstar, Prince—who had walked in while she was behind the kit.
“His bodyguard came up and said, ‘Hey, Prince is here, he wants to meet you, wants to talk to you,'” she recalls. “We talked on the break about music, content, good equipment, that sort of thing. I texted my husband, like, ‘You're not going to believe who's here!'”
One of Royster's major breaks came with at the urging of fellow dazzling drummer, Nisan Stewart. Royster was in Europe for seminars for DW and a few days into the trip receive a call from Stewart, urging him to fill the empty drum throne for hip-hop celebrity Jay-Z. As soon as Royster returned to the States, Stewart had diverted Royster straight to New York City to begin rehearsals for an impending tour.
“He's a hip-hop artist, so it's the best way to develop your discipline,” says Royster of his Jay-Z experience. “For the most part, rappers want to hear straight pocket. He loves drums and that's always good. It's fun, it's cool, it's easy and it's good times…Jay is a very open person when it comes to music. He's always finding new things to make his music better than it already is. He lets me be free, just as long as I stay within the range where he doesn't get lost.”
Coleman-Dunham has also found excitement—and an education—in working with Prince. “To work with somebody that sees the entire picture, just within the conversation, it just pushes you to another level of thinking,” she says. “To think about production, lighting, think about dance moves or smoke, and how a roll for an eighth of a beat long can impact the entire show—it makes you think. It pushes me to another level. He's definitely an example of just incredible knowledge.”
Since their Drum Off! wins, Royster and Coleman-Dunham have embarked on some of the most unique and lauded musical endeavors available. For Royster, it was performing at the Grammy Awards, which landed him a drum throne behind one of Japan's most popular artists, Hikaru Utada, at only 15-years-old. Other high points include playing the Glastonbury Festival and President Obama's inauguration celebration.
Coleman-Dunham played the massive halftime show at SuperBowl XLI in 2007 with Prince. “I've never played for that many viewers, seen or unseen,” she says. “Just to know that several million people are watching, that was pretty overwhelming for me.”
Situations of such caliber require musicians who are able to quickly adapt to changing environments and playing situations, for which both Royster and Coleman-Dunham are prepared. For example, Coleman-Dunham leans on her formal training, writing charts to recall forms and arrangements.
“For Prince, things change on a dime,” she says. “Live, we can rehearse something for a television show and in the soundcheck for the show, he can kind of feel the vibe of the room and where he's going creatively and say we're going to go with another song…All those adjustments and training just kick in naturally.”
Playing high profile gigs requires a set of professional tools, and both Royster and Coleman-Dunham are well equipped, using DW drums and Sabian cymbals. Coleman-Dunham's Mapa Burl setup includes 8”, 10”, 12”, 13” and 14” toms, paired with a 20” bass drum.
“I like the tone of an 18” [bass drum], but I like the thump of the 22”, so the 20” gives me that combination,” she says.
Coupled with mostly HHX and AAX Sabians (with some Vault and Evolution series cymbals, too), Coleman-Dunham rounds out her kit with Remo heads, DW hardware and pedals (played with her shoes off), Vater Manhattan sticks and SPDS pads from Roland.
Royster's setup changes, but his current kit includes DW's Short Stack toms, in an 8”, 10”, 12”, 15”, 16” and 18” configuration, paired with a 20” bass drum (and, on occasion, a 23” bass drum). “DW's kick, they have so much oomph—it hits,” he says. “I like that.” Royster also plays Sabian HHX, Evolution and Vault model cymbals, plus Vic Firth Tony Royster Jr. signature series sticks, DW hardware and pedals and Evans heads.
Such equipment is vital in getting the job done for the gauge of gigs Coleman-Dunham and Royster perform. In fact, playing in such lofty slots have found both drummers landing Modern Drummer magazine covers and quickly becoming influences to those still striving to attain such remarkable musicianship.
“I think that's very flattering and exciting at the same time, because I remember looking in Modern Drummer and seeing Cindy Blackman, or seeing Terri Lyne [Carrington], or seeing Sheila E, Evelyn Glennie, and saying ‘man, that's cool,' because as female drummers, that's an obvious factor for me,” says Coleman-Dunham, who also cites Bobby McFerrin, Tommy Lee, Neil Peart and Grady Tate on her list of influences.
And the preparation to launch a drummer's career to these levels can be had via Drum Off!, says Royster, who's influenced by such greats as Dennis Chambers, Vinnie Colaiuta, Dave Weckl, Steve Gadd, Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa.
“If you want to be noticed and if you want to be seen, it gives you the opportunity. It does a lot for you. It teaches you how to play in front of people and not be so nervous. It also just gives you a chance to interact with other musicians and drummers—it's a great learning process all around. I bet you other people playing other instruments wish they had a contest like this. But they don't.”
Coleman-Dunham and Royster suggest being passionate about your craft, having an open mind, accepting constructive criticism, versatility, staying in top physical shape (Coleman-Dunham routinely visits a chiropractor), and, most importantly, understanding the business via relationships. For example, though Coleman-Dunham is self-managed, she still relies on a number of industry contacts to advise her through various situations.
“It's about who you know, really,” Royster adds. “If you can develop the relationships, that's what everything in the music industry and in the world in general are based on—good relationships that get you to the places you want to be.”
And what do they see as the changing landscape for drummers of the future? Coleman-Dunham thinks the infusion of technology has been the most drastic change thus far, but she's quick to assure drummers that their gigs are far from up.
“There's nothing like a heartbeat,” she says. “And that's where the drums are, so I don't think we're going anywhere as drummers.”