This February marks a very special anniversary for Music Motive Director and Founder, Steve Hilstein. Steve has been teaching music in SLO County for over thirty years and February 2nd marks his twenty fifth anniversary of opening his first drum shop, The Drum Circuit. Recently, I sat down with Steve to reflect upon his journey so far:
What prompted you to teach drums? Was this always the plan?
From an early age, I always had an understanding that if I were to work forty or more hours a week, I had better enjoy what I was doing and not allow the wage amount to determine my career. There was a brief consideration of pursuing a “sure thing” that could pull in a steady paycheck with medical insurance and vacation pay, but my heart was telling me otherwise.
Specifically though, a friend suggested I teach drums to people who wanted to learn how to play, and with that, I’d earn income. I had never considered it before, but I thought, why not?
So this was the 1980s. No Facebook… how did you find your first students?
I created a small, handwritten flyer and made some copies; I distributed them on bulletin boards in laundromats and so forth around SLO Town. Low and behold, within a couple weeks, I got my first student. Looking back, I realize that I hardly knew what I was doing, but I knew more than the kid I was teaching and off I went!
It seems like the best musicians never stop learning. As you began to teach around SLO County, were there any local musicians who continued to guide and help polish your own craft?
Oh definitely. I had began taking drum lessons from a local guy by the name of Leon Taylor. Leon had gone to Berklee College of Music in Boston, studying drums and percussion under the late and legendary, Alan Dawson, who played with cats like Charles Mingus, Woody Shaw, Dave Brubeck, Lionel Hampton, Quincy Jones, Dexter Gordon, Frank Foster to name just a few.
Leon had it going on; I guess a little of that rubbed off on to me. I became hooked on drumming, teaching, and admiring amazing drummers. Sometimes, I would teach a drum lesson with the very thing that Leon had taught me the day before.
Also, any time I’d hear about a drum clinic being presented by some well known drummer, I went. Most of those were as far as LA, though that never stopped me. I had an appetite to learn the drums and be the best I could be.
Soon I heard of a new school in Hollywood called Musicians Institute. It was a trade school of sorts; you could go there and focus on many aspects of your instrument and rub elbows with some of the best in the business. So I left San Luis Obispo for a brief year, headed back to LA where I was raised. After an unnerving audition and down payment for tuition, I was accepted at the Percussion Institute of Technology, known as P.I.T.
It seems that most go to Hollywood to stay. You came back to the Central Coast. Was it the chowder or the fresh air?
Originally, I thought I might stay down there after school and become a studio cat and occasionally head out on the road with some band for a short tour. But after I completed the program in 1985, I wound up moving back home to SLO and took an exciting (insert sarcasm here) house-gig at the Motel Inn. It was actually pretty cool. For the next year I had a steady paycheck, worked with some stellar musicians, and I was continually hired for a lot of studio recording. It was what I was hoping to do in LA but didn’t have to live there!
After P.I.T., was it hard to stay motivated to learn and improve your craft without taking lessons yourself?
As I drew more and more drum students, I realized that one of one of the best ways to for me to grow as a musician was to teach. I did however, miss learning from a master drummer, and unfortunately there was no one that I knew in San Luis Obispo who qualified. I had remembered this guy buy the name of Roy Burns, who I had seen do a couple of drum clinics back when I was about thirteen to seventeen years old. I kept up with him through his drum books and by reading his articles published in Modern Drummer Magazine. He, in fact, is the guy who actually got drum clinics started back in the 1960’s!
I called him to find out that he was accepting students. For the next year or so I drove down to Orange County once or twice a month to study with him. Since then, Roy has been a dear friend and mentor who has helped me to dial in my skills and technique.
So you were teaching and learning, all from that little shack. In 1988, you opened The Drum Circuit. What brought you to this point?
One of my challenges as a drum teacher was obtaining materials for my students. The local music stores rarely had the drum books I needed in-stock, so I decided to obtain a sellers permit and scrape up $50 to order books. With the profit I made off the books, I was able to provide my students with even more materials. Plus, I was able to purchase from a catalog of drum gear for myself at dealer cost!
Within about six months, my little one room studio was busting out at the seams with drum gear. In order to be a legitimate dealer, I needed a store front. I’ll never forget telling Roy Burns, that I was going to open a drum shop, I said, “I’ll be able to practice all day!”. Roy replied, “If you open a drum shop, you’ll never have time to practice.” I thought to myself, “Old man, [I am now Roy’s age when he said this], you don’t know what you’re talking about”. I later discovered that he was right.
On February 2, 1988 I opened one of the first and longest running drum shops in California, north of Los Angeles. The Central Coast now had a haven for drummers and those aspiring to be drummers. The very first drum clinic featured none other than Roy Burns. It was a proud moment for me.
In 2007 you sold your drum shop to Howard Emmons, your store manager, and continued on with the drum school (now Music Motive). Looking back on the twenty years of business in The Drum Circuit, what other moments are you proud of?
We hosted some great drum clinics and brought in some world class drummers including Steve Gadd, Dave Weckl, Dale Bozzio, Billy Cobham, Steve Smith, Simon Philips, Alex Acuna, Gregg Bissonette, David Garibaldi, the late Joe Morello, Louie Bellson, and many more. These guys were my heroes!
Also, in 1989, I began the First Annual Drum Competition that still continues every year. With these events we raised thousands of dollars that benefited the San Luis Obispo County Child Abuse Prevention Council.
Through the drum school portion, we provided drum lessons for hundreds of students while employing many local drum teachers. There is much to look back on and be proud of.
Music Motive, your newest venture, is firing on all cylinders, employing over twenty five teachers and staff and teaching a wide range of instruments—both through private lessons and music enrichment classes in elementary schools throughout SLO County—and of course, the Bucket Busters. So, what’s next? Is your vision fulfilled?
My purpose and passion may look complete on the outside, but in reality, they are far from finished. A new era has began and I’m having the time of my life!
How about this, I’ll check back with you in twenty-five more years and let you know what I’m up to.