A cheerful Rosa Avila sat down for an interview with Tom Tom Magazine before heading to an early downtown session. She has a lot to be happy about as this former drummer for Andy Williams has hit the ground running (or playing) since moving from the tourist mecca of Branson, MS back to her stomping grounds of Brooklyn, NY. She talks about growing up in a musical family, international gigging, and tips for the working drummer.
-By Derek Wayne
TomTomMagazine: Tell us a little about your background and how you got started playing drums.
Rosa Avila: Well, my parents are both musicians so I kind of almost didn’t have a choice. My mother is a concert pianist and my father a symphony conductor, so therefore I am a drummer! (laughs) I rebelled against their classical worlds from day one and was uninterested in every other instrument in the house. After years of begging for drum lessons, my dad finally gave in. The truth was that I knew the drums were for me. I wanted to play drums! My parents were horrified with the idea until they saw that I was serious. My dad had actually told my first drum teacher that I would probably lose interest after a few weeks. A year later, my teacher related that moment to me and we had a laugh about it!
After high school, I went to the music conservatory in my hometown of Xalapa, Veracruz for three and a half years. I played symphonic percussion in the orchestra my dad had once conducted there. That was a priceless experience for me as not many drummers were able to get that kind of education. Although I learned a lot at school, unfortunately I wasn’t playing drums that much. I then attended a conservatory in Mexico City and was able to play drums in their jazz department. A few years later, I earned my scholarship and then finished my studies at the Musicians Institute’s P.I.T. in Los Angeles. Soon after P.I.T is when I got the gig with Andy Williams.
TTM: You’ve played with so many different types of artists, each with very distinctive styles. How did you train yourself to be a musical chameleon?
RA: I’ve always wanted to play jazz and rock. I guess like most of us, I got interested in drums because of rock music. However, I fell in love with jazz the minute my first teacher turned me on to it. I’ve never wanted or had to choose between them. I’ve always practiced and studied both ways of playing, so I guess that’s how I ended up being fluent in both genres. I can’t imagine just being a rock drummer or just a jazz drummer. I would end up having one gig a month! (laughs)
I always thought that the more styles I could play, the more work I’d get and that is particularly true these days. Over the years, that skill has allowed me to be choosy regarding what bands or artists I work with. In the course of a month, I’ll do all kinds of gigs like musical theater, a rock gig, a funk gig, and a jazz gig. It definitely keeps it interesting for me. I like variety. I have to say that I learned a lot playing all those years with Andy Williams. During his show, we would play a jazz big band tune and suddenly transition into a pop song with heavy backbeat. I had never done musical theater before and his shows were on-the-job training.
TTM: What have been some of your highlight experiences when you traveled overseas?
RA: Oh man, soooo many!! I guess getting to play in different countries and seeing how the audiences respond according to their culture. For example, my first tour of Japan with Andy was in the early 90’s and the audiences were so quiet. You could hear a pin drop and we wondered if there was anybody out there on the other side of the curtain! Ten years later, those same audiences were so loud! (laughs) I mean, who knows what changed? Another example was when we played for Andy’s Fan Club in this huge arena in Taiwan. It was amazing because the audience was entirely made up of twenty-somethings. They even wanted to take pictures with the band, which was completely unexpected. My very first gig in Dublin was to five thousand screaming fans and I couldn’t hear the click track because of it!
Touring the UK is always a pleasure! It was a thrill playing to a sold out Royal Albert Hall with everybody standing up dancing and singing. They get into it so much and know every lyric. They really care about the musicians a lot and not just the artist you’re playing with. I always made sure to bring extra drumsticks to give away after shows to show my appreciation.
TTM: Any advice for an up & coming drummer?
RA: With YouTube and everything else, I guess now a there’s no excuse for not being informed. There’s almost way too much information to take in. When I came up, it was a big deal when somebody had a drum video. We would all fight to get to see it! (laughs) But having said that, maybe the information overload makes it harder to find your own voice. I think it’s really important to play like you want to play and try to develop “your thing” whatever that might be.
Keep an open mind. None of this, “Oh the rock guys this” or “The jazz guys that”… that kind of separation is a thing of the past. Play in any possible situation and you will learn from every gig; even if it wasn’t exactly the kind of music you wanted to play. Keep your ears open, pay attention, and try to get together with better players than you. If this is your passion in life, you’ll do anything to be a drummer.