Sarah Thawer is a drummer based in Toronto, Canada who is currently freelancing, collaborating, doing session work and performing with international artists playing jazz, latin, gospel, hip hop, funk, r&b/soul, fusion, Indian and world music. She studied jazz and world music at York University and was the recipient of the Oscar Peterson Scholarship, the highest award given by the institution, in addition to graduating with the Summa Cum Laude distinction. She has shared the stage with many popular artists including AR Rahman, Del Hartley, D’bi and the 333, Rich Brown, Re.verse, Salim-Sulaiman, Benny Dayal and Funktuation, Jane Bunnett and Maqueque, Mitch Frohman, Thompson Egbo-Egbo, Maria Mulata, Grisha Goryachev, Roger and Sam Grandinson, S S Thaman, Steve Koven, Vijay Prakash to name a few. Sarah has also been featured on various television and radio stations such as CBC News newscast, Jazz FM 91.1, OMNI TV, Rogers Daytime, Vijay TV, and Late Night with Stephen Colbert.
Sarah endorses Vic Firth drum sticks, Evans drum heads, Yamaha drums, Zildjian cymbals and Gruv Gear.
Don’t try to rewrite or copy someone else’s story, write your own. There is no “ahead” or “behind”… be patient.
[Tom Tom]: So, can you start by telling us a bit about yourself? How did you become interested in music and what inspired you to become a drummer?
[Sarah]: I can’t remember a day in my life without music. It wasn’t something I got interested in, it was always a part of me. My dad’s a musician and it was through his passion and dedication to music that made it so important in my life. We would have instruments in my house, rehearsals, music parties and he would babysit my twin sister and I by jamming to different songs for hours. My parents would actually turn on a different album every night for my sister and I to fall asleep to. The tunes would play all night until my grandma came to shut the CD player off.
Indian music was my first love. It is so heavy with drums and percussion and I was just very drawn to it, and didn’t understand why. I never grew up with a drum teacher or drum books and didn’t even know what a paradiddle was. I just listened to records, sat on all sorts of percussion in my basement and then found creative ways to play the grooves and rhythms on the kit. I always tell people that I have lived two lives. The first one was from age 2 (?) until the end of high school where I was self taught on drum kit and percussion (the exception of Tabla where I studied formally and took maybe 6-8 lessons a year), played indian music, studied jazz and played in the jazz bands at school, played lots of percussion and played drum kit in an unconventional way. I was playing cuban grooves for instance and didn’t know the technical terms for these grooves. When I went to study music in university, that was when I started putting the puzzle pieces together, and that’s where I was exposed to a wide range of genres. I felt like I was re-born again and fell in love with funk, fusion, gospel, hiphop and RnB, and then started heavily getting into drum books, and lots of technical studying behind the kit.
You have an amazing Drumeo video about incorporating Indian beats into your playing on the kit. How did you learn how to fuse such different styles?
It’s so funny because it happened unintentionally. I grew up listening to indian music and loved the rhythm and beats, especially the folk rhythms. Because I didn’t have a drum teacher, I was so fascinated by the sounds coming from each percussion instrument that I would sit for hours and emulated those grooves on various percussion instruments and tried to simulate each sound, just for fun.
Since I didn’t know how to slap a conga the right way for instance, to simulate that sound I would use my elbow, knuckles, hit the edge with my index finger, sometimes put my face in the drum, you name it. I would spend hours and hours for years. Then, I would hop on the kit and bring these percussion grooves onto the kit. Since I didn’t know how to hold a stick or didn’t know the different types of grips, I would hold the stick under the tip, at the middle of the stick, use only one stick and then the left hand on the snare with the snares off. This whole concept just came from listening to percussion based music and then playing it on the kit without any rules, and just having fun with it.
Then when I started studying drum kit formally in university I re-learned what I “learned” as a kid and was able to put it in technical terms and fuse that world and apply it in on the kit with the proper techniques.
Have you ever encountered any discrimination in the industry due to your gender?
There have been many times where I’ve arrived to venues and the first thing the crew from the venue asks me is, “are you the manager for the band?” and/or “are you the vocalist for tonight?” and/or “Hi, anything we can do for you?”
What do you like most about performing on stage?
Being in the moment. No matter if you’ve had a good day or if it was the worst day of your life, to play the music you are forced to be in the moment. Performing forces me to forget everything I’m worried about and brings me to the present moment. One of my professors in university told me, “If you’re thinking, you’re already late”.
You studied jazz, but play everything from Latin to funk to R&B. What does each style offer you on the kit?
Each style offers vocabulary. Playing different styles of music helps to think differently. For instance I just finished a small tour with an Argentinean pianist, and we played latin jazz – some Cuban, Brazilian, Flamenco, Cumbia, some Argentinean grooves, and for each of these styles you had to play the drums differently. I just also came back from New York and played with Tegan and Sara on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and it was more of a rock approach, so I tuned the drums a certain way and really dug into the cymbals and drums.
Along with vocabulary comes technique to execute the vocabulary depending on the genre. Some genres need more linear grooves or fills, some need more coordination and independence. But what I love most is not thinking of it as learning technique first or learning a groove or a fill just because. It’s to learn the music—the source. It helps you think in a way that you’re working on your technique to be fluent in the vocabulary of that genre aka language. It really helps you think differently.
What is your biggest drum aspiration?
To keep on the journey of learning, practicing, listening and growing.
Can you describe your gear to us?
Yes! I endorse Yamaha, Evans, Zildjian and Vic Firth.
I love playing all of Yamaha’s kits, but my ABSOLUTE favourite is the Absolute Hybrid Maple! I currently use either the 22” or 20” kick, as well as 8” 10” 12” toms, 14” and/or 16” floor tom, 13” Steve Jordan and/or 14” snare.
I find myself most often using EMAD Clear on my bass drums, G2 Clear on toms and UV1 on my snares. I also like mixing it up based on the situation. One of my kits have all of the Red Hydraulics, and I also love to use UV1 Coated on toms, EMAD Coated on the bass drums and Calftone on one of my snares.
I love to change up the stick model that I use depending on the situation. I play Vic Firth sticks and mainly play 5A or 5B. If I am playing Jazz I use the Peter Erskine Ride Stick, American Jazz Model 1, Modern Jazz Collection 1 and 4.
I play an array of Zildjian cymbals, and pick the ones to use based on the musical setting. I find myself most often using the 13” K Custom Hybrid Hi Hats, and the 10” splash, 21” ride, 16”, 18” and 20” crash from the K Custom Special Dry line. I also love to use the K Custom Hybrid crashes as well as the K Cluster crashes. I am a big fan of short and quick response sounds, so I have tons of fun with splashes and stacks. I love to stack the 10” and 8” Trashformer with the 10” A Custom EFX, as well as the K EFX 18” with the 18” FX Oriental China Trash.
How did you get involved in the Evans campaign? Can you describe to Tom Tom what it all entails?
A big shoutout and thank you to Aaron Vishria for inviting me to be a part of such an amazing production. To me, the campaign means with one strike on the Evans drum head on the drum, the drum will sing, make its presence and set the tone for the show, the session, or you name it. The sound of Evans is powerful but warm and pleasant. The drumheads also cater to each artist and individual for them to set their own tone and voice through the drum heads.
What do you love about playing Evans?
Evans drumheads are extremely versatile. No matter what style you play you can be as authentic as possible. The drum heads naturally have an attack but they sing at the same time. The bass drum batter heads have such bottom head and they are so punchy and strong. I haven’t seen or heard anything like it.
Tom Tom turns ten this year; if you could go back ten years and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be? Alternatively, what do you feel the biggest lesson you’ve learned is in the past decade?
If I could go back ten years and give myself one piece of advice, it would be to trust the process; trust MY process. The biggest lesson that I have learned is that everyone’s process and journey is different. Don’t try to re write or copy someone else’s story, write your own. There is no “ahead” or “behind”, in life there are seasons. Be patient, be consistent and trust that when it’s your turn for your season, it will come at the right time. Life is not a race nor a competition.
When you’re not drumming, what do you like to do?
When I’m not drumming I watch videos of live concerts or listen to albums. If i’m taking a break I turn on Netflix!
Do you have a practice routine? What are your favourite things to practice for fun?
I used to have a very strict practice routine, for many years actually. Then I found that I was getting more frustrated and my creativity started suffering. Now I have a bunch of things I work on daily, but I make sure I write everything down. For fun I love to practice and make up fun grooves and solo.
A lot of players now feel like they have to have an active social media following to be successful. How would you define success as a musician?
I believe that each individual has their own definition of what success is as a musician. What may seem “successful” to one person may not be to the other. I personally use social media as a tool and a vessel to get the gigs and opportunities that I want and to network with people around the world. For me to have a lot of followers on social media is a tool that helps me to share my music, my thoughts and to connect with people.
I know quite a few people who don’t have social media and they are gigging musicians and they are really happy. It truly depends on the person!