Percussionist Blake Fleming has been featured by the biggest music publications and magazines, wrote “The Book of Rhythm,” and toured the United States and Canada opening for the Red Hot Chili Peppers in stadiums of 14,000 people. But none of those experiences compare to the feeling he gets while teaching someone how to play the drums.
“I’ve been drumming for 40 years but, during a private lesson, I learn so much, too,” he said. “We learn from each other, and it’s an exchange. That’s such an important part of teaching.”
Fleming, who has been an adjunct lecturer of music and drum instructor at SUNY Oneonta since 2008, will proudly tell you that he grew up in Alton, Ill. – the birthplace of Miles Davis. At age 8, he began playing the drums and spent his formative years participating in multiple fife and drum corps, bagpipe bands, jazz bands, marching bands and orchestras.
“Music took a pretty strong hold on my life early on,” Fleming said. “I remember being 4 or 5 years old, feeling the energy I’d get from hearing a song on the radio or something my older brothers were playing. Rock and roll had a rebellious nature to it, and I found that to be super powerful.”
By the time Fleming was 15, he had started his first “real band,” Dazzling Killmen. The group put out two full-length studio albums and one live album and toured the country extensively.
Get Him To The Greek - Mars Volta Scene
Since then, Fleming has founded and been involved with several influential experimental bands, performed on more than 50 albums, and toured the world. His work has ranged from performing solo with Olympic synchronized swimmers to creating soundtracks for video installations in museums worldwide. He is, perhaps, best known for his involvement with The Mars Volta, which he co-founded in 2001. The Grammy Award-winning band played sold-out arena tours and opened for the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
“I’ve gotten to see a lot of the world,” Fleming said. “Playing these huge arenas, signing people’s bodies … all this crazy rock star stuff. It was great, but it sounds much better on paper than the reality of it. Despite being surrounded by people at all times, it was pretty isolating and there wasn’t much audience interaction. I longed to get back in a tiny van and go play a small club.”
In 2013, Fleming released his debut solo record, Time's Up, an all-drum and percussion odyssey that has been the subject of magazine articles, reviews, interviews and radio play on six continents. One track, “The Funky Komodenu,” was used by Macy’s for a commercial during New York’s Fall 2013 Fashion Week.
Fleming’s drumming has been the subject of articles in The New York Times, NPR and Rolling Stone, to name a few. In 2013, he was included in SPIN.com's “100 Greatest Drummers of Alternative Music.” And, most recently, Fleming’s “The Book of Rhythm” was one of the top five instruction books in Modern Drummer Magazine's 2020 reader's poll.
A Constant Love of Teaching
Fleming says it’s important to remember that it hasn’t all been glamorous. There were many years of living in New York City, cooking on a hot plate, working at a coffee shop or as a bartender, and playing music on the side. A balance of success and failure – and knowing how to navigate both – is key, he said.
Whether Fleming’s music career was floundering or flourishing, one thing remained constant – his love of teaching. He taught his first private lesson when he was only 14, and has continued to teach in-person and online via Skype ever since because it gave him “a vehicle to pay my bills and maintain my sense of self.”
At SUNY Oneonta, Fleming directs several ensemble groups and teaches History of Rock, which is rewarding because he gets to share his many relevant life experiences. But his favorite part of teaching is the close relationships he builds with his drumming students.
“When something clicks all of a sudden for them and the lightbulbs go off, that sense of confidence and, ‘Oh, I can do this’ – that’s not just about the drums,” he said. “Seeing people struggle and come out on the other side feeling more confident can carry over into all aspects of life. It’s inspiring them to be better people, using music as a metaphor for all of life.”