Trendsetter: Doug MacKay

Doug MacKay started drumming 50 years ago at age 13. His father, renowned bandmaster Ron MacKay, ran the school band in Truro from the 1970s to 1990s. He played his first professional gig at 15 and by 17 was already on the road playing gigs with bands such as Horse and Oakley.
“We played like everyone else trying to make it,” MacKay says. “The more you record, the more you have to travel and put it out for everyone to hear.”
MacKay would eventually win an ECMA for his performing, but teaching drum lessons was always the goal. While he taught summer camps, he got a full-time start at teaching five years ago when Buckley’s Music, where he ran the drum section, went bankrupt. “I’ve worked steadily ever since,” he says.
Some students are the children of those taught by his father in the Truro school band system. At his home-based studio Drum Education in West End Halifax, he’s teaching the next generation of drummers. He continues to perform, playing with Sounds of Motown, Wayne Nicholson and the Eastenders and other blues bands in the city. “I am busy all the time,” he says.

You learned the drums from your father. What was that like?

He was pretty fair. He was hard on people, too, but I mean he had a great rapport with the kids… I remember doing trips with other school bands and they would always be in fear of their conductor. We would say, “Wow, that’s different. It’s not like that here.” The classes I went to in junior and senior high in the years I was in school band… I think 30 or 40 musicians came out of those years. Jeff Goodspeed, my brother [Ken MacKay]. Most of the guys you see downtown were, in some form, in the Truro band system.

The method you use in your studio is similar to what your father used?

You have to read music. Listening and learn and learning and listening was his thing. If you hear it, you learn it better. I do that here a lot because the kids they listen to the music, they don’t care about reading it sometimes, but I trick them into it.

Who are your students?

They range from a four-year-old to a student who’s 62. I have quite a few adults now, which has changed over the last few years.

What has caused that change?

For a lot of people, it’s something they’ve always wanted to do. People know me from word of mouth and playing with Horse and Oakley, Joe Murphy, so I have the reputation anyway. They know I’ve always taught the summer rock camps. That’s always helped. And Kijiji [laughs].

What do you love about teaching the drums?

The way the kids learn. It reminds me of when I was younger. I write them out parts for songs, which teaches them how to read, too, and you see the look on their face when they finally get to play that song they love so much. I can feel that, too. I felt that when I was their age. Even the adults. I have a fella who hasn’t played for 35 years. In half an hour, I gave him some beats and two weeks later, he’s having a ball.

What do people love about playing the drums?

It’s a fun experience. It’s physical, it’s mental, you get a good workout. People love music in general. And a lot of people love to play the drums. I am guessing it’s something they’ve always wanted to do and never did.

What do you love about playing the drums?

I love it because it’s very physical and I guess mainly the music. It’s always what I wanted to do since I was five or six years old. They gave me a trumpet and I said, “I just want to play the drums.” Then I got a French horn, but I wanted to play the drums. I love it to death. In a way, you set the tone for what’s going on, the drummer sets the time. You
can be very musical yourself, or not. Just groove and feel.

What does it say about you that people your father taught are now sending their kids to you to learn how to play?

My method works. I’ve never had a problem with that or people not wanting to play. I love the fact that it works. I love the fact the kids enjoy it.

Do you keep up on the latest music?

The kids help me with that because I don’t hear it all the time. The modern tunes, the hit tunes from every genre, I get to hear what they are. I noticed years ago when Green Day and those bands came along, that was a big eye-opener for me because I wasn’t paying attention. And all of a sudden these hundreds and hundreds of new songs, some a bit different, some the same, too. It does open your eyes to what’s going on out there.

Is there still a lot to learn?

Oh, yeah. It never stops. You can always improve on what you do. The kids will bring things in they don’t know yet. I will learn it. But you never stop.
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This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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