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On my music and beyond: Notes from a drummer’s underworld

by Teppo Mäkynen

"Music was omnipresent in my home, but when drummer friends older than myself introduced me to jazz, I was properly hooked. I decided that the best drummers play jazz, and thus began an exploration that remains as interesting today as it was when I was twelve."

Music is illustrating the world in notes. Notes can come together to form a composition or a drum solo or can fall apart. But every time the notes create an image of how I see this world and who I am. I have learned to realise that I am a very fortunate individual, because I have music as a channel for understanding and building my world.

When I began my percussion studies with Risto Virtanen at the Salo Music School, I did not have the first idea of how to hold a drumstick. I also could not imagine that holding drumsticks could ever become my profession. But once I got the hang of the basics, it felt natural and fun. I struggled much more with the marimba and with music theory, but despite my lack of motivation I managed to cope with them too. I practiced by marimba lessons on a Yamaha electronic organ, and I scraped through my theory studies mainly by turning up. In the family car (a Lada), we listened to rock on mix tapes made by my father from his extensive record collection. Music was omnipresent in my home, but when drummer friends older than myself introduced me to jazz, I was properly hooked. I decided that the best drummers play jazz, and thus began an exploration that remains as interesting today as it was when I was twelve.

Teppo Makynen C Johanna Hjorth Teppo Makynen C Klaus Elfving
Teppo Mäkynen
Photos: Johanna Hjorth (left), Klaus Elfving (right)

The morning is sunny and calm. I bike to the Cable Factory in Helsinki. I love to ride my bike, even if fighting a headwind is unpleasant. Sport and exercise make me feel whole, which is how I also need to feel in order to make music creatively or to compose. The winter weather is pleasant but dry. Yet these external factors remain irrelevant, because I have arrived in my world, where the colours depend only on myself. I fill up the kettle, and as I wait for the water to boil, I pick up the sticks and strike the first blows of the day. I soon forget everything: the water cools, and the green tea becomes bitter.

When I am making music, I try to relax and not to aim to achieve anything. I let my thoughts flow and orchestrate using the various drums and cymbals. Simple ideas that sound alien are the best. I try to latch on to these motifs and develop them dynamically and rhythmically to create a larger entity. Mostly I do not manage to create the bigger picture I like, but that does not bother me, because eternal challenges are at the very heart of music-making. If I had no challenges, I would stop.

On my bike on the way here, I listened to Deep Space Helsinki on the radio. Its fresh electronic pulse inspires me initially at my drum kit, but eventually I turn to my Pro One analogue synthesiser for something that better fits my thoughts. I find something interesting and begin to build a polyrhythmic percussive texture using the MPC2000 sampler. I listen to how these two elements work together. They create a mood that I want to record, with a bit of added echo.

It is highly probable that no one else will ever listen to this recording; it will simply remain part of the equity of my musical world. Equity that pays dividends in the form of what kind of a musician I will be one day. Not nearly all the music I create is meant to be heard. I enjoy doing things that have no goal and working with disjointed elements – it is all part of the equity-building process. Having said that, it is of course not always enough just to play around with ideas. Every once in a while you have to get something done. In cases like that, music may seem like a chore at times, demanding a more long-term approach and the tools I have acquired in formal music studies. I believe that working boldly and diligently always leads to improvement and to good things. I believe it is a good idea boldly to grasp things that you do not know how to do. “I do what I want” is a better maxim than “I do what I know how to do”. It is 14.20, high time to grab something to eat before lunchtime at the Cable Factory ends. 

Although creating my own music is really important to me, the majority of the music I perform is created by other people. This is partly because I did not want to focus only on my own music at any point, and partly because I am a drummer. I am curious by nature and do not have the patience to stick with any one thing for very long. This is evident in the life cycles of my projects. It is important that I have had and continue to have opportunities to play with many very different ensembles. I have grown as a musician, and my musical horizons have broadened, and of course I make a living by it too.

My income is augmented by grants and a part-time teaching job at the Sibelius Academy. Anyone who wants to live by performing jazz only needs to be involved in several bands or projects. Few bands have a steady flow of gigs all year round, let alone being able to pay a monthly salary. On the other hand, the jazz scene in Finland is considerably more professional now than it was in the mid-1990s, when I joined my first bands. Musicians no longer necessarily have to organise and pay for everything just to get their music heard.


Being a member in a band is a social activity as well as a music-making one – great fun at best but also challenging. I have enjoyed being a member of long-standing ensembles that have slowly evolved over the years. The longer the time you spend together, the better you make music together, and the shared successes and failures create bonds. Trusting your fellow musicians is also very important when performing music where personal courage often produces the most interesting results.

Although I like to express my thoughts on music and can naturally assume leadership of any given situation, I am dependent on the fine musicians performing with me: musicians who accept me and give me the opportunity to add the colours to our music together that I feel are missing from the picture we are creating.

Featured photo: Klaus Elfving
Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi