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Last month, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office finally released its long-gestating Cultural Plan for D.C. The first of its kind, the 224-page document offers an assessment of the local creative economy by quantifying its fiscal impact, laying out the challenges it faces, and offering recommendations on how to address these challenges. The Plan devotes an entire chapter to enhancing cultural spaces, which range from large national museums to pop-up venues where artists can gather and engage with each other and/or the public.
But when it comes to cultural spaces, the lack of proper rehearsal space is one of the biggest challenges facing musicians in the District. For the past two years, 7DrumCity, located in a conspicuously painted, converted row house at 1506 North Capitol Street has served as one of the few affordable rehearsal spaces in the city—offering quality services and equipment for aspiring musicians in the area.
Dig a little deeper, though, and it becomes clear that 7DrumCity—7DC to its regulars—is more than a practice studio; it’s a community hub and conduit for those looking to get involved in the local music scene, embodying the very notion of a cultural space.
7DrumCity began its life as 7 Drum Lessons, which was located at 8th and U streets NW in a building owned by I.M.P.
“We’ve got some of the 9:30 magic in the bones of this place,” says drummer and 7DC owner Miles Ryan, who used the same contractor that renovated the storied nightclub to build out both the previous and current locations of his business.
While the vision for 7DrumCity has evolved over time, Ryan’s core drive is to provide a creative outlet for people living in a city that often fetishizes overwork and leaves little time for simple hobbies. Drumming, as he explains it, holds a special place in music and nearly all cultures, so it presents an effective vehicle to achieve this goal. Just listen to a go-go recording or go to Malcolm X Park on a Sunday afternoon to see what a unifying force rhythm plays in the local community.
“[7DrumCity] is allowing people to lead balanced lives through music,” he says. “The growth of this place is a testament to the need that already existed.”
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Ryan began teaching drums out of his own home in 2011, built up a sizable clientele, and opened 7 Drum Lessons in 2013. Its current home on North Capitol Street opened in February 2017, with a day-long festival featuring nearly two dozen bands.
Isabelle De Leon, who plays drums in Prinze George, Paperwhite, and Lionize, served as 7DC’s marketing director during the transition and worked with Ryan to organize the festival and re-brand the business. Part of Ryan’s goal, she notes, was to create a space of inclusion and diversity. During her time as 7DC’s marketing director, a role she has since left, 40 percent of the students were women.
“Having people like that and spaces like this, it makes you feel more comfortable,” says De Leon, who still teaches at 7DrumCity. “When you’re more comfortable, it’s setting you up for success.”
The building currently has nine soundproofed rooms of varying size with the larger spaces used primarily for band rehearsals and the smaller rooms used for individual practice and private lessons. 7DC provides at least one drumset in each room (two in those where lessons are held), as well as amplification and accessories, like cables and cords, for bands to use. A separate carriage house out back is home to Rock’n Repair, an instrument repair shop that keeps all the gear in working order.
Ben Tufts, who has been teaching in the area for 20 years and plays drums for Uptown Boys Choir, Bobby Thompson, and FuzzQueen, believes the quality of the facility and gear is one of several keys to 7DrumCity’s success.
“There tends to be a tragedy of the commons in most teaching and rehearsal studios,” Tufts says. “It doesn’t do the lesson justice when you’ve got to work with a practice pad kit instead of a drum set.”
Tufts was the first teacher Ryan hired and is one of 15 part-time instructors who offer lessons in drums, guitar, voice, and piano. In order to maximize effective pairings, each office manager on staff takes one lesson with every teacher to get a handle on differing styles. Ryan trusts his instincts when it comes to partnering with instructors, but also has two basic requirements: The teachers must be active performers and have had formal lessons at some point to ensure familiarity with the pedagogy. Though several teachers have music degrees, it’s not one of Ryan’s requirements.
“I don’t have a music degree or a business degree,” he says. “That sort of plays into the culture a little bit because I want it to be a warm, inclusive space, and that includes the teachers too.”
Ryan captains the ship, but 7DC’s leadership also includes an enrollment manager, property manager, and financial advisor. At times, Ryan has also called on close family and friends for their advice as the company has grown.
“A good business has to have its branding, its messaging, and its marketing in order, but for an appointment-based business, you have to create a vibe,” Tufts says. “Miles has done it.”
According to Ryan, approximately 70 percent of 7DrumCity’s students are adults who live in or near the District, which differs from instructional studios in the suburbs that tend to focus on teaching children. The next step was developing a way to get students from the practice room to the stage, which Ryan did in 2016 by acquiring Flashband.
Started by Neal Humphrey in 2011, Flashband provides a process for musicians to find collaborators. Participants first come together for a meet-and-greet jam session where they find like-minded musicians. After a month, all of the bands that are formed come together for a showcase. With Flashband, Ryan not only had a facility where bands could rehearse and students could learn, but also one that could take in a novice and provide a path for someone who is not musical to being in a band on stage.
“It’s a factory for performing musicians,” De Leon says. “It’s an easy gateway into the music community if you’re starting from scratch and have no idea how to get into the scene or how to play a show. That’s a unique thing to offer.”
John Nolt and Jenny Thomas are two-thirds of the local pop-punk outfit Ménage À Garage. They came together at a Flashband event in 2015.
“I saw this guy with a melodica, which was a pretty unusual instrument to bring to a Flashband,” Thomas says of her first encounter with Nolt.
The two joined up with a drummer who was also at the meetup, and soon found themselves playing at a showcase celebrating Flashband’s third anniversary. Based on that performance, they received an invite to perform at Velvet Lounge. Four years later, and with a different drummer, Ménage À Garage still perform regularly around town and received Wammie nominations—D.C.’s annual local music awards—for Best Punk Album and Best Punk Artist/Group. The trio continues to rehearse weekly at 7DrumCity.
“It’s like going to your favorite bookstore,” Nolt says of practicing at 7DC. “You want it to be there because you enjoy it, so we’re going to keep giving [7DrumCity] our money.”
In addition to producing the Flashband events, 7DrumCity engages with the broader music community by sponsoring open mics and performances at Sauf Haus, Boundary Stone, The Ugly Mug, and Songbyrd, while also presenting a series that Tufts curates of one- and two-person acts at the nearby The Pub & The People.
7DC opens its doors once per month for its free “potluck jams,” where people can gather and play with fellow attendees. For bands further along in their development, Ryan has the goal of hosting two showcase events per year, with the last one being held at Union Stage.
7DrumCity is already in the next phase of its expansion to accommodate all this activity by leasing the building next door and adding an additional five lesson/rehearsal studios. Scheduled to open in late spring or early summer, with an accompanying festival in June, the new facility includes a 60 to 70 person capacity performance venue with a beer and wine bar, soundbooth, and lighting by the same person who designed the systems for The Pie Shop, Rock & Roll Hotel, and DC9. In addition to performances, Ryan plans to use the space for group lessons and workshops.
While a new venue is always welcome, it’s 7DrumCity’s intangible qualities that continue to draw people through its doors.
As Tufts puts it, “At a lot of the places I’ve taught at, when somebody says the name of the store, it makes me think of the physical location. When someone says 7DC or 7DrumCity to me, what I hear is a world; it’s a place, it’s a concept, it’s a philosophy.”