Ah yes, the percussion section, ever so important to the whole sound of the ensemble and ever so responsible for sounds you rarely want to hear. Talking too much, horsing around, not watching the conductor, not playing in time, etc. These are unfortunately traits of the average student percussionist. But why? We could say it’s just drummers, that’s how they are. But is it really? Are kids born thinking they are the greatest thing since sliced bread and then they become trumpet players? Or are they destined to be trumpet players from the start? But seriously, we usually accept that a student’s personality drives what instrument they choose and so drummers tend to all be the same type of kid. Maybe that’s true, but maybe we are contributing to the behavior in some way, or even feeding it in a direction we don’t want it to grow.
First of all, they are in the back of the room, the easiest place to hide. Second, there aren’t enough parts to go around so many of them have to sit out for an entire tune. While rehearsal is happening on a tune they are not playing on, what’s a drummer to do? While some of these can be solved, basic good behavior should always be expected. But, if they are the rowdy kids from birth who became drummers along the way, it might be a bit difficult to attain that. Here are some ideas to achieve percussive bliss for all…
- Challenge Them. Are they drummers or percussionists? Have you ever noticed when we are talking about them being bad at rehearsal they are referred to as “drummers’ but when we are talking about how proud they made us at the concert they are your “percussionists”? Are you allowing them to be the rock gods that they already think they are, or are you challenging them to be well-rounded percussionists? Giving them expectations on various instruments will help. Many times we give out the tambourine, triangle, woodblock, shaker parts and the kids just “have at it” with little technique or discussion of proper playing style because these are “just” accessory parts. But what’s more annoying than a 16th note tambourine part not being played in time or with poor rhythmic accuracy? It usually sounds like they are rolling the tambourine down the steps. These subtle accessory parts can make or break the ensemble cohesiveness and overall quality. Sure, the snare and bass drum parts are important, but your “go-getter” kids are on those right? But you need to challenge everyone back there. What’s that you say? You’re not a percussionist? You don’t remember the proper technique of every little percussion item you own? See number 2 below…
- Challenge Yourself. Especially if you are not a percussionist, you must remain the authority in the classroom. Did you ever have a fat gym teacher? Didn’t the thought run through your mind that they shouldn’t be making me do this, he or she hasn’t exercised in 10 years at least! On the flip side, who better to get your saxophones to play than a ripping player that you bring in from the outside as a guest artist? The kids are wowed by their ability and hang on every word. Granted, they don’t see them like they see you every day so there’s some aura that the guest artist has no matter what. But, if you can’t play a thumb roll on the tambourine then you certainly aren’t going to get a good one out of your percussion students. You don’t have to be a master of course, but most times, the techniques required for Junior high or High school literature isn’t at a professional level either. Imagine if you were able to bowl them over with knowledge of the instrument combined with a little technique as well. You’ll remain the authority in the classroom. Don’t show them a YouTube video of someone else doing it. That’s an admission that you don’t know anything. And if there’s one thing the drummers will run with, it’s when they know they’ve got you on the ropes.
- Rotate Parts. Customarily we assign parts to the students and we try to be sure everyone gets a shot at each instrument. This is certainly a good practice, but what happens when you only have a 40 minute class period for band or orchestra and you really need to focus on one tune? Anybody who is not playing on that tune has to sit there and do nothing/behave. This is hard for drummers, LOL! Again, not that good general behavior shouldn’t be expected, but can we do something better? It is true that the other instrumentalists in the room have to play the same instrument on every song, so why the special treatment for the percussionists? For one, they’re born that way. They need to be entertained, challenged, pushed, and occupied. For another, it’s human nature, not just drummer nature. If your low brass section had the ability or temptation to move around between songs, sit basically where they want, not play on some songs and be tempted to talk to the kid next to them, text on their phone during rehearsal, they probably would, (and probably do). They’re kids, and humans, we all get that way. Add the personality traits that usually draw them to percussion and it can be difficult to manage. In order to help with this let’s try not assigning one part. If you are fortunate enough to have lessons with your percussionists, it will make this easier. If you don’t, it’s still very achievable. While you certainly want kids to practice their part for proficiency come concert time, if you establish an understudy for each part you can occupy more kids during rehearsal, train more techniques to the whole group and be prepared if someone misses a concert or can’t make a performance. Or, if you find that the parts are easy enough, or should be able to be sight read, surprise them by not assigning parts and rotating during rehearsal. Lastly, you can make it a contest. Have them audition for the parts they want. Sure, your better kids will rise to the occasion and you’re not so good kids will shy away and be lazy and take what’s left over. So you can’t do it with every tune. Be smart about the one’s you try it with and change it up a bit. Between assigning parts, having them audition for them, rotating unexpectedly, you should be able to keep them challenged, occupied, and on their toes while making them better players at the same time.
- Give Them Responsibility. In order to show responsibility one has to be given responsibilities. One of the easiest ways to do this is to make them responsible for having the proper materials in order to be a proper percussionist at their age or ability level. The other students have to provide items for their instruments as well. In most cases it is the instrument itself. Some of the low brass folks, upright bass players and such have an instrument provided for them at the school. But chances are they have one at home, plus, they have to have reeds, valve oil, a mouthpiece, etc. Our drummers usually waltz into class with a chewed up pair of sticks and expect a world of the latest gear to be waiting at their feet. While we could discuss what they should have at home for practice, an easier and less expensive place to start is what they should have for class. You can adjust this by grade level, adding as they get older, but a basic set of proper “tools” should be expected of every percussionist. A mallet/stick bag with drumsticks, yarn mallets, hard mallets, and timpani mallets is a great place to start. Send a request home at the beginning of the year, or semester, just like any other class does. For the other classes they need #2 pencils, a spiral notebook, a composition book, a thumb drive, you name it. The same goes for music. As they get older and more experienced, (and hopefully more serious about it) they can add variations on the mallets and sticks to include different weights, hardness, thickness to accommodate different playing styles. They can get triangle beaters, their own tambourine, brushes, a triangle, etc. Giving them ownership of these items can also help them to not trash the stuff you have spent your budget on.
Require them to manage their music. Chance are they don’t have a folder assigned to just them, there’s a snare folder in front of the snare, timpani folder in front of the timpani, etc. But if you’ve decided to assign parts, they should have their own and be responsible for them. If they are left with a ”community” folder, they can more easily blame someone else.
Have a place where everything gets put away. Not just “those go in the percussion cabinet”, but what drawer do they go in, what shelf? Label them as well. A quick turn with an inexpensive label maker and you/they can quickly identify what goes where. Tape the floor to show where instruments go. This could be more beneficial for younger players, but it comes in handy in high school too. While the timpani, concert bass and marimba might not get moved too much, having an X where cymbal stands, trap tables and music stands go can help a lot. Oh yeah, I said “trap tables”. The more opportunities you can give them for a proper place to play, store and manage your inventory of percussion stuff, the better they’ll treat it. The more proper the equipment the more they’ll respect it. If you can afford a trap table, get one. Yes, you can put a towel over a music stand and make do, but they need to feel important and these little things help them to do so. Incidentally, while it may seem like a small thing, a Martha Stewart kitchen towel with daisies on it isn’t likely to help them respect the equipment or make them feel important or worthy within your ensemble. (Sorry Martha).
Please continue to support your young percussionists. Give them opportunities to impress you. Challenge them, challenge yourself. Remain the authority in the classroom and give them worth. They are really interesting people, even if they aren’t as cool as the trumpets. (or at least as cool as they think they are) J
For more information and tips for successful percussion education contact the Steve Weiss Association for Percussion Education (APE) at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit us on the web at http://www.steveweissmusic.com/category/educational-department.
About the Author
JEFF PHIPPS has been an educator, writer, designer and adjudicator of percussion and various types of music performance for over 25 years. In his present position as Educational Manager for Steve Weiss Music, Jeff is exposed to many different music programs from the elementary school level to colleges, drum corps and professional musicians alike. The ability to see the methods and processes that folks use across the country to bring percussion to their students gives him a unique perspective on percussion education in general. His passion is to help anyone who may feel uncomfortable about percussion to reach new levels of comfort and confidence when teaching their students. Jeff is the Vice President and a founding member of the Mid-Atlantic Percussion Society and resides in suburban Philadelphia, PA with his daughter Leah.
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