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It’s a new school year and, if you’re directing a beginning band class, many of the eager students seated before you will have already decided on what instrument they would like to play. And many of those students have decided on what is likely the most seductive of all instruments – the drums.

But beware: one of the most important decisions you can make as far as classroom management, the success of your band and your mental well-being is concerned, is who you choose to play percussion. A wrong decision can haunt you for years. The right decision will have a positive effect on every aspect of your program.

Clarify your expectations

First, you must clearly decide what expectations you have for your percussionists. Will you expect that they all have a working knowledge of all the percussion instruments? Will the task of playing mallets rest with just one member of your section (a responsibility that often goes to a student who has a piano background)? Will you allow students to focus solely on drumming, without having to learn anything about mallet instruments or timpani? The questions may seem obvious, but the answers must be absolutely clear to both the band director and student alike. (Stay tuned for an upcoming article dealing with the challenges of developing a well-rounded “percussionist” in a classroom setting.) If your vision leans toward developing the “total percussionist”, you must make perfectly clear that the students entering your program are aware of that. Many students may hear the word “percussion”, but the vision dancing in their head is that of a set of drums.

Whichever route you chose to go with your students, the expectations must be clear, supported consistently with appropriate assignments and tests throughout the year. If, ultimately, you decide that 25% of a student’s mark is based on xylophone performance, the amount of time they spend playing the instrument must reflect that.

What to look for in a percussion student

Aside from being someone in possession of the obvious – good rhythmic sense and musical sensitivity – the ideal percussionist must be a serious student, an independent worker, and a good listener who does not crave attention. Of course, these are desirable qualities regardless of the instrument being played. But a percussionist lacking these qualities has far greater potential to ruin your life, and your program, than any other instrumentalist.

Your percussionists must be able to play rock-solid rhythms and follow the conductor lest they throw the whole band out of whack. The student playing that seemingly innocuous four beats to the bar on the concert bass drum wields more power over the orchestra than anyone – including you. You don’t stand a chance against the drummer whose head is buried in the music, who insists on playing at a tempo that has no relation whatsoever to the movement of your baton.

Your percussionists must be motivated, musical and inventive enough to be able to combine and rework percussion scores when there aren’t enough players to cover the parts. (See the article Covering the Parts: Designating a Principal Percussionist for further discussion.)

They must have the patience and self control to be able to sit quietly when they are not playing, because no instrumentalist is left to his/her own devices more often, or for longer periods of time, than the percussionist.

They also, more than any other instrumentalist, must be organized and respectful of the instruments themselves. Too often I’ve visited schools where some instruments have been permanently lost (especially the small, Latin percussion instruments), others are probably around but no one can find them, larger instruments have simply been abused, and the percussion drawers/storage units are filled with broken junk.

In sum, you definitely shouldn’t do what was done far too often in the past: stick the student who you most want out of your hair on bass drum – or snare drum or timpani for that matter.

What you should do is select percussionists that are curious and who have a good academic background.

The selection process

It’s not always easy to persuade students to switch instruments once they have begun playing percussion. Unless the move to, say, clarinet is something they really want, they may feel like they’ve failed, they may feel embarrassed in front of their classmates that they didn’t measure up, or they simply may not want to start catching up on another instrument when all they really want is to continue playing drums/percussion.

So, if you’re in year one of an instrumental music program and don’t know any of the students coming into your class, it may be a good idea not to let anyone play percussion. That gives you the opportunity to evaluate who the best potential candidates are. After a few weeks – or even by Christmas – you’ll have a pretty clear idea whether or not the students expressing interest in percussion are capable of handling the responsibility. And if six students express interest in playing percussion at the beginning of the year, you can tell them that you will be selecting percussionists later, and that your decision as to who gets into the section will be based on their classroom performance up until that time.

This approach offers several advantages. The first, obviously, is that it gives you time to evaluate all the points discussed above. The second is that the first few weeks playing percussion can be pretty slow going. While all the other students in the class are struggling with breath support, embouchures and reading, the percussionists with only the method books as a guide are tapping out quarter notes. Unless there are enough mallet instruments to go around, there is not a great challenge. Even the mallet playing at that level may not engage the students fully. Starting percussion a little later will give the students some understanding of notation, which will help with their mallet and timpani playing, and they should easily be able to catch up to the rest of the class in the method book. The third advantage is that, with the other students capable of more independent work, you have the opportunity to monitor the percussionists more closely, helping to get them off on the right foot.

If you do intend to start your students on percussion at the beginning of the year, you might want to try giving the candidates an audition. See if they can play quarter notes following your beat. Check that they can pick up on new tempos you give them. Get them to play quarter notes with one hand and eighth notes with another. If you intend for them to play timpani, see if they can sing a note that you play on piano.

Conclusion

Percussionists have tremendous responsibilities. They often play the role of soloist, having to execute perfectly timed cymbal crashes, tam tam and bass drum explosions that momentarily draw attention away from anything else going on onstage. They must have a strong rhythmic sense, often being called upon to repeat rhythmic patterns with great precision while remaining responsive to the conductor’s baton and sensitive to how they blend in with the rest of the orchestra. While other instrumentalists share these responsibilities, the percussionist wielding a bass drum mallet has the potential to do a lot more damage to a performance than a single clarinetist.

You’ll want someone, too, who is capable of the maturity and responsibility needed when extraordinary demands are made upon them in the classroom.

However you decide to select your percussionists, it’s a decision not be taken lightly.

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