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Is it any surprise that the beginning percussionist, left to play exclusively from the method book for the first weeks of band class, is unengaged and bored?

Unlike the rest of the class, which is absorbed by the process of learning fingerings, breath control and tone production, percussionists are asked to play quarter notes - and play them slowly. Left to their own devices they'll get a sound by hitting the drum whichever way they want. They learn little or nothing in the way of snare drum technique, and have little opportunity to connect to music in any meaningful way. (I will discuss mallet instruments in a future article. In general, though, the same problem applies. Producing a sound on the xylophone presents no challenge. Unless students are given proper guidance, they will hit the few notes required in their beginning classes without ever learning a proper approach to the instrument.)

Given that resource materials are limited, and that the band teacher is preoccupied with the complicated task of getting a classroom full of brass and woodwind players producing their first notes, it’s understandable that the percussionists might not get the attention they need.

At this point, I’ll direct you to my First Duet for Four Tom Toms , which I hope will engage your beginning percussionists. But there are a number of simple ways to more fully involve your percussionists in the class, and provide them with a richer musical experience right from the start.

Teach technique from the beginning

The first weeks of class provide a valuable opportunity to get your students thinking critically about their technique.

While the brass and wind players are faced with numerous challenges in order to produce their first notes, the percussionists can get by just dropping (or, as is often the case, hammering) the stick into the drum, incorporating a grip that will not serve them well when they begin to play faster and more complex passages. Impress upon them from day one that drumming is more than just banging, that there is a technique for playing snare drum and that developing a functional grip right from the beginning will affect their ability to play well in the future.

Of course, there isn’t a single good way to play the drum. If you are confident in a technique, then during the crucial first classes make sure that your percussionists are focusing on your approach. Otherwise, you may find my article Snare Drumming Basics: Holding the Sticks to be helpful.

No matter what grip you teach, the following points apply to all drumming:

Drop the stick, don’t hammer it into the drum
• Volume corresponds to the height from which the stick is dropped (so don’t hammer in order to get more volume)
• The sticks should move straight up and down. Strokes played from the side waste motion and hinder control
• Shoulders and arms must be relaxed!

Keeping quarter notes interesting

There are a number of things that can be done in order to make the first classes more challenging, interesting and musical experiences. Here are just a few:

• Double stroke the bars of quarter notes: left, left, right, right. As the tempos are slow, they can also learn paradiddle stickings: right, left, right, right – left, right, left, left.

• Teach dynamics. Get the students to play alternate bars of mezzo forte and piano.

(Note on these two points: make sure your students are listening carefully as they play, producing the same degree of volume with each hand and paying attention to all the previously listed points.)

• Expose the students to the auxiliary percussion instruments. Aside from snare drum, they can play the method book exercises on triangle, crash cymbals, bass drum, tambourine, etc.

• Have them play the written passages on snare drum and an auxiliary percussion instrument. (e.g., holding the drum stick in the left hand and a triangle beater in the right, play the snare on beat one and the triangle on beats two, three and four. Incorporate the bass drum into a different pattern.)

• Assign a different instrument to each student and have each one play on a different beat. (e.g., four percussionists might play the bass drum on beat one, the snare on two, the triangle on three, and the suspended or crash cymbal on four.)

• Each percussionist plays the quarter notes on two different instruments, listening for balance and that they’re hitting the instruments at exactly the same time.

• A variation on the previous point: get them started on the drum set, playing quarter notes on the closed hi-hat with their right hand crossed over the left hand, which plays quarter notes on the snare. They can then try playing the left hand quarter notes on two and four only. They can add quarter notes on the bass drum pedal. They can work their feet alone, playing quarter notes on the bass drum and the second and fourth beat on the hi-hat - a fundamental pattern on drum set. (More advanced drummers can combine hands and feet.) If the music contains rests, they can play quarter notes with the right hand on the closed hi-hat and the written pattern with the left hand on the snare drum.

• If you teach the class eighth notes – even though they’re not introduced in the method book until later on – you can introduce the basic rock beat to your percussionists, who can accompany the class playing eighth notes on the closed hi-hat and two and four on the snare.

One could go on and on. There are many creative ways in which percussionists can be incorporated into the classroom. The method book is a valuable resource, but it can’t be relied upon exclusively to provide your percussionists with a musical challenge.

If you have any comments on the above, or some suggestions of your own, please email them in and I’ll be delighted to post your ideas on the site.

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