Beginning Percussionists: Every Teacher’s Dilemma

My district has been doing a lot of experimenting in recent years with beginning percussion. The junior high and high school teachers had been frustrated with being fed lots of drummers from the elementaries. Few of these students had experience with pitched percussion like marimba or even timpani, and all of whom wanted to play snare.

Two or three years ago, we began experimenting at selected schools with having all beginning percussionists learning to play orchestra bells until Christmas. Then they had the option of switching to snare or sticking (ha!) with bells. Last year, that system was expanded to all the elementary schools. We used a practice pad/bell kit like this one.

In terms of numbers, this cut my beginning percussion sections way down, but perhaps too far down. Some students may have been turned off by the bells and decided not to join the music program, some chose a different instrument instead, and some took up the percussion challenge. Among those who started percussion, some have been successful and some have not.

Since I am in year two or three of this program, I am feeling the effects of having very few good advanced percussionists. On one hand, the memory of 13 mischievous elementary drummers standing in the back of the room is still fresh in my mind. On the other hand, at one of my schools, I had no advanced percussionists and had to recruit some of my advanced string players to play percussion in band.

So the purpose in writing about all this is to ask your input on how you handle beginning percussion in your schools. Do you have limits on how many percussionists you will start? Or limits for any instrument? Do you teach bells in addition to snare? Please chime in here (pun intended!) and share your experiences.


14 thoughts on “Beginning Percussionists: Every Teacher’s Dilemma

  1. Steve-

    You MUST read Peter Loel Boonshaft’s chapter called “Percussionists: The missing “peace”?” from his book “Teaching Music with Purpose”. The entire book is excellent, but this chapter ALONE is worth the price of the book. There is just so much good stuff in this chapter on how to keep your back row musicians engaged throughout a rehearsal and practical tips for teaching all aspects of percussion. Seriously- read this chapter for some excellent tips.

  2. Thanks for the tip, Ken. I’ll look for the book.

    As for keeping the back row under control, I’ve always had success with:

    1. Raw meat
    2. Tranquilizer dart guns.


  3. Aah yes, my roommate has the Boonshaft book; I’ve been meaning to get a copy of my own, and the public library doesn’t have one in the mean time. Bah.

    Anyhoo, we do limit our percussion by having the kids fill out first and second choices for instruments; if there are too many percussion (which there usually are), we give kids their second choice so it’s not like we’re not letting them play what they want. Then, they get kits similar to those lined above with bells, snare, and a stand, but also get them on bass drum, “timpani” (an old pair of roto-toms), and a ton of misc. percussion toys. Switching them around form song to song seems to keep them pretty happy.

    By the way, where do you get your darts? 😉

  4. I think your post makes an interesting wider point. During music lessons at a young age we are programmed to practice in a certain rigid way (including the use of a metronome). I’d argue that what we should be aiming for is to fit the practice methods to the result. If the required result is better sound then the metronome is not the tool or technique to achieve this.

    The metronome can be useful but not at the expense of developing ones inner sense of time and rhythm.

    Enjoy your practice!


  5. Hi Steve, I enjoy your blog,
    I wanted to leave you a comment regarding the beginning percussionists dilemma. I’m not in service yet, so I don’t really have any experience to support my thinking, but I thought I’d share one of my own experiences with you.
    I’ve been playing the piano for quite a few years now. When my teacher saw that I was becoming relatively comfortable with the basics of the piano (within my first year of lessons), he suggested that I start learning to play the organ and even offered me some extra time now and then to teach me how to approach it. His thinking was that I ought to become comfortable with the extra musical and physical demands required of playing the organ before I had played the piano for too long. Then, I could slowly overcome the challenges of both instruments, and come out that much more ahead. (It’s been working out great for me, and I’m forever indebted to my teacher for this).
    Because of this experience, I think it is a good idea to have beginning percussionists play bells and mallot instruments when they start. However, I don’t think it’s such a good idea to keep them away from the snare drums or drum kits that they’d really like to play. I believe it’s healthy to get them hitting all kinds of things! Just my 2 cents.

  6. Good post! There are many kids who wish to play percussion and do become great drummers (including very capable jazz/drumset musicians)– but never really master mallet percussion. For years, I followed the “everyone must learn everything” dictum, keeping kids off the “real” drums until several months of percussion purgatory passed. That’s not a bad way to go, building very foundational skills in melodic reading and hand coordination with pads and bell kits before letting them bang on instruments. BUT–in my experience, by late MS and certainly in HS, percussionists have specific strengths and preferences. While all kids can master a cymbal crash or chime part, you will eventually have the wonderful mallet specialist and a couple of ace snare drummers. Not letting them play to their strengths can be frustrating to you and them. You have to deal with hogging certain instruments and parts sometimes, but there’s no point in embarrassing Louis Prima by assigning him the marimba part on “Rocky Point Holiday.”

    One of the ways we addressed the “too many percussionists” dilemma was by passing the word that taking piano lessons was an asset in being “selected” for the percussion section. After a year or two, kids began showing up in 6th grade saying “I heard you had to know how to play the piano to be in drums, so I took lessons.” I never turned anyone down flat (some kids don’t have the resources to study piano before joining the band)–but having some basic skill in melodic reading helped build a diversely talented section at least as much as making everyone get a bell kit. I also “auditioned” kids by having them repeat increasingly complex rhythmic patterns, checking their hand to hand coordination, and asking them to keep a steady beat to various types of music. Some kids decided themselves, after a casual scan, to take up the trumpet or sax instead.

    Now…what to do about too many saxes?

  7. Thanks for speaking up, Jessica and Nancy.

    Both of you brought up the issue of learning more than one instrument but specializing in one. I agree with that approach. In fact, in my pre-college musical experience I wish that someone would have insisted more strongly that I learn another instrument or two. (I play sax, and saxophonists are expected to learn other woodwind instruments.)

    Just to clarify, Nancy, I do take your approach as far as allowing students to play their strongest percussion instruments. Perhaps to a fault, however. I think of one recent 6th grade graduate who specialized in bass drum. I am proud of her for not quitting music when she may have been inclined to. But I hope that her lack of snare skills won’t haunt her in the future.

    Nancy, I also like your thoughts about auditioning percussionists. My only thought is that every instrument uses rhythm, so having a good sense of rhythm doesn’t necessarily make one a percussionist. Maybe this wasn’t exactly your point. But I often have parents come to me and say, “My son is always banging on things. He must be a drummer.” I desperately want to say, “Well, maybe he’s a future tuba player who bangs on things now only because he doesn’t know the fingerings yet.”

  8. I teach at the elementary level and I have a percussion group that learns Orff instruments (marimba) and hand percussion, djembe, conga, and assorted color instruments (clave, guiro, etc). I also teach some simple snare rudiments, (single stroke rolls, double strokes, paradiddles). I buy some of Musicians Friend’s “seconds” drumsticks, and give them to them to keep at the winter concert.

    I mention this because about half my kids prefer drums, the other half pitched percussion. It’s a pretty even split on what they prefer, but they play both willingly. A lot of them have gone on to be middle school percussionists, and the feedback I get from younger siblings/middle school directors tells me over half are continuing music – some as percussionists some on other instruments.

    Is there a way they can learn both mallets/snare concurrently? Can you fit a percussion ensemble in your schedule somewhere? To me, that would seem ideal. My personal philosophy is that if you want them to play both eventually, make them play both to start. Divide them into groups and have one group play one week w/mallet the other group with snare then switch the next week.

    A lot of the elementary schools in my area don’t do it like I do, and they have separate groups one for drum, one for mallet. They’re all better than my group at their respective specialties, but my students are more well rounded, and that I think, is more important than an awesome group.

  9. being a percussionist and performance major and having my kids go thru band, I have to say that I sympathize with the directors, however, I find it disgusting that kids are turned away from the band, just because they have too many drummers or that auditions are held for beginning drummers. Why not hold auditions for all of the instruments?

    My son son was given his second choice trumpet. he still wishes he couldve played drums in school.

    My daughter was denied playing drums in 6th grade even though she brought her own instruments and sticks, the director forced her to play 3 different instruments, she never liked any of them, and he hounded us to buy/rent an instrument even though she already had her drums and bells. She no longer wants to be in band because of the experience. Is this how we educate our band students now?

    her school band director held auditions for 4 spots in 6th grade band and let the 7th and 8th grade students audition for those same 4 spots. The kids were given a two week notice of when the audition was and what to practice.

    letting them start on bells and not a wind instrument seems to be the best way in my opinion, then as they learn the notes and timing let them play the drums, from day 1.there has to be a way of letting the kids play what they want and encourage them to be in band. Turning away kids who show up with their own instruments is no way to handle this situation.

    • Sorry to hear about your situation. A few thoughts:

      1. I can’t speak for your school or the band director, but in my district, a student would be allowed to play any instrument they own or rent. If they are relying on the school to provide an instrument to use (which many in my district do), they are at the mercy of what is available.

      2. The policy of starting students on the bells was an indirect way of limiting the number of students who choose drums simply because they thought they’d be able to get away with not learning to read music. With some students, when they figure out that they will actually have to work at learning to play, they choose another instrument.

      3. As you probably know, any upper level group (college, community band, professional ensemble, etc.) is going to have a limit to the number of players of just about every instrument, including percussion. I know many of my college freshmen schoolmates who didn’t get into one of the university ensembles because they played the saxophone rather than the trombone.

      4. I have directed groups with too many percussionists, and it’s no fun for anyone. The percussionists get understandably bored and then cause trouble, the director shifts away from teaching and has to deal with classroom management, and the other students suffer. One year I has so many percussionists that I created a separate percussion ensemble, keeping only 4 percussionists in the Concert Band.

      I hope your daughter will somehow keep music in her life, and have more positive playing experiences in the future. I know many outstanding musicians who became great DESPITE their school music experience. Best wishes!

      • This is exactly what I am dealing with. I have students who cannot afford to rent/buy an instrument, and in my district we cannot obviously force them to buy anything, so they are at the mercy of what the district has to offer. We let 5th grade returning band members have “priority” and then the rest of the instruments are “raffled” off to the other people who wanted to be in band. Students put down their 3 choices and a lot of people want to do percussion because it is the cheapest option. I have a class of 15 4th/5th grade percussionists. The classroom management problems are huge, and they cannot sit still and constantly are pecking and playing when they shouldn’t. It’s enough to drive anyone batty. But telling students they couldn’t play anything and having crying students and angry parents complaining about why their students cant be in band makes you want to just let everyone play percussion.

  10. A lot of these problems stem from young students wanting to be “drummers” and only “drummers.” When they hear that they can sign up in school to be a percussionist, they’re thinking that they’ll be a rock star and all they’ll be doing is playing snare drum and drum set. If you wait too long before introducing mallets, they’ll be turned off because it’s not what they envisioned.

    In my experience, the best way to prevent this drop out event is to address it from the very beginning. When you screen students or have them try out different instruments at an instrument petting zoo or similar event, be sure to stress the fact that they will be percussionists and they will be playing marimba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, drum set, etc. We’ve gone so far as to say, “you will be playing percussion instruments the majority of the time so if you’re only doing this to be a rockstar, you should take private lessons.” It can come off as a bit blunt at the time, but students and parents then actually understand what it’s about and know what to expect going in to it. Furthermore, putting that disclaimer out there has never hurt our percussion enrollment numbers and actually improved our percussion retention numbers.

    Something to think about as it’s worked really well in my district!

  11. I am a second year teacher who is also experimenting with the balance of snare and bells. Unfortunately, my district has me working in a position where I teach in one building grades K-6 where I teach band, chorus and all general music classes. This leaves me minimal time to work with the few students I have. Our 5th and 6th grade levels across the district used to be in one building where music thrived. Students received instruction four out of five days a week. The district has now spread these grades across four of the elementary schools with one music teacher in each building. I only see my percussionists, starting in fourth grade, once every six school days for 30 minutes.

    90% of the time we spend on snare, but we always revisit the basic concepts of bells. I also use electric pianos to reinforce band concepts in the general music setting, building cross-curricular connections within my content instruction. To meet the immediate needs of the middle school above my elementary school, I alternate between two lesson books: Breeze Easy and Essential Elements 2000. I have done everything I can to maintain enthusiasm with my seven total percussionists, including finding performance venues where these students can play, no matter how small. The school, community, and district are always supportive of performances put on by our young musicians. This gives students a greater purpose besides reaching the next page in the method book. They experience the rush of performing and become self-motivated to learn more difficult repertoire, even if it happens to be that next page in Essential Elements.

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