Engaging Young Percussionists

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Today’s post is by guest contributor Jeff Phipps. Jeff is the Educational Sales Manager at Steve Weiss Music. Did you know that Steve Weiss has a dedicated Percussion Educational website? The site features Frequent Percussion Questions, School Specials, Videos and more. It is definitely something I wish I would have known about earlier.

Engaging those trouble makers in the back of your band room…

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…

1. 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…

2. 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? They 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.

3. 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.

4. 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).

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The photo in this post is used under the Creative Commons License: Attribution – NonCommercial – No Derivs 2.0 by Kenny Louie on Flickr.com.

Listening Coordination Between Players in an Ensemble Setting

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Today’s post is by guest contributor Simon Boyar. Based out of New York, Simon is a world renowned percussion artist and the owner and founder of Boyar Music Studios in Westchester, NY. An accomplished solo artist, producer, composer/arranger, and educator, Boyar’s talent’s stretch across the music industry.

Listening Coordination

The ability to comfortably hear and respond to multiple voices/ideas during a musical performance: In music, listening skills are everything. We tend to work on them primarily from a personal perspective. However, once listening skills are on a solid path of development from the individual’s perspective we must then begin to consider listening coordination between players on a larger scale. This is something that is not often thoroughly examined. In today’s environment of excellent chamber music writing for percussion, listening coordination between players is possibly one of the most important skills to master. (more…)

Two Hand Bones Rudiments

Looking for a new instrument to add to your arsenal? How about the Bones? This video features James Yoshizawa in an advanced bones instructional video. James is a former student of mine and received his BM in Percussion Performance from the Bob Cole Conservatory of Music in 2009. Since graduation, he continues to work hard making a living in Southern California and plays regularly with the The Katisse Oddsemble.

If you are new to bones, here’s what Wikipedia has to say about the instrument: “The bones are a musical instrument (more specifically, a folk instrument) which, at the simplest, consists of a pair of animal bones, or pieces of wood or a similar material. Sections of large rib bones and lower leg bones are the most commonly used true bones, although wooden sticks shaped like the earlier true bones are now more often used. If metal spoons are used instead, as is common in the United States, this is called “playing the spoons”. The technique arrived in the U.S. via Irish immigrants, but has a history stretching back to ancient China, Egypt, Greece, and Rome.”

James has put together an excellent video and handout describing his approach to incorporating rudimental drumming as a means to strengthen his technique on the bones. I am extremely proud of James and I hope you take the time to check out this video.

Percussion Education Weekly Reads 11/23/14

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This has been a busy week. PASIC 2014 is over and it was great to catch up with everyone. Above is a photo of my good friend Tom Burritt at the Innovative Percussion booth. I am also extremely excited to announce that I am joining the Yamaha Corporation of America as the Percussion Product Manager. I am looking forward to the possibilities this brings me and my family. At this point, I don’t know what this means for my blog, but I hope to continue posting regularly. Have a great week and Happy Thanksgiving.

The Composer of Serial’s Soundtrack Comes Clean about its “Ambiguous Score by Rebecca Greenfield

How to Determine Your Freelance Rate and Get Paid What You’re Worth by Ryan Castillo

When Mistakes Are Good: A Counterintuitive Strategy for Rapidly Fixing Bad Habits in Our Technique by Dr. Noa Kageyama

Percussion Education Weekly Reads 11/16/14

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PASIC 2014 is this week and I am excited to see old friends and meet new ones. If you are going to PASIC, please leave a comment below and maybe we can meet up. There are a lot of great articles this week. I hope these continue to inspire you. Please share your thoughts and articles below in the comments.

Question of the week: What clinic and/or concert are you looking forward to attending at PASIC? (more…)

Episode 028: Geometry Can Help Your Snare Drum Technique

We have all heard about the connections between music and mathematics, but did you ever think it would improve your sound on the snare drum? In this video, I talk about playing zones on the drumhead and angle on your drum sticks in relationship to the drum. Remember to think about the sound you are creating on every instrument you play. If you pay attention to your zones as well as your angles, you will dramatically improve your sound.

Block Chords are our Friends

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How many times have you stepped up to the marimba to work on a passage and it seems like you have never seen the music before even though you spent hours practicing the day before? Well guess what? This happens to everyone including me. It is frustrating and makes you want to throw your mallets across the room. If this sounds familiar, I want you to start incorporating block chords into your practice routine. (more…)

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