By Adam Groh

I was recently reading Christopher Wilson’s blog post about developing marimba technique, and it got me thinking (as reading blog posts usually does). I’m not really going to spend much time talking about the content of Chris’ post, aside from saying that I wholeheartedly agree with the necessity of developing good technique through exercises and method books. However, what my mind quickly drifted to was the simple fact that we all talk about how important developing technique on a daily basis is, and I think that most students understand this as well, but how many of us/them actually have the time to make this a reality? I know, I know… priorities. But seriously, we are constantly being asked or required to do more and more things as percussionists. Can we justify putting all of those things aside to practice exercises from MoM for an hour or more each day?

Like I said, I’m certainly not suggesting that we ignore our technical development. Instead, I’m suggesting that we are over-burdened with other tasks which inhibit our ability to dedicate the appropriate time to our fundamentals. Let’s think about it for a minute… How many things should we be doing every single day as “classical” percussionists? Sight-reading on keyboards, doing basic technical exercises on snare drum, keyboard, and timpani, learning solo repertoire, learning repertoire for school or professional ensembles, practicing orchestral excerpts, developing our technique on accessory instruments such as cymbals and tambourine, etc. That doesn’t even count the time that we have to invest in studying scores and listening to the music that we are preparing. On its own, that is a daunting list, and it’s not a stretch to imagine needing 8 or more hours to complete all of those tasks in a given day. Now what happens when we don’t have enough time to accomplish all of those tasks? Certain things have to give. What’s first? Well, the things that aren’t absolutely necessary to our survival (or grades if you’re a student). You’ve got a nasty xylophone part to shed before band rehearsal tomorrow, half a marimba solo to learn for your lesson in two days, and two snare drum excerpts to brush up before an upcoming sub audition with your local orchestra… Or you can take an hour to do Stick Control and MoM exercises. Well, since you aren’t going to get graded or hired based on those exercises, they’re the first to go. It’s not that they aren’t valuable, you just don’t have time for them.

OK, so we’ve established that being a “classical” percussionist requires a lot of time and juggling of tasks, but here’s the REAL problem… What the heck does “classical” percussionist entail anymore? For a number of reasons (which I’ll try to avoid going into), we are being asked to do more and more things that are outside of our specialization. Actually, before I go any further, I’ll have to make a disclaimer… I love all of the different things that percussion has to offer. I try to diversify myself and take as many types of gigs as I can. I try to get to PASIC presentations and clinics that are out of my specialty. I love reading about and listening to jazz, world music, and all the other things that are out there. That said… Somewhere along the line, we lost track of what it means to be a “classical” percussionist. At PASIC this year the CPC held a mentoring day for aspiring college teachers. One of the biggest points of the day was to set yourself apart from other applicants you have to have peripheral interests/specialties. That means that when you are interviewing for a college teaching job for “classical” percussion, the committee is evaluating you on all that that entails… plus whether or not you have experience with marching percussion, jazz drum set and vibraphone, steel band, African drumming, Indian music, gamelan orchestra, Latin music, frame drumming, electronic music/technology, composing/arranging, and anything else that is remotely related to hitting stuff. It’s not just search committees that are expecting this stuff either. There are teachers and studios out there that are spread so thin because they’ve got 6 different percussion ensembles and all the students are trying to learn Velocities while they’re transcribing Elvin Jones solos, memorizing samba patterns on congas, learning all 9 Beethoven symphonies on timpani, and working on marching band music for the football game in a week. It was hard enough to practice technique on the “classical” instruments before all this other stuff, but this is just getting ridiculous.

Like I said before, I’m all for learning about and experiencing as many forms of music/percussion as possible. Jazz and world music have been slowly making their way into “classical” compositions for a long time, and knowing about those things can only lead to a more informed performance. However, I don’t think that it should be the goal of undergraduate percussion students to try to learn about every form of percussion in their 8 semesters. It’s just not practical. It’s also not fair to current or aspiring teachers to expect them to be able to do everything. However, I think there are some places that have this figured out, and those places happen to be some of the most successful programs out there. What’s their secret?

If you want your students to be exposed to multiple things, then you need to have multiple teachers. For example, if you feel like it’s important for students to learn conga technique, then designate a semester for them to study with an expert. Same for jazz vibes, drum set, or anything else. Give them a chance to really dedicate themselves to a limited number of tasks with an expert teacher, and they will get a beneficial experience. When you’re building a house you don’t just hire one “handyman” who knows a little about a lot of things. You hire specialists who know a lot about little things, like an electrician, plumber, carpet installer, roofer, HVAC guy, etc. Why? Because their expertise is worth it and you know it’s going to get done right. Honestly, this “one-size-fits-all” hiring mentality of schools is costing many percussionists jobs. Imagine if every school hired 3 or 4 percussionists? How many more jobs would there be? A lot. Think it’s ridiculous? What about the English faculty? They all have the same basic knowledge, but they get hired because they’re scholars in specific areas. One knows Shakespeare, the other knows 20th Century America authors, another is an expert on ancient Greek writings. Cumulatively they provide a balanced and rich resource for their students. Even music faculties have specialties. Most classical saxophone teachers aren’t asked to teach jazz improvisation. The musicology teachers teach classes in their area of emphasis. The Bach scholar doesn’t teach the 20th century music class. If a school wants to have a steel band, and a percussion ensemble, and an African drum and dance ensemble, and drummers for their jazz bands, and excellent solo performers, and students that are competitive for orchestral jobs, then they need to hire the faculty to provide that type of training and the curriculum needs to be adapted to fit those goals. Students shouldn’t be forced to sacrifice their basic technical advancement because of unreasonable goals that have been set for them. Otherwise we are going to spread ourselves so thin that our talents will be diluted and the integrity of our art will be compromised. When that happens we’ll all be in trouble.

“And that’s all I got to say about that.”

How do you balance your workload, or your students? How do we avoid overload but remain well-balanced players? How long should we wait before developing a “specialty?” Share your thoughts in the comments.

Originally posted on on December 8, 2010 by Adam Groh.


The photo in this post is used under the Creative Commons License: Attribution – NonCommercial – No Derivs 2.0 by Francis Claria on

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