By Adam Groh

It’s August, and that means we’re on the threshold of a brand new school year.  For the first time in 22 years, I am going to be walking onto campus as a full-time teacher, rather than a student.  Perhaps it was a bit of nostalgia that inspired this post, but I wanted to make a list of fifteen things I’d want a brand new freshmen percussion major to know and hear as they prepare to start school.  Some of these are things that I did, and I am thankful for, and others are things that I never thought of, and I’m hoping that you can learn from my mistakes.  Even if you’re not a freshmen, hopefully this list can offer some good suggestions of how to make the most of your academic experience!

1) Your teachers and older peers know more than you do…

We’ve all seen the know-it-all freshmen…  The kid that shows up from the big, fancy high school program, with the well-known instructors, and a ton of accolades.  Sometimes they’ve got the big, inflated ego to go with their generous portion of talent.  Here’s something to keep in mind:  Your professor, and your fellow percussionists that are older than you are, have all been there, and done that, before you did.  You’ve been working since you started percussion to be the big fish in the small pond, and now you’re venturing out into shark infested, open waters.  Remember that your teacher and your peers have a wealth of knowledge and experience that trumps your own.  Rather than spending your time telling them what you know, try asking them for help, guidance, or about their general life and musical experiences.  You’ll gain their respect quickly, and you’ll learn a heck of a lot more this way.  Remember the old saying…

“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” – Epictetus

2) That said, you should fight like hell to catch up!

OK, ok… you get it.  Freshmen don’t know anything.  Is there any bigger cliché?  Perhaps not.  Regardless, one of the best things that you can do as a student is to develop a good sense of curiosity.  You hear your teacher mention a marimba piece that you’ve never heard of.  Go look it up.  Your theory teacher mentions a Beethoven string quartet in class.  Hop online and give it a listen.  Your music history teacher mentions Alban Berg in passing.  Who’s that?  Go figure it out.  This extends past your music courses as well.  If you’re in freshmen English class and you’re discussing famous American literature, take a trip to the library after class ends and check out something by Mark Twain.  The point isn’t to become the smartest person in the world, because even if you do all of those things, you still probably won’t be.  The point is to recognize when certain things continue to pop up, and familiarize yourself with them.  If your theory professor, history professor, form and analysis professor, wind ensemble conductor, and orchestra conductor are all discussing Mozart, there’s a pretty good chance that somewhere in your musical career, it’s going to be advantageous to know a little bit about Mozart.  Otherwise, why would everyone be going on and on about him?

3) Your education doesn’t only happen on campus.

Here’s a biggie…  There’s a whole wide world out there of music to experience.  One of the most important things that you can do is to look for as many different ways to get exposure to new ideas as possible.  Even as a freshmen, start looking for things to do (your teacher and fellow students may have some recommendations).  Things like attending PASIC, travelling to your state’s Day of Percussion and music education conventions, marching drum corps and/or WGI, auditioning for summer orchestral music festivals, attending summer symposiums like the Cloyd Duff Timpani Masterclass, or the Stevens Marimba Seminar, and a host of other great educational and musical experiences are out there waiting for you!  If your studio has a bulletin board, check it religiously.  Look online and check with PAS for opportunities that may exist.

4) Have an open mind about percussion.

The world of percussion is vast.  You might come into your freshmen year thinking you’re going to be the greatest flam-drag fighter pilot that ever lived.  You eat, sleep, and breathe marching percussion, and it’s all you care about.  But, four years is a long time, and the transition from 18 years old to 22 years old brings a lot of change.  While your passion for marching percussion may not wane, acknowledge the fact that there are lots of other opportunities out there.  Be open to the curriculum that your teacher lays out for you, and look for ways to broaden your experiences, not pigeonhole yourself.  For example, when you go to PASIC, don’t just head for all of the clinics and concerts that line up with your areas of emphasis.  In other words, if you’re a marimba jock, rather than spending all of your time geeking out at marimba clinics, mark a couple things on your schedule that look interesting, and completely out of your wheelhouse.  Check out a latin percussion clinic, a crash cymbal masterclass, and a jazz vibraphone session.  The current job market requires us to be adept on a wide variety of instruments, so start diversifying early.

5) Take all of your music classes seriously.

Those of you who have been through a music degree program can probably remember your freshmen professors talking about how your theory and history classes are going to connect to your private lessons, and vice versa.  At first, you just thought that they said that to make it easier to choke down those part-writing homework assignments.  Then… A while later… It happens.  The lightbulb flicks on in your head, and those theory lessons come in handy.  Some simple analysis makes a difficult passage easier to understand.  It’s easy to get overwhelmed with homework and lose sight of the big picture, but you’re not in school to come out the best snare drummer possible.  You’re there to be a well-rounded musician.  Be present, physically and mentally, and prepared for everything from your private lessons to band rehearsal, basic piano class, music education classes, and even those pesky “Gen Eds.”  Speaking of…

6) Take all of your non-music classes seriously.

Many universities have adopted the Liberal Arts approach to education.  Even if you’re not at a self-proclaimed “Liberal Arts University,” many other schools have requirements for classes outside of your major.  Similar to those “pesky” academic music courses, when you’re in the midst of a tough semester, the first thing to slack on would seem to be your non-music courses.  To some extent, I can understand that, and I’ve been guilty of it myself.  But, try as hard as you can to be dedicated to your non-music classes.  Why?  Music is an art, and art reflects the world around it.  It is a response to the political, social, and artistic trends in society.  How do you know what’s going on in society?  Take a course in something seemingly unrelated to your major and pay attention.  That Philosophy class, or Religion class, or Psychology class, or Microbiology class may end up informing a piece that you’re playing.  Read some program notes and you’ll quickly see how many different ideas inspire composers to write pieces.  Knowing about those ideas can help make your performance even more effective.

7) Listen to music.

Seems like an obvious point, but it’s hard to do.  Things get busy when you’re in school.  As a musician, you need to be listening to music.  Not just the same playlist on your drives around town, I’m talking about sitting down and listening critically and with intent.  Find pieces and composers that you aren’t as familiar with, grab a score, and sit down in a quiet place to listen.  Also…  Don’t just listen to percussion pieces.  There’s lots of great music out there that has no percussion at all, or isn’t entirely percussion.  Check it out!

8) Do what you’re at school to do.

If you’re a performer, perform.  If you’re a teacher, teach (more on that later).  If you’re a composer, compose.  If you want to do something, do it.  Go out of your way to find opportunities to do what you came to school for.  Two great things will happen… First, you can make sure your passion is what you think it is.  I know people who were 1,000% convinced that they were going to teach band in public school.  They didn’t make it through their first education class because they hated it, and their observation hours ruined their glamorized version of being a teacher.  The sooner you can find that out, the sooner you can adapt if necessary.  Second, and what I hope happens to you, is that you try something, realize you love it, and spend time gaining valuable experience.  If you’re a performance major, play everywhere that you can.  Get creative and look for venues to play in.  Not only are you training for your career, but you’re building your resume right from the start.

9) Work hard.

College is not easy.  This is not the time to slack off.  You need to be practicing (a lot), studying, and fully investing yourself in your program.  Your future career depends on it.  Impress your professors and peers with your diligence and the quality of your work, because those are the people who are going to help you achieve your goals (or keep you from them) in four years.

10) Don’t forget to have some fun.

At the same time, have fun.  Many of us can attest to the fact that your undergraduate years will be some of the absolute best of your life.  Take time to hang out with friends, go to campus social events, support the athletic teams, stay up late watching movies and playing video games, and enjoy yourself.  After all, “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

11) Become a good communicator (writing and speaking).

Being able to express yourself effectively is becoming a rarity.  Other people, who are smarter than I am, can offer possible explanations on why each generation of Americans seem to be less adept at using correct grammar, spelling, punctuation, and other elements of good writing.  However, just because people aren’t communicating well, doesn’t mean it’s not important.  If I had a nickel for every terribly written student essay question I’ve read, well… Let’s just say I wouldn’t be writing this post.  I’d probably be retired at 28 and on a beach somewhere.  I’m not saying that you have to win the Pulitzer in literature, or that you should be a sought-after speech writer for important political figures, I’m just saying that you need to be able to get your ideas across to others.  Honing your writing and speaking skills not only makes life as a student easier, since you’ll be less stressed about essays and presentations that are coming up, but it will help your professional endeavors as well.  Job applications have cover letters and interviews.  Grant applications, to get your projects funded, require writing.  Grad school applications may require writing samples.  Submitting articles to Percussive Notes and other scholarly music journals means knowing how to write.  Delivering a clear and concise description of a piece before you play it can mean the difference between an engaged audience, and one that is confused and disinterested.  Not only should you be able to communicate musically, but also on paper and out loud.

12) Start teaching.

If you want to be an educator, then this is obviously crucial, as it allows you to develop your teaching methods.  However, even if you’re a performance major, there are very few musicians who can make a living without some degree of teaching.  Offer to teach for free at first, if that’s the only way, but make an effort to get in front of some groups, or take on a few private students.  Helping a student diagnose the problems with their multiple bounce roll will only help you refine yours even more.  Teachers everywhere can attest to all that they’ve learned through working with their students.  Start early.

13) Start buying stuff.

This may seem like a silly suggestion, but I think it’s appropriate.  You will, most likely, receive a list of required sticks and mallets from your percussion professor.  Buy them.  Then, as time goes by, augment your collection.  If you get a band part that requires Swizzle sticks, buy a pair.  A month later you need extra hard xylophone mallets for percussion ensemble.  Order them.  Your teacher suggests a new snare drum method book to work out of.  Get it.  Make investing in yourself a regularly occurring practice.  Save up for those big purchases, like your own concert snare drum, or a nice pair of crash cymbals, but chip away at the little stuff so that when you graduate, and the university isn’t providing the gear, you can still play music.  Your teacher will suggest what he or she thinks you should have, but in addition to a diversified collection of sticks and mallets for all instruments, a graduating undergraduate percussion major should probably own a nice snare drum, tambourine, triangle, a pair of cymbals, and a handful of other accessory instruments.

14) Practice.

Duh.  Practice.  A lot.  Then practice some more.  You’ll hear people make excuses, like the ever popular, “But I’m an Ed major, not a performance major, so I don’t have to be as good.  I just have to know how to teach.”  Hit that person, and then go practice even more.  The only thing that practicing will do is make you a better, more competent musician, which will spill over into whatever you try to do.  It will make you a better performer, teacher, composer, recording engineer, music business executive, musicologist, music theorist, etc.  It also instills those great life-altering virtues like hard work, dedication, self-reliance, problem solving, and more.  In fact, stop reading right now, skip the rest of the post, and go practice.

15) Enjoy the ride!

I alluded to this before, but college is a special place.  Embrace your new home for the next four (or more) years.  Do everything you can to ensure that when you leave it’s with a host of new friends, great memories, fantastic musical lessons and experiences, and confident that you are an even better human being than when you showed up on freshmen move-in day!

Originally posted on DrumChattr on August 17, 2013 by Adam Groh.

Dave Gerhart
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