The other day during one of my college percussion lessons, I mentioned to a student that with all of the things we need to learn as percussionists, I think there are three things that we should always be working on. I know it is naive to believe that these are the only things to be working on, but if you can continue to improve these areas, you will become more “marketable” as a musician. Student performers tend to think about the next thing they need to prepare for an audition, a rehearsal or performance. We all get stuck in this train of thought, especially in a school setting. Believe it or not, this is also true for the professional musician. With my teaching, family and playing schedule, I don’t have the same amount of time to spend in the practice room as I would like. When I only have a 30 minutes to practice, sometime it is hard to pull out a piece that I am working on for the next concert. I have found that if I maintain these three things, I can continue to grow as a musician and maintain my chops. As I have written about earlier, there are many valid and musical reasons to learn a 15 minute virtuosic marimba solo, but if you get a freelance orchestra gig, they won’t care how well you play Merlin if you can’t read the xylophone part of the show tune your are playing at the Pops concert (especially if there is only one rehearsal).

With that being said, the three things you should always be working on are:

All musicians should spend 15-30 minutes A DAY sight reading. It doesn’t need to be melodic reading (although that it is probably weaker than your rhythmic reading) it just needs to be music you have never seen before (AKA Sight Reading).

Where can you get music? The number one source of free, public domain sheet music is IMSLP.org. If you are not aware of IMSLP, it is the internet’s largest source of free, public domain sheet music. For sight reading, I would suggest starting with Bach or Mozart Violin or Flute Sonatas. If you have someone else who wants to do some sight reading, check out the Bach Inventions. This is just a starting point. There is so much music on the site that I promise you will never read everything.

How to sight read? There are many beliefs about how you should sight read something. Generally, once you play through it once, you aren’t sight reading any more. But, I generally do it a little different. Here are my steps: First, I scan through the music and see what the most difficult part is going to be. That section will determine my tempo. I always use a metronome when sight reading because it keeps me “honest.” Depending on your level, you can use the metronome on every beat or just the down beat of the measure. Once I figure out my tempo, I make sure I check out the road map and key signature and then it is go time. I read through the piece once without stopping. Once I have read through the piece once, I spend 30 – 60 seconds going over the most difficult passage and then I read it once more. Before you say, “The second time is not sight reading,” I know that. I think it is important to improve upon my previous reading of the piece. Once I have read it a second time, I put it away. Instead of printing all of these pieces, I use my laptop and/or iPad to view the PDF. I find that saves paper and I have material to share with my students. I also like sight reading with other people. It adds a level of accountability. Bach Inventions or Mozart String Quartets are perfect for this.

There are many technical demands when playing percussion (I know that is not new information for our readers) and rolls are universal on all percussion instruments and something we need to work on daily to maintain. When I talk about rolls, I am not just referring to Snare Drum rolls (although that is where I spend most of my practice time). I do a regiment of SD roll exercises that include single, double, triple stroke and multiple bounce rolls. (I will introduce the specifics of my SD warmup in a future post). Working on single stroke rolls helps me maintain my timpani and mallet rolls. By working all of these different rolls types at different tempos, it allows me to change the speed of the roll depending on my phrasing and musicality I want to bring out in my performance. I enjoy working on double and triple stroke rolls and working on my fulcrum and grip to make the changes I need to accurately execute the different roll types. I really like the roll exercises in Developing Dexterity by Mitchell Peters and The Roll by Emil Scholle.

In my opinion, developing your ear is one of the most underrated and under practiced areas of most musicians. Working on your ear should be an ongoing, daily activity. (I am not only talking about tuning timpani when I talk about developing your ear.) I am talking about listening and being more aware of what you are doing and what you are hearing.

Here are some suggestions on how to develop you ear:

1) Practice singing intervals. You can use your smart phone and download a piano app and/or a tuning app and incorporate this into your daily practice.

2) Play duets and chamber music. This will help you work on your ensemble listening skills.

3) Listen to a lot of different music styles. It is great to listen to your favorite group, but try and listen to at least one artist during the week that you have never heard. Practice playing with the recording and transcribing the grooves on the album.

4) Practice with your metronome more effectively. I wrote a blog post called Metronome Strategies for Improving your Timing that talks about using your metronome as a listening devise and a timing devise.

5) Go hear live performances and talk about what you heard with a friend or colleague. See if you are hearing the same things that other people are hearing.

6) Videotape and/or audio record your rehearsals and performances. When you are ready to run through something, record it. When you are standing behind an instrument you hear things a lot different than you do from an audience point of view.

The more experiences you have with listening in different ways, the easier it becomes to listen to yourself and others.

These are three areas I think all musicians should continue to develop to be successful. Like I said at the beginning of the post, it is naive to think that these are the only things we need to do to succeed, but these three areas are definitely something to work on.

I would love to hear your input on these thoughts. Please leave your comments below.


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

Dave Gerhart

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