RS transparentthe official blog of the Percussive Arts Society

  • Running a Private Teaching Studio by Erik Barsness and Josh Gottry

    by Rhythm Scene Staff | Aug 30, 2022

    Having been active as private percussion teachers for over 50 years combined, we have seen both the challenges and the joys of running a private teaching studio. Countless numbers of students have met with us weekly over those years, and many are still active in music, both as hobbyists and professionals. But as much as those students have learned from us, we’ve learned from them, about music, about teaching, about communication, and about the logistics of being successful in running a private studio. This article will highlight the why, who, what, where, etc. of those logistics in the hopes that it may serve those of you who intend to make a private teaching studio a part of your professional activities.

    Why teach privately? First, as professionals and educated musicians, we have a knowledge base to pass on that can significantly benefit the next generation of percussion students. Just as you benefited greatly from your music teachers, your knowledge, experience, and insights could now be shared with your potential students. Private teaching also provides a steady source of income, certainly more consistent than most gigging activity, and can assist in broadening your professional network. 

    We each started teaching well before earning an undergraduate degree as a means for a little income and a way to process and solidify what we were learning in our own studies. Growing that side activity into a significant portion of our professional freelance business was a natural result of the many benefits that came in teaching. Learning to teach is just like learning to play; it does take time and practice! However, the sooner you start, the more experience you get, and you can quickly discover if you enjoy doing it.

    Who is private teaching a good option for? Any musician can potentially be a private teacher. Freelance musicians benefit greatly financially from the steady income stream at typical “non-gigging” times, and students of professional players benefit greatly from the real-world perspectives and experience. School music teachers can also augment their income by teaching outside of school hours (when the students are available for lessons anyway) should they choose to use their music and educational training in a one-on-one setting.

    If private teaching is a good option for you, who might you teach? Teaching a beginner is much different than teaching a high school student preparing for college auditions. Teaching a fifth-grade beginner is much different than teaching an adult beginner. Teaching a drum set student is much different than teaching a total percussionist. Different students require different lesson lengths, lesson times, and practice expectations. Different students have different equipment needs and materials and require different skill sets and relationships from their teacher. 

    Through experience (the sooner the better), you can evaluate whether you like variety or consistency in your studio, whether you work better with kids or adults, and if there are certain instruments or skills that you most enjoy teaching. You will teach best and be most content setting yourself up to teach students who learn how and what you like to teach!

    Before you can teach, you need to find students, and there are numerous options for doing so. Start by networking with local middle and high school band directors. Connect by email or at state percussion or music educator events and offer to present a clinic or recital for their program and students. Make sure you are also active within these statewide organizations such as your state chapters of the Percussive Arts Society and National Association for Music Educators. 

    Many band programs and youth orchestras distribute recommended private teacher lists; getting included on these lists can be a great way to get your name publicized. Connect also with other percussion private teachers, particularly successful ones with limited space in their studio schedule. Getting a referral from another private teacher is a great starting point for recruiting students already interested in lessons. 

    Once you have a few students, make sure you encourage them (and their parents) to tell others about your services; referrals from current and former students and families are easily the most effective way to expand your studio.

    Where do you want to teach? Lessons can be taught at music stores, on school campuses, in the teacher’s home or studio space, or at the students’ homes, and each of these has its own pros and cons. At a music store, the facility is provided and the store often handles much of the paperwork and lesson fee collection. The disadvantage is that they often also set the rate (minus their cut), and lessons are typically in a small space where drum set may be the only instrument option. Lessons taught at a junior high or high school, or through a college/university prep program, have the advantage of facility and school equipment provided and, as with music store lessons, the fee collection and paperwork is likely handled by the school or program. Again, however, you likely can’t set your own rate (and you do pay a fee for the use of that facility and equipment), and scheduling can take a back seat to school needs and potential conflicts, especially during heavy performance weeks or months. 

    An at-home or personal business studio allows you to set your own rates and scheduling, provides the convenience of being at home or close to it, and the ability to use your own equipment. However, the cost of the equipment and facility are yours, and all paperwork and financial elements are your responsibility. Teaching lessons at the student's home also allows for you to set your own rates and scheduling, but has added driving time, requires you to teach on the student’s equipment, and again all paperwork and financial elements are your responsibility. Knowing which of these pros or cons are a best fit for your priorities and abilities can help you determine your best teaching environment.

    What equipment do you need? This depends on what you intend to teach. If you teach drum set only, two drum sets and playback equipment should suffice. If you teach beginning percussion, a snare drum (and/or pads) and a small keyboard instrument are appropriate. If you teach pre-collegiate total percussion, you’ll need a quality concert snare drum, drum set, large keyboard instrument (possibly more than one), timpani (or a reasonable substitute), hand drums, and small accessories, as well as playback and recording equipment. Each studio and teacher is inherently different, but appropriate equipment is vitally important to providing quality lessons.

    What materials will you use? If the materials you teach with are simply the materials you learned with, you're doing a disservice to your students. Strive to find materials that clearly present the concepts and techniques you prioritize. Select materials that are age appropriate. Consider student cost, but not as your only priority. At the same time, respect composers, publishers, and your students enough to have them buy their own materials rather than copying yours. Continue to explore new literature and methods for use, and talk with other teachers about what they are using successfully.

    For specific recommendations on either of these areas, please feel free to reach out for the specific equipment and materials we each use in our teaching studios.

    Unless you are teaching lessons as a community service, you will be charging for your professional services. In determining your rates, find out what other music teachers and music schools charge in your area and start by charging just a little less as you get established. Make a clear plan to raise your fee slightly at regular intervals (once a year, every other year, etc.) to keep up with inflation and your own cost of living. You will also need to determine whether you are billing families weekly, monthly, quarterly, or based on a semester schedule. Require payment in advance and document each payment immediately (two ways, if possible, to help ensure accuracy). Maintain records diligently for tax purposes (even cash). Collecting payment by cash and check is free to you, as is Zelle and Venmo. Credit cards and PayPal are ways to accept digital payment, but do incur a small fee.

    Make sure you have a clear and public policy for cancellations and absences. Consider following local school policies for weather related cancellations. Review area music school and private teacher make-up policies, then customize your own based on that research. Online lessons can be a great option for make ups, but regardless of your policy and process, try to make up lessons instead of giving credits; don’t give money away! Also, be sure to document attendance at lessons in a way that you can go back to and understand clearly in case there is a dispute on payments or credits in the future.

    … the paperwork? If teaching was just about spending 30–60 minutes one-on-one with a bunch of percussion students, this would be easy! It is important that you set up systems to help you be efficient and organized with the logistics of running a private studio. Consider online forms (e.g., Google forms) for gathering information. Make sure you have email templates for communicating with families, and utilize Google Drive, Sheets, Docs, etc. for distribution of materials. Make sure you have a database of contact information — phone number (for last-minute calls or texts), and email — for all current (and former) students. 

    Create a system that works for you for tracking income and expenses. This includes mileage, instrument and equipment purchases, utilities and rent payments, etc. This is a business, so there are numerous tax implications, and having an advisor work with you to ensure you are conducting your business legally, but taking advantage of all credits and deductions, is vitally important. 

    Make sure you have an online presence (website, social media) for your studio, and consider creating an email address just for lessons. However, use social media with discretion (avoid posting pictures of students or student names without explicit permission), make sure any digital communication with students includes parents as well, and use blind carbon copy (bcc) on all studio communication to avoid sharing addresses in group emails.

    Every musician at some point does or should seriously consider making private teaching a part of his or her music career. There is much to consider when doing so, but the benefits are plentiful, and most private teachers consider it one of the few consistent pleasures within a freelance career. We hope these tips and suggestions are helpful, and we encourage you to reach out to ask additional questions as needed. Best wishes on navigating the process of running a private teaching studio!

    Erik BarsnessErik Barsness actively performs throughout Minneapolis/St. Paul including theatre shows, dance companies, orchestras and choirs, and churches. He performs with the Minneapolis Pops Orchestra, the Minnesota Percussion Trio, and CRASH, and will be touring this upcoming Fall and Spring with the Copper Street Brass. Erik maintains a private studio of about 45 high school-aged students throughout the Twin Cities metro area. Erik was the recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship and received his master’s degree from the Royal College of Music in Stockholm, Sweden. For more information, visit or email him at

    Josh GottryJosh Gottry is a respected educator, accomplished percussionist, and internationally recognized composer who has been working with, and creating music for, the next generation of percussionists for over 20 years. He has served as part of the music faculty on college and university campuses around the Phoenix metropolitan area, works regularly with ensembles and students at all grade levels as a clinician and within his private lesson studio, and his performance record includes professional orchestras, musical theatre, worship teams, jazz combos, community and chamber ensembles, as well as solo performances and recitals. Gottry is an ASCAP award-winning composer whose works have been performed at universities, junior high and high schools, and multiple national conferences, and he currently serves as editor for Rhythm! Scene. For more information, visit or email him at

  • Percussion Teaching Strategies for Younger Beginners by John Leister

    by Rhythm Scene Staff | Jul 22, 2022

    Over the past decades, I have received an increasing number of requests for drum lessons for students ages five to eight. While I used to refuse this age group, I now accept younger students, and the growth and energy is inspiring. If you are a studio teacher looking for teaching strategies, here are a few that work for me. 

    We begin each lesson facing each other or sitting side-by-side with a mirror in front of us. (Mirrors are incredible teaching tools!) Either way, the student can copy my hand position, wrist stroke, sticking, and posture. Note: If we face each other, I play the opposite hand of the student. We use the 4-3-2-1 warm-up (four strokes with each hand, followed by three strokes with each hand, etc.) as well as a fun “call-and-response” game. I am the leader, and then I ask the student to be the leader. We incorporate single strokes and stick clicks, we play on the rim, or we stomp our feet. Often, the students invent their own sounds and strategies. In week two, we move up to 5-4-3-2-1, etc. We play to a recording, so students develop listening skills. I choose songs that tie in with the time of year, or I choose songs with great grooves. In addition, I ask students to find songs that they like for the following lesson. 

    One of the first things I teach is the “ba dum ching” beat on the pad, drum, or drum set. Students are nervous at a first lesson, and laughing helps us all to relax a bit. (I tell them one or two jokes and ask them if they know a bad joke. If they don’t, it becomes part of their homework for week one.) Why did the chicken cross the playground? To get to the other slide

    I ask students if they count in their school music class. If they do, we start by using their system so that they are successful immediately. (Ta’s and Ti-Ti’s / 1, 2 + / Du, Du-De / Pear, Apple). Over the course of time, we move to numbers. I am a big believer in the “write it – say it – play it” process when learning rhythms. For beginning snare drum, I use Drum Class Method Volume 1 (Alfred). The pacing is slow and thorough. It prepares students to be successful in the school band setting as well. 

    I begin by asking students to play single strokes and to copy me. We start playing right away! I bounce a tennis ball on my pad (and drums) to remind students to play with a relaxed bounce. I use the HingeStix to show students how to make a fulcrum with their thumb and index finger. I have reminder words like “big pizza” (the angle between sticks should be like a big piece of pizza), “flat hands,” “it’s not polite to point,” “tennis ball,” “mouth puppet,” “side by side,” and for the buzz roll: “smoosh the bug.” I teach matched grip so that students are holding the sticks the same whether they are playing drums or mallet-percussion instruments.

    Leister Early Perc Image 1

    Younger students benefit from movement and changing modalities during lessons. We spend approximately five minutes as we move from station to station. I teach my youngest students in a church, so there is plenty of room for movement and for a variety of instruments. My stations include: pad, bucket drum, hand drum, snare drum, drum set, marimba or vibraphone, walk and clap, and white board.

    The “walk and clap” is an area where students arrange rhythms that I have written on file folders. They can mix them up to try and “fool the teacher.” Since I use about eight folders at a time, the students can walk as they clap and say the rhythms. For fun, we also count the rhythms “backward” and read from right to left. 

    Leister Early Perc 2

    The “white board” station is an area where I have small white boards (8.5 x 11 inches) and small dry-erase pens. Students write a rhythm, write their initials, and then we say it and play it. Each student leaves their white board so that other students can play each other’s creations each week.

    Leister Early Perc 3

    I teach the rock beat with two hands at the first lesson. I ask students to play four notes with one hand. I ask them to add the other hand on the third note. If this goes well, I ask them to add beat one on the bass drum. If this doesn’t go well at first, I model, and then I chunk the groove (teach it in sections).

    At lesson two, I introduce two-beat grooves that I have written on index cards with large, colorful markers. When students are successful with two-beat patterns, we put the cards together to create a four-beat groove. I have eight pages of combinations of these two-beat grooves. Each page has six grooves so students can move from one page to the next each week. Moving up levels is motivating for all. 

    Leister Early Perc 4

    Play-along tracks are important, especially with the School of Rock approach and the ensuing parent videos on social media. I use charts that are plentiful online such as “We Will Rock You,” “Billie Jean,” “Knock on Wood,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” and others. I use YouTube for recordings because students can adjust the playback speed to 75% or 50% of the original tempo. Favorite books include Simple Songs/The Easiest Easy Drum Songbook Ever (Hal Leonard), Alfred’s Beginning Drumset Method (Alfred), Drums for Kids (Hal Leonard), and Realistic Rock for Kids (Alfred).

    I have a wooden box that students stand on so that they can reach the keyboard. We start by having fun playing glissandi and other sounds. Students love to make the sound of dreams with the vibe pedal down and the motor on. I introduce the C with the phrase, “The C is to the left of the two black notes.” (We use a piano or keyboard first, then move to the marimba or vibes.). Once they know the C, I ask them to play other Cs, and in time we move to the C major scale. I remind students not too play the C too often. (Because they can get C sick—seasick). For reading, we use Garwood Whaley’s Primary Handbook for Mallets. For improvisation we start with the B-flat blues scale with one of the backing tracks on YouTube. We will start improvising with just two notes and gradually add notes to learn the entire scale. I teach double stops in thirds, and this allows us to play beginning harmonies to pop tunes. This way, students can play with their favorite pop songs. 

    Whatever I teach, we use these two strategies often. One of my favorite reminders is, “You have to crawl before you can walk.” We slow things down for students to be successful. We also use the “disappearing credit card.” I cover up part of the measure with my credit card, so we only learn beat one. I shift the card to the right, and we learn beats one and two. When rock solid, I move the credit card to uncover beats one, two, and three. 

    I write down a four-beat rhythm on six different index cards. I put the cards on a table. I clap one rhythm, and the student chooses the card that matches what I clapped, sang, or played. We keep score, and at the end of the game, I give the student the cards so he or she can play them at home with parents, siblings, etc. With this game, the student becomes the teacher at home. 

    At the end of lessons, my students love to play the “fast/slow” game. While I sit at the drum set and play various tempi, the students walk, gallop, or run around the room to match the speed of my drum groove. Sometimes, we switch roles, and I walk or run around the room. Free cardio!

    After learning about each student’s likes, I often write a short rap tune to recite while they play a rap groove on bucket drums, hand drums, or on drum kit.

    For bucket drums, we use the book Bucket Blast (Hal Leonard) that has fantastic play-along activities. I often have enough buckets so parents can join in as well. (I have the child teach the parent.). also has great resources!

    I have a “Rhythm of the Week” game and, for older students, a “Rudiment of the Week” game. These are short examples that students sightread at some point during the lesson.

    I use Mega Bloks and I write rhythms on them so that students can create rhythm sentences. We say them and play them and then mix them up to start all over again.

    Leister Early Perc 5


    I encourage parents to sit in on every lesson. In this scenario, they see their child’s progress, they see my instructional strategies, and they can ask questions at the end of the lesson. Sometimes I ask them to create a short video of their child’s lesson highlight to send to relatives. 

    Students get such positive feedback from appropriate and low stress recitals. I schedule two per year, and I often start with a snare drum duet, so that students have my support on the first piece. They typically move to a solo on the instrument of their choice. Some choose snare drum, some play drum set, and others play marimba or vibes. We have a printed program and always conclude with a reception and group photo. 

    It has been such a pleasure teaching younger students! Please send ideas, strategies, and games that you use to me at Thanks for reading! 

    John Leister is a graduate of Juilliard, the University of Illinois, and Rutgers University. He has played behind artists such as Metallica, Paul McCartney, Sting, Bruce Springsteen, and Renee Fleming, and he has served as a sub for six Broadway musicals. John taught instrumental music for 18 years and was a school principal for 12 years. John has returned to his first loves: performing and teaching. He is a band director at the Montclair Kimberley Academy, and he has performed in the last year with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra, and the American Ballet Theater Orchestra. John’s greatest teachers were his three children.

  • The Private Studio: Ideas for a Productive First Lesson by Carlos Ibarra

    by Rhythm Scene Staff | Jun 29, 2022

    This article is specifically geared toward first-time teachers preparing for their first beginning percussion lesson. The goal is to set a foundation for both teacher and student, while providing a structure for the first lesson. I hope to help identify general student needs, the focus of a first lesson, general tips that can help motivate the student, and provide a brief lesson outline. Whether you are a teacher who is starting to teach beginning percussionists, or a collegiate student looking for some guidance, I hope this resource can provide valuable insights.

    One of the most important things we can do as educators is assess our students’ needs and create a plan to address these needs in a positive manner. There are several ways to do this, but one of the most common ways is to set up a time to meet or have a quick phone call with the student’s parents. In this conversation, it is important to ask the right questions. Some of the questions to ask the parents include: How is Sarah and is she excited about percussion? In what ways can you see Sarah struggling and/or succeeding with music? In what ways have you seen Sarah learn more effectively? Does Sarah have any instruments at home?

    Some of these questions might seem simple and straightforward, but they can be great conversation starters that can lead to some insight into your student’s attitude and experience. It can also be valuable to have a similar conversation with the student’s director or school music teacher, as they have been around your student longer and have experienced them in a classroom setting.

    Lastly, set some time aside at the beginning of the lesson (included in the outline provided) to get a feel for how the student feels about music and how committed he or she is. Using the first few minutes of a lesson to truly build a connection with your students can help develop trust and honesty and can lead to motivating them in the long run. Doing just one of these things: talking with parents, teachers, and the student offers insight you wouldn’t have prior, but a combination of all three is highly recommended! 

    This will vary depending on the student’s skill level which you would assess prior to the first lesson, but assuming the student is a beginner with very little experience, the focus should start with the setup of their practice pad. Making sure that students are aware of how their stand/practice pad correlates with their body is very important because it can help eliminate bad practice habits. During the students’ turn of teaching the concept back to you, try to incorporate as much positive feedback as you can to keep the students’ interest and motivation high during a seemingly mundane task.

    After the setup is complete, we can move on to the next step, which is to go into detail of how to hold the sticks. It is within this step that we are around the halfway point of the lesson. This might be the point where the student starts to lose interest because of the fundamental aspects of the lesson. To help keep the students’ attention, make many obvious mistakes when they are teaching a concept back to you. This will not only help keep the students’ attention but will allow them to have a different role in the lesson for a while. 

    Try to keep playing a priority in the lesson. Make sure your students are playing a lot in their lessons once the logistics of setting up is completed. Although in the very first lesson there might be more conversation about setup, grip, and technique, make it a priority to have the students playing as much as possible. This will help especially if the students are not necessarily practicing much outside of their lesson time.

    Play for your students from time to time. Although this might not sound productive, you never know what inspiration you can create for your students once they see firsthand what is possible with consistent practice. This, in the long run, will motivate and drive your students to practice or play more.

    Whatever attitude you bring is the same attitude you will receive. We all have bad days from time to time, so take a few minutes before each lesson to make sure you know what attitude you’re bringing. If you’ve ever had a lesson with a teacher who just wasn’t in it or just seemed apathetic at times, that probably affected how you acted to some extent. Try to be the motivation and excitement that you want from your student that day.

    The last item that will be included will be the outline to your first lesson with a beginning student. I suggest you use this outline as a rough draft that you can adjust to each student’s needs. It is important to note that this is just a guide, and the times for each of these individual activities will vary!

    Get to know your students and their goals with some quick questions at the beginning of the lesson (5 min). “What do you like about percussion so far and what don’t you like?” This will give you the opportunity to gear the lessons in a positive direction. If there’s a specific area your student doesn’t enjoy, focus on making that the fun part! “How much time can you practice each day, and do you know how to practice?” This is a very important aspect of the lesson because rarely do you see young students practicing efficiently. Setting some time aside after or during the lesson to talk about practice strategies will be very beneficial.

    Teach the appropriate way to set up a practice pad and stand (5 min). Make sure your studenta know how their posture, body, and hands relate to their stand and pad. One thing that’ll help with solidifying their understanding is to have them teach it back to you! Do this 2–3 times and then move on.

    Provide direction on holding the sticks with proper technique and how to strike the practice pad/drum (15 min). Try to start away from the practice pad or drum so the student doesn’t “accidentally” start playing! This will also be a great time to have them teach it back to you and to discuss the anatomy of the stick. When introducing the actual stroke, make sure to emphasize relaxation of the grip and what areas in the arm are moving. After the first few strikes, and once you see that the student is comfortable with the concept, introduce the metronome. Require that whenever they’re playing, they have to have a metronome on. From here I suggest introducing simple exercises such as “8-on-a-hand” or “Countdown” so they can have something to practice.

    End the lesson by incorporating games that you can both play together (5 min). This can function as a reward for all their hard work in their first lesson. One game I suggest is having a cup with small pieces of paper with RH (right hand) or LH (left hand), then shaking the cup to see what combinations you end up with. Whatever combination you get, make them play it with the metronome to see if they can do it without messing up! 

    I hope these ideas will help you structure your own first lessons. Whether you use these specific ideas or alter them for your own needs, remember that the first lesson sets the tone for private study and a little planning goes a long way.

    Carlos IbarraCarlos Ibarra is pursuing his MM degree at the University of Oklahoma, where he studies with Dr. Andrew Richardson and Professor Emily Salgado. Ibarra holds the band GA position at OU, where his responsibilities include arranging and composing music for the drumline and pit while overseeing their rehearsals. Ibarra also has a private studio based in Chickasha, Oklahoma focusing on beginning and intermediate students. Ibarra has spent extensive time in the North Texas and Southeastern Oklahoma, area where he has taught private lessons, masterclasses in percussion, and various high school drumlines and percussion ensembles. Ibarra earned his bachelor’s degree in Percussion Performance from Southeastern Oklahoma State University, where he studied under Dr. Marc White. He plans to pursue his DMA in the near future. 

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