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Strategies for Successful Percussion Students, Part 1 by Josh Gottry

Apr 29, 2020, 08:00 AM by Rhythm Scene Staff

Middle school and high school percussion classes, ensembles, and programs are becoming more of the norm throughout the United States, and anyone who has attended a recent PASIC knows that some of these programs are exceptional. Beyond the level of performance in an ensemble setting, however, the objective of any academic institution is to develop the individual. Be it through large ensembles such as concert band or symphonic orchestra, chamber music with percussion or mixed ensembles, and solo literature in a class or private lesson setting, seeing all percussion students progress from the first time they walk on campus until the day they graduate is the ultimate desire of every educator. 

What are some of the strategies that might allow that desire to be fully realized? This series of short posts over the next few months will address a few tips, tricks, thoughts, and ideas from percussion instructors in a few of the finest programs from around the country.

Every quality program expects both a contribution to the ensemble and regular individual growth on solos, technique work, or etudes. So how are students best able to balance their responsibilities to the group and to their own progress?

Adam Wiencken (Broken Arrow High School): In the best-case scenario, students fully realize that practice and rehearsal are not the same. Practice is what you do on your own to learn your notes, rhythms, and individual parts for whatever ensemble you are preparing. Rehearsal is the time spent to make music with your fellow classmates and colleagues. The “wood-shedding” process needs to happen on an individual level in the practice room, not in the full ensemble rehearsal environment.

To that end, as much as possible, students do best when given lead time in terms of preparation. Supplying them with preferred recordings for concert ensembles and MP3’s for marching ensembles with their music could be a game changer for some, especially for some students who may learn as much from the recording as they would from reading the parts.

Students also need to be honest in their time commitment to practice. Success doesn’t require many long sessions of devoted practice. Instead, a concentrated 30 minutes of practice each day is the most beneficial.

Additionally, go into those practice sessions by first setting realistic expectations. Sometimes the session is needed to diagnose a small section (8 measures, 1–2 lines, etc.) to actually figure out and remedy any problem spots. Then, rather than practicing it enough to get it right once, finish your practice time by maximizing the number of reps to reinforce the “fix.”

Josh Torres (Center Grove High School): The percussion curriculum at my school is designed with this exact principle in mind. A majority of our class time is going to be dedicated to percussion ensemble and concert band music. So, I need them to have practice going on behind the scenes where they focus on their individual skill building. 

We do some of the Brian Zator “Keyboard Fundamentals” in class to make sure that all of students know their scales. But in order to focus on reading, I really try to avoid just using class time as constant exercise development (they get a ton of that in marching band and indoor percussion).

On their own time, they are expected to be prepared on their percussion ensemble and band music. However, the bulk of their practice time focuses on their “End of Nine-Weeks Playing Tests.” Each nine weeks, they are quizzed on marimba, snare drum, and timpani etudes. I give them assigned etudes in 9th grade (so that everyone develops the same skills). Then, the students choose out of collections (Peters, Goodman, Cirone, Ford, solos, etc.) once they are in 10th–12th grade. The students have the opportunity to swap out a solo (of their choosing) anytime. They can then submit video recordings of these or play them live in class. I make them play live twice and let them submit (or play live) the other two times.

Honestly, this curriculum has worked wonders for our program. The students know that they better spend at least 30 minutes a day in a practice room to keep up with everything that is expected of them. That might sound like a lot, but it’s critical for them to develop into the players that we need them to be. Also, there is a similar (or greater) time commitment to homework in all of their other classes—so why not ours, too?

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