RS transparentthe official blog of the Percussive Arts Society

University Percussion Studies: Changes to the Percussionist's Venn Diagram by Dr. Steve Hemphill

Sep 5, 2020, 08:00 AM by Rhythm Scene Staff

With the coronavirus pandemic fracturing the status, structures, and security of many universities, a number of music schools are looking for innovative ways to deliver courses and to re-imagine curricular blueprints. Only time will tell whether new modes of teaching will be temporary, shadowing the timeframe of the coronavirus footprint, or will permanently influence higher education in the way of “best practices” and revamped instructional models.

Either way, this current context is an extraordinary challenge for students of the arts and teachers of all levels as they struggle to balance this “call to act.” Faculty everywhere are grappling with the hands-on and collaborative components of music making, while debating the issue: is this a defeating crisis or a rare opportunity to examine and experiment? Curriculum redesign may be compulsory to navigate current institutional directives and constraints for the forthcoming academic year, but arguments also can be made for inevitable transformations based on a changing landscape in arts education.

Imagine a blank slate on which to design a wish-list curriculum for the aspiring collegiate undergraduate music student studying percussion. What might that percussion curriculum look like in terms of comprehensiveness, inclusiveness, and breadth? Is it creative, adventurous, inclusive, diverse, gratifying?

Perhaps this is an exercise in futility, but revisiting a studio’s offerings and priorities, along with those of the encompassing institution, seems to be a constant expectation in higher education. Without explicit solutions, but with an enterprising spirit, the accompanying graphic (see Example 1: a multifaceted Venn diagram) serves to illustrate the indeterminate set of relationships regarding many of the components often associated with percussion studies. While the illustration surely contains incomplete relationships, it does embrace a kind of audacity in viewing the student’s (or instructor’s) world from a studio-centered brashness, with everything revolving around the percussion instructor’s perspective.

Hemphill Percussion Study 1

Most likely, not everyone would subscribe to the cluttered tangle of instructional domains in this particular Venn diagram as their own conceptual outlook; that is quite reasonable. Each instructor’s unique experiences and attitudes are vital in examining the values and intricacies of a percussion program.

First, you might ask yourself how you would reset the table for your own ideal set of circumstances, if the social landscape was still in a normal state? In comparison to this diagram (Example 1), what would you eliminate or reduce, and what might be missing, for your own programmatic concept? What are worthier priorities and relative correlations of these activities? As an exercise, it can be worth visualizing the components of an “ideal” collegiate percussion world when entertaining curricular modifications. Certainly, it can help to validate your own value system.

The second question concerns a realistic change in social environments and transforming academic structures. With instrument access a severe, even bleak, issue for many percussion students across the country, how can the percussion instructor adapt to this new environment? Perhaps some instructors will find that local circumstances require only minimal adjustments in teaching content while others may be facing an outright overhaul of both instructional content and delivery.

Many institutions are bracing for a dramatic change and are frantically attempting to forecast the needs and demands of a student body. Example 2 suggests an alteration where less weight is placed on the large ensemble experience, as well as potentially less keyboard and timpani study due to instrument access issues. New circumstances may require more engagement in chamber music, music listening, creative work (e.g., composition), research projects, business and entrepreneurship training (but with fewer outside teaching and performance gigs available), and technology, with added emphasis on the study of texts and online viewing of performances. Perhaps more focus on ear training and tuning-related activity may emerge. For many, the recital experience will exist without audiences, compelling more students to explore online streaming, scheduled YouTube premieres, or other virtual platforms. At the same time, other opportunities may increase with accessible virtual conferences and workshops. Certainly, focus on the various instrumental areas will necessarily fluctuate depending on individual student access to instruments.

Hemphill Percussion Study 2

Many of us can recall Ivan Trevino’s 2014 article “My Pretend Music School” (, where he discussed the reasons why schools of music have not “evolved” and ways to counter this perceived resistance. Trevino suggested a required course in audio/visual production to align with online platforms for reaching new audiences (perhaps requiring one less semester of music history), an increased experience in chamber music (perhaps with fewer large ensemble requirements), advocating for the “practical skills” of composing and arranging (perhaps entailing the removal of that last semester of atonal theory), a class focusing on improvisation and creativity, and a required course in Music Business. Do the Covid-19 issues of 2020–21 unlock an expectation of change?

Also in 2014 (edited in 2016), the College Music Society’s Report of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Music Major (TFUMM) distributed “Transforming Music Study from its Foundations: A Manifesto for Progressive Change in the Undergraduate Preparation of Music Majors” ( In the report, three concerns emerged: (a) the subordination of the creation of new work to the interpretive performance of older work, (b) ethnocentrism, with its lack of inclusiveness or diversity, and (c) a fragmentation of subjects and skills. In responding to these concerns, the TFUMM group asked: What does it mean to be an educated musician in the 21st century? The outcome of the report was the advocacy of three core pillars for reform that point to new core skills and understandings. The three pillars—creativity, diversity, and integration—suggested a transformation of these institutional tendencies. Perhaps the Trevino article and the College Music Society’s TFUMM report can serve as motivating and aspirational resources toward an open-mindedness for percussion instructors when confronting the challenges set before us this academic year.

As the academic world speculates on the musician’s job market, and as turbulence optimistically wanes, it is quite easy to see the reactions of creative professional musicians adapting to work in isolation, their reliance on technology and increased integration with online platforms and resources, and creating new opportunities for community connection and outreach. Perhaps this is a time when a curricular re-visioning becomes appreciably more obvious, shining the light on essential talents necessary for emerging musicians: business, technology, entrepreneurial skills, and creativity.

Comparing two Venn diagrams helps to illustrate an approach to instructional redesign, in light of coronavirus constraints and a changing arts environment, both in content and balance. These diagrams invite experimentation by moving the puzzle pieces around and changing their size. Under extraordinary social and institutional circumstances, perhaps some gratification can be found in the challenge of self-actualization and implementation of an ambitious redesign that will serve the student in the best way possible.

Steve HemphillDr. Steve Hemphill, Professor of Percussion and Di­rector of Percussion Studies at Northern Ari­zona University since 1991, earned BM and MM degrees from the Eastman School of Music and a DM from Florida State University, where he was a University Teaching Fellow. Steve’s 35-year teaching career has included the University of Wyoming (Assistant Director of Bands and percussion) and Florida State University (as Visiting Professor). He has been a member of the PAS University Pedagogy Committee, Education Committee, and Composition Competition Committee, and he has served as Professional Adviser to the PAS University Student Committee.

Load more comments
Thank you for the comment! Your comment must be approved first
New code

Search for articles in the blog

Blog Categories

Contact Us

Percussive Arts Society
110 W. Washington Street Suite A 
Indianapolis, IN 46204
T: (317) 974-4488
F: (317) 974-4499