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Percussion Teaching Strategies for Younger Beginners by John Leister

Jul 22, 2022, 08:00 AM by Rhythm Scene Staff

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.

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