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 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.
WELL ROUNDED VS. PRIMARY INSTRUMENT
Percussion is an amazingly diverse and broad family of instruments. Everything from drum set to marimba, from timpani to steel drum, from triangle and tambourine to djembe and pandeiro are included in the list of instruments high school students will possibly, if not likely, be required to play. How do you balance creating an environment that encourages well-rounded, total percussionists, but also allows for the limited time a high school student has to focus on a primary, favorite instrument?
Adam Wiencken (Broken Arrow High School):
There is always a debate on whether it’s more beneficial to be a jack-of-all trades and master of none or to focus on one element for mastery. Especially in regards to the high-school level and music education as a whole, it’s fundamentally implemented into our program to show competency on all instruments. It’s also important to stress the importance of not only keyboard, snare, and timpani, but accessories. Let’s face it, if you only have three pieces with an ensemble on a given concert, not everyone will have the opportunity to play timpani, but a majority will have to demonstrate proficiency on accessories.
Our approach focuses on two truths: First, don’t fight the natural strengths of any student. Every percussionist is going to have one he or she is more interested in or on which that person demonstrates a higher level or proficiency. Fortunately, however, every instrument can be considered a “crossover,” meaning improving on snare drum directly helps with 4-mallet techniques, etc. Second, especially at the high school level, and in especially smaller programs, everyone has to play everything; this balanced level of competency across the board is crucial to the success of the ensemble. Most students in a program understand the value of elevating the program through their contributions and will embrace this second principle.
Josh Torres (Center Grove High School):
I understand that 75–90% of my students will end their career with high school percussion, but that doesn’t mean they can just focus on one instrument. I view my percussion ensemble course as a class like any other in the building. Just as you might only take French for four years and then abandon it, that doesn’t mean you can skip learning the fundamentals of grammar, spelling, sentence construction, etc. The job of any teacher is to prepare student for the next level (in case they decide that it is their future career field), so it would be irresponsible of me to let my students completely focus on one instrument.
All of that being said, it is also not right for me to deny a kid his or her passion. I try to be very sensitive when it comes to fostering a love for an instrument or an area, but making sure that they have the tools to perform on the other instruments. Here are some general thoughts for students that might help with that balance:
If you are interested in studying music at the next level, it is not an option that you have to be well-rounded. Being an amazing marimba player will only get you so far when it comes to your college auditions. Find the time to improve on snare drum and timpani even if you aren’t as passionate about those.
Be incredibly organized! We’ve heard that before, right? There is nothing wrong with scheduling your practice time out each week. Keep a journal and write down everything that you practiced, need to practice, etc.
Learning how to be a better musician is never a waste of time, whether you intend to pursue a music degree or simply are interested in future outlets in percussion, be that drum corps, drum set with a band or combo, etc. Consider how much playing piano helps you play marimba? It’s similar to how much playing marimba can help you understand music better as it relates to snare drum.
Consider taking two sets of private lessons: one on your primary instrument and one on your other instruments. This will allow you to move ahead on one instrument at the pace you desire, but also move forward on the other instruments.
Adam Wiencken (Broken Arrow High School):
Allow me to piggyback on this one! One thing we do in our program is have students take lessons with one teacher who focuses primarily on the concert side of percussion (All-State etudes, orchestral repertoire, etc.) and then students take lessons with a separate teacher to focus more on a specific skill set, whether that be instrument-specific or genre-specific (marching, drum set, etc.).