Your beginning percussion students are progressing well. They can read notes on the staff and play “Hot Cross Buns.” They can play a paradiddle and already have a halfway decent buzz roll. Congratulations! They, and you, have certainly earned a gold star; starting new musicians is one of the most challenging things a teacher can do. (I’ve even had band director colleagues tell me, “If you can’t teach beginners, you can’t teach!”) Where do you go from here?
Are your students succeeding because of the challenges you’ve given them, or are they succeeding in spite of them?
Ask 100 percussionists about their pedagogical philosophy and you will receive 100 different answers. Most of them will involve some combination of technical studies and etudes, spread across the fundamental instruments of snare drum, keyboard, and timpani. But I believe we have a duty to constantly re-assess and re-envision what is the best way to serve our students. In my experience, asking students to jump into etudes too early is generally a mistake. Without an adequately comfortable and established reading process, etudes can be really overwhelming. Always ask yourself the question: are your students succeeding because of the challenges you’ve given them, or are they succeeding in spite of them?
With that ethos in mind, allow me to propose the following conceptual framework for improving your beginning mallet players.
When confronted with a difficult passage, most young mallet percussionists (and many of their directors) believe that their hands (or “chops”) are the primary thing standing between them and success. Much of the time, this is false. People learn mallet percussion music through continuously cycling three steps: (1) identifying the note on the page, (2) identifying that note on the keyboard; and (3) striking that note.
In my experience, even the most rudimentary students understand the fundamentals of step three, but are unsuccessful because they are hung up on step one or two or, more importantly, can’t connect the steps together. The remedy for this lies in developing each step independently, then methodically piecing them together. The fact that we can’t touch our instrument before making a sound is an issue that requires this significant degree of mental and visual development.
STEP ONE: Identify the Note on the Page
A lot of music teachers excel at this step, so allow me to just contribute a couple of techniques. First, don’t underestimate the power of game-ified and technology-based solutions. Apps like “Tenuto,” “Staff Wars,” or “Sight Reading Factory” are great at developing this skill in an engaging way.
Second, use the metronome as a way to compel mental development — not just technical development. For any challenging passage of music, start the students by having them read the note names aloud with the metronome (sans rhythm; just the note names in succession). If they struggle with that, try adding rests in between notes instead of slowing down the metronome, which can have a psychologically discouraging effect. As they get better, you can increase the tempo, but make sure that they are reciting as they read and not reciting from memory.
As soon as memorization develops, move on. This is not because memorization is bad or that you are specifically “working on sight reading,” but rather that any element of memorization means that you are no longer working on step one in earnest. Different skill sets require different growth activities.
STEP TWO: Identifying the Note on the Keyboard
This step can be divided into two parts: (A) identifying any note on the keyboard, and (B) identifying the specific note read off the page. To deepen an understanding of the keyboard layout (Step 2A), apps like “Tenuto” can be a big help, but this is where technology starts becoming less resourceful than an in-person teacher.
Note collections like scales or arpeggios are really helpful in developing the process of identifying any note on the keyboard when used in combination with recitation. Have students work slowly through all 12 major scales and arpeggios, saying the note name aloud as they touch the note on the keyboard, all in concert with a metronome. Their eyes should be on the keys, not restrained to the page. If that is too difficult, alternate saying and touching the notes with a metronome. If that is too difficult, put rests between the recitation and touching the bars. When working through a piece of music, have the students do the same recitation/touching method.
The second half of this second step is the connection from step one. In this case, use the metronome and structure an alternation of reading, reciting, and then touching the correct notes (with added rests if necessary). It is very important that the students visualize the correct note “lighting up” before they touch it to establish that they are visually acquiring the note. Because of this necessity, allowing your students to look down is highly recommended. Using peripheral vision to acquire notes on the keyboard is a much more advanced skill than many give it credit for.
STEP THREE: Striking the Note
In many ways, this has historically been where we, as percussion teachers, feel like we belong as we begin calculating angles and velocities and micromanaging our students’ stroke. But in reality, the students usually just need a little bit of reminding now and then about the fundamentals: keep your grip relaxed, bring the mallet heads back above your wrists between strokes, let gravity do the work, etc. They want to do the right thing most of the time, so try to let them be the masters of this domain unless they stray off course. Your job as a teacher is to create situations where they can exercise this third step while reinforcing the skills learned in step two.
It is not enough to know where a note is; they have to have instantaneous recall. This is why I am a big proponent of even very young students learning all 12 major scales and arpeggios, and then mentally manipulating the source materials in endless variations.
Teach “Green” scales in all 12 keys. Then do it again for all 12 minor scales in all three forms. Next, do all the modes of all the major and minor keys. Continue by inverting the contours, playing everything again off the left, or teaching all of the arpeggiated triad types for every key. Start slowly and don’t go faster unless you are certain that they are visually acquiring every note before striking it. When students try to play a challenging musical passage too fast too soon, the problem is almost invariably their inability to visually acquire the note before they try to strike it, not anything to do with their hands.
This seems like a lot, and it is, but young percussionists are not physically constrained to a few keys in the way that young wind players are. We can play all the major and minor scales straight out of the box. By the end of a month working on mentally taxing exercises, they will be able to instantaneously pick out any note on the keyboard, while in the dark and still half-asleep.
PUTTING IT TOGETHER
To synthesize all of the above information into a new method of practice and development, have the students constantly working in Tenuto or similar activities. Encourage them as they work through technical exercises that involve mentally taxing manipulations. When faced with a piece of music, apply the following process: (1) recite the note names aloud with a metronome (no rhythm); (2) alternate reciting the note names and touching the correct notes on the keyboard (no rhythm), eventually moving to reciting and touching at the same time; (3) strike the notes with mallets while reciting the note names (no rhythm), checking for technical fundamentals, (4) add the correct rhythm, and (5) gradually speed the metronome up.
In my own teaching, I’ve found a great deal of success with this method. Not only does it break down the reading process in a way that allows students to achieve bite-size successes on a constant basis, but once they embrace the idea of mentally manipulating exercises, they become composers themselves. The students begin to see that a lot of music is nothing more than the accumulation and juxtaposition of this tonal vocabulary that they are working through.
There are undoubtedly more ways to slice this problem up, but by outlining the preceding method, I hope that I might spur educators to re-envision how to get their students to be smarter musicians as a method to being better mallet players.
Dr. Brady Spitz is a percussionist, timpanist, and educator based in Houston, Texas. He is on faculty at Houston Baptist University and Houston Community College. Dr. Spitz has appeared with all of the city’s major classical music, chamber music, and musical theatre organizations, maintains regular performances with several large and small jazz ensembles, an active music theatre schedule, and has appeared on stage alongside such artists as Idina Menzel, Weird Al Yankovic, The Who, and Claire Chase. His new ensemble Sonic Boom is working to create a repertoire for organ and percussion where very little has existed before, yielding engagements with the Auckland Town Hall Organ Recital Series in Auckland, New Zealand. Dr. Spitz has given performances and clinics across the United States, as well as performing at the PASICs in 2005, 2008, and as a featured soloist with Hamiruge’s 2009 appearance. The Houston Baptist University Gamelan, under Dr. Spitz’s leadership, made its debut appearance at PASIC in 2019. Dr. Spitz holds a Doctorate of Musical Arts from Rice University, where he was awarded the Benjamin Armistead Shepherd Teaching Fellowship. He also holds a Bachelor of Music degree from the University of North Texas College of Music and a Master of Music degree from Louisiana State University.