Drumming Up a Generation of Experts

Mike Lawson • Archives • November 10, 2008

Richard T. Minnotte is the director of Percussion Studies for the Mt. Lebanon School District, located on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. Together with his staff, Rick teaches the finer points of all things percussive from chimes to mallets to timpani to drum set to approximately 200 students in grades four through 12.

Six days a week, and exclusively outside of regular school hours, the Mt. Lebanon High School music facilities are taken over by a hoard of young percussionists, as students from all over the district flock to the high school to take private lessons and participate in non-curricular percussion ensembles. This advanced program is the fruit of Mr. Minnotte’s hard work and vision, first set in motion when he became an assistant band director in the district some 35 years ago. It has since culminated in large high school percussion ensemble performances at MENC in 2006, the National Percussion Festival in 2007, the Pennsylvania MEA Conference in 2008, and a scheduled return to the National Percussion Festival in March of 2009.

Rick Minnotte is a Pittsburgh native. He was born and raised in Mt. Lebanon, where he attended the public schools he now teaches in. His mother was a church musician, and he grew up turning the pages of her sheet music as she played the organ and listening in on her choir rehearsals.

After starting out on piano, Rick quickly gravitated towards percussion, which would later be his primary instrument at Duquesne University, where he earned both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in Music Education. From there, he went straight back to his former schools and set about spreading enthusiasm for his musical passion, building a percussion ensemble.

One might ask, “What’s so important about percussion ensembles?” But the truth is that Rick would be the first to say that the subject matter is irrelevant; it’s how the process of learning that material and developing those ensembles helps the kids grow that’s at the crux of what he’s trying to impart. As he says in this recent SBO interview, “The point is teaching the kids how to be really good at something.”

School Band & Orchestra: When you were growing up, did you have dreams of playing with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra?
Rick Minnotte: I was fascinated with marching band and marching percussion. As a student in high school, I began writing drill and coming up with musical arrangements for marching band. In fact, as soon as I graduated from high school, the district hired me back to write drill because I loved doing it, and there were so few people out there who were into that sort of thing which worked out pretty well for me.

I really never looked into the performance area. Not that I didn’t like to perform, I just never really saw myself going in that direction. I love kids and I’ve always loved teaching. I’ve been teaching since I was a junior in high school, when I started giving lessons to elementary school kids. The band director needed assistance and I was more than glad to help out it was good for two or three bucks an hour. [laughs]

Once I started teaching, I already knew I liked kids, but getting the chance to work with them like that, well, I was hooked. So I went to school for education, did a graduate program and an assistantship at Duquesne in conducting something I also love. At Duquesne, I was conducting the wind ensemble and concert bands, and teaching the marching band methods courses. Then I was fortunate enough to get hired back fulltime by the district I had graduated from, and I’ve been here ever since!

SBO: But you didn’t start out just teaching percussion. Would you talk about the transition?
RM: I was hired as an elementary school band director. That was my first job with the district, and I took it because that was what was available; there wasn’t a position strictly for percussion at that point in time. When the percussion at our program started to grow, I knew I really wanted to focus on that element. Once we got around to building a percussion ensemble, the number of students interested in it skyrocketed. We now have 195 kids in the district who participate in our percussion ensembles.

SBO: Did that initial impetus to have you focus on percussion come from you or from administration?
RM: The administration fought it. They knew long-range that it was going to be expensive percussion instruments don’t come cheap. To hire a fulltime instructor just to do percussion was a little hard to sell to the school board when we used to have one band director doing winds, brass, and percussion.

SBO: So what was your pitch?
RM: We had a lot of kids doing percussion at that time, and all we were teaching them was snare drum, and maybe a little bit of bells. Some people were starting to talk about total percussion, where you learn to do everything. We convinced the district that we weren’t even beginning to get close to where we wanted to be as far as offering choices to the kids.

Mt. Lebanon Percussion At A Glance

Location: 155 Cochran Road, Pittsburgh, Pa.
On the Web:
Director: Richard T. Minnotte

School and Program Enrollment:
High School (grades 9-12): 1,805
Percussion Program (grades 4-12): 195
HS Percussion Program (grades 9-12): 54

Ensembles and Enrollment:
Elementary Honors Ensemble (grades 4-5): 14
Middle School Honors Ensemble (grades 6-7): 12
Eighth Grade Ensemble (grade 8): 12
Fall Freshmen Ensemble (grade 9): 7
Fall Concert Ensemble (grades 10 – 12): 47
Spring Freshmen Ensemble (grade 9): 7
Spring Concert Ensemble (grades 10 – 12): 47
Brazilian Ensemble: 20
African Ensemble: 16
Keyboard Ensemble: 6
Drum Set Ensemble: 5
Drumline: 21
Front Ensemble: 10

Recent Honors & Performances
2002 – Pennsylvania Music Educators Association Annual Conference, Philadelphia, Pa.
2005 – Pennsylvania Music Educators Association Annual Conference, Hershey, Pa.
2006 – Music Educators Annual Conference, Salt Lake City, Utah
2006 – Named a Malletech Artist Ensemble
2007 – National Percussion Festival, Indianapolis, Ind.
2008 – Pennsylvania Music Educators Association Annual Conference, Hershey, Pa.
March 2009 – National Percussion Festival, Indianapolis, Ind.

The Mt. Lebanon school district itself is very progressive in regards to education: we’re one of the top 100 districts in the nation based on SAT scores. So we argued that when you teach math, for example, you don’t just teach algebra, you teach calculus, honors calculus, trigonometry, and all of these other fields, because you want the kids to be prepared for whatever they going to do off in college.

Well, here we have kids who may want to major in music, may want to major in percussion who knows and all we’re doing is teaching them how to play the snare drum. That isn’t going to cut it.

We went to the Fine Arts supervisor and said that we wanted to buy our very first marimba, which in those days would probably cost $2,500 or so, and she asked, “Why would we want to spend that kind of money on an instrument that only one student can play?” So I tried to explain that it’s like buying a piano, a bunch of students will actually get to use it, and it’s a long-term investment.

After a year or two, we got a new Fine Arts supervisor who really understood the concept of what we wanted to do. With his blessing, we bought a marimba. Then we bought another marimba. Then we bought a xylophone. And now we have a full complement of percussive keyboard instruments. Once it caught on and the people were able to hear us play, the program grew quickly.

Some people think of a percussion ensemble as a bunch of people banging drums. But once they hear keyboard percussion, where they can play actual music there’s melody, there’s harmony, there’s rhythm then they get fascinated by it. It’s not just an auditory experience; it’s visually fascinating to see people play percussion.

We started off doing a spring concert series with the standard repertoire for a high school ensemble and that developed into a second night of the concert, and then a third night, because our auditorium only holds 400 people and we were selling it out every night. From there, we started playing some holiday/Christmas music, which turned into us doing a Christmas concert series, and before you know it, the school is getting recognition for our ensemble and of course they love that.

Once the administration saw that they were getting some bang for their buck, they were happy. The kids kept progressing and the program kept growing, and I now have a staff of five that gives the private lessons for me. My staff is comprised of all professional percussionists with college degrees in either performance or music education, or a dual degree with the two. They give about 110 lessons per week to the students, of which there are about 195 total in grades four through 12.

SBO: According to your Web site, back in 1985 you started out with a small group of students. By 1991, you were playing grade IV material. A few years after that, you moved on to grade V material. And finally, just a few years ago, your ensembles began playing grade VI repertoire. What is it that you and your staff are doing that enables your students to achieve that level of performance?
RM: We demand that the students raise the bar every year. It sounds like a corny thing, but we really implement that. Every year’s class is supposed to improve upon what the previous year’s ensembles were able to do.

For so many groups, kids will come back and they’ll want to say, “When I was in the band, when I was in the orchestra, that’s the best it ever was!” We teach our kids that that’s really the wrong attitude. When they come back, if the current group isn’t better than they were, somewhere along the road, we all didn’t do our jobs. We have the kids motivate the future students, the alumni come back and watch, and really, the critical thing for us is the private lesson program. We started off teaching only the high school kids lessons. Then we dropped it down to include eighth grade. Then seventh, then sixth, fifth, all the way down to the fourth graders, which is where we’re at now.

SBO: Are those lessons curricular? How is that whole program set up?
RM: The private lessons are funded by the parents solely, just like you’d go to your local music store and get lessons, but the instructors are all selected by me. They’re not only good percussionists, they’re good educators. They teach the lessons at the high school, which is a centralized building in our district, so it’s easy for everyone to get here. Plus, the instruments are already here.

One of the problems with percussion is that almost none of these kids have a marimba or a xylophone at home because these instruments are too big or too expensive for them to purchase. In fact, none of the elementary schools have any of the major percussive keyboards. Their kids come to our school, work with the high school instructors and use the high school equipment.

SBO: All after school hours?
RM: Right, this happens in the evening. We joke that we work the night shift. The regular workers leave at 3:15, and we start teaching at 3:30. We teach private lessons Monday through Friday from 3:30 to 10 o’clock at night, and then all day Saturday, from eight in the morning until four in the afternoon. I think it’s 108 lessons a week right now that we’re teaching, and this is for kids who are in grades four through 12.

So what’s happened is that we have kept lowering the age of the students who were entering the private lesson system. Whereas maybe before we would only get kids who had a year or two worth of private lessons, we’re now getting kids coming into the high school who’ve had lessons since fourth grade, and they’re playing three- and four-mallet marimba repertoire. They’re playing four-timpani, and all kinds of advanced stuff.

We make each of the students take what we call “departmental” “jury,” I guess is what you’d call it at the college level where once a year, they spend ten quality minutes with the entire percussion staff, during which time they’ll have to play basically an audition of one keyboard piece and one multiple percussion piece or snare drum solo of their choice. After every year when we finish that, we instructors always say, “Gee, I never played this piece or that piece until I was sophomore or a junior in college, and these kids are sophomores and juniors in high school!”

SBO: That sounds great, but how can your students afford these private lessons?
RM: Our percussion parents organization, the Friends of Mt. Lebanon Percussion, has a scholarship fund set up. It’s all done in private, where

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