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What’s Good for Drummers is Good for All

Josh Harris • November 2010 • November 5, 2010

Jason Walsh: The key is to evaluate one’s circumstances in a realistic fashion. Schedules, equipment, resources, and overall program goals will define a great deal of both the establishment and progression of the ensemble. Once you define those things, you can create a plan for working within the system to grow the program as a whole while creating a viable and productive ensemble. I also believe in designing the program around specific skills instead of specific pieces or performance opportunities. This helps train the ensemble and set standards for the techniques involved. It is also helpful to create an identity for both the ensemble and the sound you want to achieve. That way, you create a comfort zone for you and your students because they know what sounds you are trying to achieve.

Matthew McCready: Organization is key. Specifically, it’s important that percussionists continue to meet the demands of the other ensembles they participate in. If a student is in our program as a percussionist, he or she is involved in at least one aspect of the percussion ensemble program, so there’s really not a recruiting process, other than the 5th-grade recruiting we do for all band classes.

Mark Stone: I feel the key to a successful program is investment and commitment to the activity from all involved; performers, instructional staff, parents and band administration. It also takes serious investment in both equipment and time. The other key is the vision of the person in charge. My program is the result of the vision of my long time caption head and talented instructors. It’s also important to keep things in perspective. The indoor ensembles can and should be an important part of our programs, but it must be kept in the right place. I like to say that the indoor program is a beast: you can either ride it, or it will ride you!

Rick Minnotte: Most importantly, you must have a band director that is supportive of creating a separate ensemble for the percussionists. As we all know, percussion is expensive, loud and requires a large amount of space to store the instruments. In most schools, additional funds, practice facilities and storage space are all fairly limited. Given these challenges, the idea of creating a percussion ensemble, when there might not even be an existing brass or woodwind ensemble, can be a difficult sell. At Mt. Lebanon, we solved these three issues by:

1. Creating our own parent group, separate from the traditional band booster organization, to provide funding.
2. Scheduling all of our rehearsals and private lessons after school hours or on weekends.
3. Transforming little used spaces into a percussion studio/storage room.

SBO: What are the primary benefits to the overall music department of such groups?

Jason Walsh: I have found that percussion ensemble has affected every aspect of our program in a positive way. The marching band/drum line has benefited from the students enhanced rhythmic knowledge. The concert bands and orchestra have benefited from the students ability to listen effectively for balance and phrasing in an ensemble setting. It also helped the students’ overall self-confidence, composure, and logistical awareness in performance situations.

Matthew McCready: We are producing a higher level of percussionist, which in turn raises the overall quality of any ensemble they are a part of. Not to mention the fact that the students in the ensemble become great ambassadors for the band program and Fine Arts department. Whether they are involved in jazz band, orchestra, jazz choir, concert band, marching band, pep band, or pit orchestra for the musical, well-trained percussionists can have a large and positive impact on a music program. We often use a smaller version of our drum-line to go out and perform on a rotating basis for our 13 elementary schools and the various assemblies that they have. In addition, the percussion ensemble sometimes plays for community events when it may be inconvenient to send a whole band. Moving just 10 or so of these students and their equipment seems to always please and it gives the audience a great bang for their buck.

Rick Minnotte: Quite simply, the more a student plays, the better he or she will become. While private lessons will always be an essential element in any successful music program, knowing that you will have the opportunity to use your developing skills in a performance ensemble provides the student with a compelling reason to practice. The more the student practices, the better musician they become. In the end, all of the performing ensembles in the school benefit from the increased talent of the students. A win for the individual student and a win for the overall music program!

Mark Stone: Because of the national stage, our percussion ensemble offers the program notoriety and the opportunity for the students to continue a competitive program through the second semester.

SBO: How about for young percussionists how do these ensembles help improve them?

Rick Minnotte: Most beginning percussion students start with a snare drum (with the prerequisite rubber head cover so that their parents don’t call and ask why their son or daughter must practice at home) and maybe a small set of bells. Initially, the child is all excited and beats (I’m sorry, I meant plays) on the rubber pad and learns their first few patterns on the bell set. But then, they come back to school and hear their friends playing actual songs on their trumpets, flutes and clarinets. Now all of a sudden, that pad and limited set of bells is not quite as exciting as they thought. As time goes by, it can become even less so with a resulting decrease in practice time.

This is where the percussion ensemble can come to the rescue. Just seeing and hearing the many and varied instruments that we as percussionists get to play is exciting to most of the students that I have taught. To realize that your “wonderful” practice pad will eventually turn into a snare drum, concert tom, timpani, and that your tiny bell set will evolve into a full sized marimba/xylophone/vibe, gives a student hope. Then to hear that percussionists can, in fact, play music all by themselves (without all those pesky winds and brass) causes self esteem to develop. The student realizes that percussionists are musicians, too (despite what their wind and brass friends, and maybe their band directors, say).

And it is not necessary to have lots and lots of keyboard percussion instruments to have a percussion ensemble. We started off with one 3-octave marimba, a set of bells, an old beat up set of vibes and a set of chimes. Even without that limited instrumentation, a percussion ensemble can still be created using empty boxes or cans and accessory instruments such as triangles, tambourines, shakers, and so on. The idea is to provide the young percussionist with the opportunity to “see into the future” and realize that there is life beyond their practice pad and bell set. Most of us fell in love with percussion due to the unimaginable variety of sounds that we were able to create. By creating their own sounds, your students will become hooked for life, just like the rest of us.

Mark Stone: The ensembles give the members an opportunity to perform and achieve on the highest level. Rarely in our lives do we have a chance to say we were part of the best not the best in the city or state, but simply one of the best. It also gives the parent boosters the opportunity to share the experience with their children. I think this is an aspect that is often overlooked and undervalued.

Matthew McCready: Percussion ensembles have the potential to greatly improve students’ technique and performance skills. Here at Union, by necessity we have very large band classes. Small ensembles provide the opportunity for students to be individually and personally responsible for their performance.

Jason Walsh: This activity is great for young percussionists! It teaches them great skills for musicianship like listening, phrasing, and confidence. It does this because it moves them to the front of the room instead of the back and usually they are playing solo parts. This increases their confidence and their ability to relate parts to each other. The biggest thing it does for me is that it gives me a chance to work with individuals and see how they are progressing and what they need work on which is invaluable.

SBO: Do you have any specific tips for making the student experience during percussion ensembles a positive one?

Rick Minnotte: With the youngest ensembles (grades 4-7), concentrate your energy on making it a fun experience for the kids. I have seen directors insist on trying to play music that was too difficult for the students and that ended up turning them off instead of turning them on. Let the students enjoy making new and different sounds, as well as the thrill of playing with others. Once they become hooked, they and their parents will be more interested in private lessons. Then their technique and music reading skills will begin to expand fairly rapidly, and the difficulty level of music they can perform will increase naturally.

Jason Walsh: I think educators should be willing to try anything! The only thing I try to avoid is being stagnant in all of those areas. I want to be willing to try anything! Then assess what is most effective to create a plan for that specific group. Each year, the students have different ability levels, personalities, and so forth. I need to meet them on their level, create music from that level, and then hopefully raise it a notch or two. The thing I am most apprehensive about is losing my ability to connect with the students. The connection between student and teacher is where success is born and nourished. Once that connection is lost, it is difficult to rebuild.

Matthew McCready: I am constantly trying to improve the use of our student’s rehearsal time. Try to stay open-minded to the concept that a percussionist may reap more benefits from working in a percussion ensemble during part of band class than sitting in the back of the rehearsal room while tacit on a piece.

Mark Stone: You need to deal with the competitive nature of the activity and always teach positive competition and sportsmanship. You also need to have a good understanding of the students’ capability and design the program to match their potential skill set and the capability of the design and instructional staff.

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