How to Build a Percussion Ensemble

Mike Lawson • ChoralPerformance • November 1, 2003

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Involving your school percussionists in band and orchestra can sometimes be a difficult task. Certainly there is a great deal of literature that utilizes a lot of percussion, and that music should be performed both for the sake of artistic integrity and for your percussionists to be involved with playing some meaty parts. But at times, the percussion section is often neglected due to the style of music being performed (i.e., a Bach chorale, symphonic music that does not involve a lot of percussion, etc.).

There are ways around this dilemma and it is possible to include your percussion section in these pieces. But so many times, and at all levels, the percussion section is left out, so to speak. While conductors are working on clarinet intonation, a difficult technical passage for the saxophones, balance in the low brass, etc., the percussionists are idle and often bored.

Those pieces that do involve a lot of percussion keep them happy and audiences enjoy watching your percussionists run around playing everything under the sun. But let’s face it: there is a lot of time in rehearsals where percussionists just sit around doing nothing.

The advent of the school percussion ensemble has been an outlet for those percussionists to have their own band, an ensemble they can call their own. Just percussion – melody, harmony, rhythm, color, foundation. The music focuses on their talents. I would like to discuss a few ideas that have helped in my school percussion ensemble program which have made our percussionists happier, better musicians and more cognizant of all that is happening in music, especially during those idle times in band rehearsals.

The school percussion ensemble is an excellent opportunity to get your percussionists involved and showcased. Some of them might be bored elsewhere, but the percussion ensemble allows them the freedom and outlet to explore, develop and nurture their percussion skills and love for music.


Whether your school has a lot of percussion equipment or a little, a percussion ensemble can work for you. Obviously, the more instruments you have, the more options you have for music selections to be performed. Percussion ensemble music is written for the typical band room full of snare drums, bass drums, cymbals and timpani. You can also include xylophone, bells, marimba, vibes and chimes. More instruments, such as drum set, hand drums (congas, djembes, bongos, etc.) can and are used as well. Lastly, percussion accessories, such as tambourine, cowbell, claves, woodblocks, etc., are used. Which of these instruments do you already have? What don’t you have yet, but could plan on adding in the next year or two? All of these instruments are used in typical band, orchestra and jazz ensemble music. Perhaps there is some marching band equipment that could be put into use for some percussion ensemble selections.

Percussion ensemble music is written for either drums only, accessories only, mallet instruments only or any combination of these. Percussion music also includes non-traditional percussion instruments such as paper bags, flower pots, brake drums and even your percussionists’ bodies. Your creativity is your only limit. With the popularity of the Broadway hit “Stomp,” school percussion ensembles are playing on broomsticks, garbage cans, Pringles cans, floors, walls, each other…


Once you have determined what instruments you have, you can then begin to select music for your ensemble. My percussion ensemble performs a variety of music. We are fortunate enough to have a great deal of percussion equipment, including many different sizes and styles of drums and many mallet instruments as well as steel drums. I try to program and select music that covers a wide array of both style and instrumentation. I will select music for a large ensemble, medium ensemble and smaller groups, such as quartets and trios. This variety keeps our concerts more interesting and provides each student with different ensemble experiences. I involve every percussionist in both our large and small works. Every student is involved, but not necessarily involved in every piece.

Almost every musical style can be performed by a percussion ensemble and all of these styles are available in printed percussion music. Swing, Classical, Baroque, Jazz, Latin, Avant-Garde, African, Minimalist, Rock, etc., can all be easily conveyed with percussion. Many different ethnic styles and cultures can be explored, discovered, taught and studied through percussion.

There are many sources to find music. One of the best I recommend is to find a colleague who is a percussionist. They will have many ideas for music and will probably also have music for you to check out. State music manuals provide a wealth of information and many are graded according to difficulty and categorized according to the size and instrumentation of an ensemble. Many music publishers offer a separate percussion section or catalog from which you can select music. Music retailers provide detailed information in their sales catalogs for grade level and instrumentation for percussion ensembles. A wonderful sourcebook written by Thomas Siwe, titled “Percussion Ensemble Literature,” provides a wealth of information on composer, style, instrumentation, number of players, difficulty, style, etc. Check out the Percussive Arts Society Web site at for additional information and help.

Performing music that your students write and arrange is a fantastic way to add music to your library while developing their writing/arranging skills, helping them to become more aware of ensemble, balance, timbre and rhythm. The pieces don’t need to be long as some percussion ensemble music is. Audiences, parents, and the school administration all love to hear music that originated in their school, and it is a wonderful way to improve your percussionists’ understanding and musicality in a new manner. Perhaps you have a student in your music department who enjoys composing. Consider having them write a piece for your ensemble. Writing and arranging is also a way to get around not having the “right” instruments for a particular piece of music. You can write for the instruments you have – both the typical and not-so-typical percussion instruments. Our students’ involvement in writing has resulted in an original CD recording and two of our students have been published by an outside publisher. There is also much more compositional activity by students in our music department for festivals and contests.


Your plate is probably already too full. How in the world are you going to find time for one more ensemble? I have found that making and sacrificing to find the rehearsal time has produced greater results in our music program because of the teamwork, dedication, and music playing opportunity for our students. It has made our music suite a happier place!

Our percussion ensemble has grown into an ensemble that not just percussionists participate in. If other non-percussion students are willing to learn and are dedicated to putting forth the effort, and if they are keeping up in their academic studies as well as their studies on their major instrument, I will allow them to participate.

Options for rehearsal time vary. We have our rehearsals immediately after school once or twice weekly for 45 minutes. The equipment is already set up from band rehearsal and students are already in the school building. As time and necessity allow, we will run some lunchtime rehearsals. We still leave enough time to eat after the rehearsal. More often, these lunchtime rehearsals are for the smaller groups, such as quartets and trios, or for a select mallet ensemble or for a sectional. Our band lesson program is scheduled in such a way that every three weeks, our lessons are large group sectionals. Some of the time, we will use these sectional lessons to work on a particular piece or two from our percussion ensemble music. If we have a large event coming, such as a festival, performance or competition, we will add a Saturday and/or evening rehearsal(s). I have found that by being flexible around a core rehearsal time and keeping a great deal of communication and dialogue with students, parents and administration, we have ample time to learn the music we need to.

I don’t have my “star” players play all the best parts, nor do they always play the same instrument. Everyone in the ensemble must learn mallets, drums, accessory percussion and hand drums. Some of the non-percussionists do not have to go that far however. Each piece, just like in band rehearsal, involves different students playing snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, timpani and mallet instruments for each piece. It provides each student with a different experience, provides for visual variety for the audience and keeps each student musically balanced and accountable.

Scheduling what will be covered in rehearsal proves invaluable for making the most out of precious rehearsal time. I list what pieces we will be rehearsing and in what order. In some cases, I will also list the section of the piece we will be rehearsing. This way, the students can get their music in order as well as pull out the necessary instruments they will need to make the appropriate set-up so our rehearsal time isn’t spent looking for instruments and music. Students know ahead of time that they need to have all these items in order and ready to go once rehearsal starts.

Rehearsing the larger ensemble pieces first, and then the smaller pieces at the end of rehearsal allows for those students not in a particular piece to leave if they need to once their piece is over. Often, with smaller ensemble pieces, students make additional time on their own to rehearse. By being efficient and considerate of the students’ time, our rehearsals pay off for the group as a whole and I have found that their attitude and work ethic have improved.


Each year, during one of our concerts, our last piece is a mass (somewhat organized) free-for-all improvisation. Typically, I will begin with a riff, pattern or groove on one of the many instruments on stage and one by one, the student percussionists join in. We practice this sort of group improvisation from time to time to allow the students the freedom to explore and have fun. And what a great tension reliever! I don’t let the students just go off on their own. This group improvisation needs form and structure. We discuss these elements before, during and after our improvisation rehearsals, and as the year progresses, the students really catch on and produce wonderful and fun results.

During the final piece in our concert, once the students have all begun the improvisation, we invite interested (and brave!) audience members on stage to join us. We provide extra percussion instruments, and myself and students help them along with rhythm suggestions and a quick “how to” play their particular instrument. We continue the improvisation, keeping our ears (and eyes) wide open for what will come next. Typically, everyone follows my direction from what I am playing, conducting or signaling. We have had times of unison rhythms, breaks, short solos from the participants and more. It is an exciting and fun way to end our concerts. Audiences look forward to it!

Interesting music and involvement provides the percussionists and audience with a rewarding artistic experience. Perhaps having a district-wide concert that involves other percussion ensembles from other elementary, middle and high schools in your district would be a good chance to showcase the talent and uniqueness a percussion concert can bring. Intersperse soloists between larger percussion works. This provides the student a chance to perform that festival solo they have worked so hard on and gives the audience another opportunity to hear music they might not normally hear.

Is there a university or college percussion ensemble in your area? Perhaps another school near you has a percussion ensemble. Joining forces for a joint concert and one combined piece allows for a great concert experience. This also helps fill up a concert with enough material in case your percussion ensemble has only a couple of pieces under its belt.
If your percussion ensemble has only one or two pieces learned, adding these pieces to your band concert is an excellent opportunity to bring your percussionists “out front.” Do you have other small ensembles in your music program? Have a whole concert dedicated to small ensembles and include your percussion ensemble.

The school percussion ensemble is an exciting place for your percussionists to make their own band, develop their own voice, experience and explore the opportunity to grow musically and learn teamwork and discipline. Audiences love percussion. They love to see what they are hearing and there is no more visible instrument in the school band today than percussion. Treat your audience and students to a whole new world of exciting music.

Joel Smales is director of bands at Binghamton High School’s Rod Serling School of Fine Arts in Binghamton, N.Y., where he conducts two concert bands, two jazz ensembles, a marimba band and steel drum band. He holds music degrees from the Crane School of Music and Binghamton University. As a performer, Smales is active in the upstate New York region, where he performs with the Binghamton Philharmonic Orchestra, leads his own percussion quartet and plays drum set and jazz vibes regularly in the area. He has performed on over 30 CDs encompassing jazz, pop, country, folk, audio books, as well as for television and commercials. His published works include percussion solos, ensembles, method books and a recently completed text, “Teaching Music at the Secondary Level,” all published by Phantom Publications, Empire Music Company. His high school percussion ensemble has been selected to perform at the 2004 Bands of America National Percussion Festival and the MENC National Conference.

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