Percussion Lessons That Work

Mike Lawson • Performance • November 16, 2011

I am a musician who is a percussionist, plain and simple, and in that order. Yet, how I interact with my instrument and make my music is different than, say, the wind or string instrumentalist. Perhaps because percussionists strike to create sound, we, unfortunately, have many traits that do not encourage our musical sides. Those areas need to be addressed, as well as the technical issues that arise from how we generate our sound.

I’ve done numerous clinics and masterclasses all over the country and what always amazes me is that the longer I’m in this field and sharing my knowledge with others, the more I find myself saying just about all of the same things! I’m sure this fact is true for many people, but for percussionists we have such a unique way of approaching our instruments that it almost breeds a bunch of problems, or “pitfalls” as I call them. And we need to address these at an early age or they can become habits that are very hard to break.

Let’s get one thing straight: these issues are not always our fault. It’s just part of who we are and how we play; but they are our problems to deal with and address so we better be aware of them and have them on our immediate radar to avoid falling into the trap of keeping them going.

In most cases, what we do isn’t rocket science; it’s actually quite simple. Simple things unfortunately are hard to get engaged with and what happens is that often the student loses focus because of this lack of depth. I’m not saying there aren’t a lot of things in this craft that are specific, deep, and take a great deal of concentration and ability, but what I’m about to talk about doesn’t fall into that category. Addressing the following areas will make a huge difference when it comes to performance; unfortunately the concepts behind these ideas are obvious to everyone.

What bothers me is that if the things we need to do when we play are so obvious, then why aren’t we doing them already? I do have an answer. It’s because our instruments are what I call “instantly gratifying” which means that if you hit it, it doesn’t sound that bad. Where are the months of trying to get an okay sound on drum, say versus a French Horn? It doesn’t happen for us. Anyone can hit a drum and make it sound okay, even from the first hit. So then, why should I practice to make it better sounding when it already sounds fine? Our problem is that fine isn’t good enough; we need it to be great. If we haven’t really needed to pay attention to our sound and the way we interact with our instruments then our attention to that interaction and sound is probably non-existent.

Lesson 1: Pay Attention to What You Are Doing, Always

This may seem simple, and it is. We have to be an active participant in what we are doing because if we aren’t, we then have no gauge or way of comprehending how we are playing. This makes it hard for us to change what we are doing when the musical need arises. You’d be amazed at how easy this is, but since we don’t really have to, we never do. Have your students answer questions about what they are doing. For example, “Tom, that was a good crash, but I want it a little dryer sounding, can you do that for me?” Tom now needs to know what kind of sound he just made, how he got it, and how he can change it.

Some percussionists might argue that it takes too much extra concentration to do this, but it actually doesn’t. It’s just something that we are not used to doing and when you start asking yourself what you are playing and how it sounds/fits with the rest of the ensemble, it’s actually quite easy. It’s like opening a door that’s always been there, we’ve just never noticed it because the door has always been closed. Once we get the ears turned on, it takes little if no extra focus to assess our playing.

I have a saying that goes: “Your answer to the next three questions should be the same – What do you want to do? What do you think you are doing? What are you doing?” You’d be amazed at how much we can do when we start paying attention to our actions and listening to our sound.

The remaining lessons represent more of my “Greatest Hits,” the suggestions that I use the most and, quite frankly, affect a student’s playing in a drastic, dramatic, and all-encompassing way. I adhere to these points myself and I teach all my students to do the same and I encourage you to try them and see what positive results they can bring.

Lesson 2: We Rush, So Don’t Rush

We rush, it’s a fact. So don’t rush. Problem solved.

I know, I know. I wish it were that easy. It is conceptually, but to make it actually happen is another issue.

We live in a very short durational world. Almost all of our sounds are initiated by a very short strike of the instrument. If you try to play successive, very short notes, the human temptation is to come in early. Do that twice in a row and you are rushing. Add to this the fact that many percussionists don’t keep a strong internal sense of pulse and it makes it worse. I’m never solely relying on a conductor for time – I set my internal pulse with the conductor and keep my internal clock going while using the conductor as a guide. If there’s no conductor, then that internalization of pulse is essential.

Every percussionist must realize this tendency to rush and do their best to think of the notes they are playing as longer and actually hear them that way in their head. I find having the student sing the notes with this longer intended duration actually helps them keep better time and avoid the natural tendency to anticipate. Hearing them longer when we play will keep us from rushing, as well as helping our internal metronome keep a better sense of time.

Lesson 3: Make Music

We are technical beings, we can’t help it. Playing fast or doing tricky stickings on a snare part are what fascinates us, and it’s just the world we live in.

But are those things musical? Absolutely not. The technical side to what we do often gets in the way of thinking musically. The vertical – how we generate our sound – does not aid us in the horizontal – that is music, phrase, shaping, and so on.

Then, by default, thinking horizontally isn’t first on our agenda. The great thing is that we can do this, we are often very good at thinking horizontally. We just don’t normally think of it first. To us it’s just one more facet to what we do, well after the technical side, another piece of the pie.

As all of us know, one of the most important areas besides quality of sound is musical communication, and one could argue the musical intent of a musician might supersede everything else. I’m ok with that – I agree. The act of playing percussion, though, doesn’t reinforce this concept. We don’t see it that way. As I said before, it’s just one more piece of the large puzzle.

The directors’ job is help student percussionists realize that this idea is paramount and to have them put it on their immediate agenda. Once we know that we can do it, it’s then a matter of constantly reminding and engaging percussionists in a rehearsal to think of that musical side. Have them be responsible for understanding how their part fits into the ensemble as a whole. Do percussionists share the melody with the flutes? Does the triangle part fit in with another section rhythmically, or is it all on its own? Either way, how should the phrase be approached?

I love working on this with my students. I’m always amazed at the things they know they want to do musically but because they are so caught up in the logistics of playing their instruments – changing mallets/sticks, moving to another instrument and not making it in time – that it’s just one of the many things that gets left out. Yet, it’s the one thing that should never get left out. Help students realize this and they’ll be fantastic musical contributors.

Lesson 4: You Want to Sound Consistent? Then Play That Way

Once again, a simple concept that is difficult to realize. What I mean by this is that your students should be playing in a symmetrical/balanced way from one side of their body to the other. Most of our instruments require this balanced approach. Drumset, multi-percussion set-ups, and some other instances where one hand might be playing something while the other hand is playing a different instrument does exist, but for a majority of what we do we need, we want both appendages to generate the same tone and dynamic. We are unique this way. If you had to throw a football with your weak hand or your strong hand, which would you choose? The stronger one obviously. But, when it comes to playing percussion, I want no obvious discrepancy between sides, so we need to pay attention when we play to help this come to fruition.

Have students watch themselves play in a mirror or record them playing so they can watch it back. What do they see? Is it what they want or intend? I find almost every student sees many inconsistences about their symmetry when they view themselves from a different vantage point. Most phones now have decent video cameras and mirrors are cheap. I actually just have one of those dorm room mirrors in my office and I use it daily.

You can also ask student percussionists to answer specific questions regarding this balance. Are they holding the sticks the same way in their hands and in the same place on the stick? Are they moving each side (fingers, wrists, elbow) the same? Are they hitting the instrument in a consistent fashion? Are dynamics consistent between sides, do they play with equal dynamics? They must answer these for themselves. The director could probably answer these questions, but it’s important to help students think about them on their own. Only when they see what’s happening will they then be able to change what they’re doing for the better. Don’t do the work for them.

This whole concept might seem so obvious – and it is – but, as I mentioned in Lesson 1, we often miss it. I tell my percussionists to remember to check the simple things first. When we do this, we can fix the easiest things to correct, it normally doesn’t take a long time to retrain our muscle memory to adjust, and it affects our playing to a large extent. If we are addressing, say, a practice pad more consistency, then everything we play will be more consistent, right? I like those odds.

Utilize these lessons and see what successful results come from them. If you can get your percussionists engaged in how they are playing, not rushing, thinking and making music with their parts, and addressing the instruments consistently from a technical standpoint, I think you’ll find a you’ll have a whole new depth to your players. They’ll be more involved in the music they are making, and that’s what it’s all about.

Dr. Jeffery Crowell is an associate professor of Music and coordinator of the Wind and Percussion Division at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where he is the director of Percussion Studies, as well part of the award-winning Jazz Studies area. He is active throughout the United States as a performer, clinician, adjudicator, and educator with recent performances in South Africa, Argentina, Uruguay, and at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.




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