• Report: Tuning Schemes for the Modern Percussion Ensemble

    Mike Lawson | October 21, 2006

    In the last 20 years, there has been a renaissance in the role played by the symphonic and marching percussion section. As today’s modern composers ask for more and more unique sounds, it is more important than ever to have great-sounding equipment at all times. The following are tips and suggested pitches to cover all your needs in the concert hall, the marching band field, and indoor venue.


    A great-sounding concert snare is a combination of three sub-components:

    • Properly tuned top (batter) head
    • Properly tuned bottom (snare side) head
    • Properly tuned individual snares and strainer
  • Trumpet Techniques

    Mike Lawson | December 1, 2003

    It is fall in Texas. On football fields across the state, hundreds of young athletes are struggling to deliver a product that will be appreciated by their teachers, parents, friends, and perhaps even themselves. These athletes will contort their faces and tense every muscle possible to find the physical action necessary to accomplish what is being asked of them. They are not lazy. They work as hard as possible. They are trumpet players. When they are unable to come up with the winning combination, the frustration they feel will only push them to try harder. It is a vicious and potentially destructive cycle that is being imposed on younger and younger trumpet students every year.

    One trend that is particularly disturbing is the proliferation of middle school students being asked to play under the Friday night lights. Some play every week right alongside the middle school football team. Others play once a year as band directors attempt to bolster community pride and support for expensive music programs desperately trying to survive the budgetary ax. Few activities can impress a community of tax payers, donors and, perhaps more importantly, new recruits more than hearing (and seeing) hundreds of young musicians from every school in the district gathered for a mass performance. Still others are inside their middle school gymnasiums performing for mini versions of their future high school pep rallies, eagerly pumping up the student body to achieve in all things academic and otherwise. These are all valid reasons to push young players out into the light – into the world of high Cs and fortissississimo dynamics.

  • How to Build a Percussion Ensemble

    Mike Lawson | November 1, 2003

    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.

  • Woodwind Doubling

    Mike Lawson | October 1, 2003

    It’s the end of June and your first-chair clarinet wants to sign out a saxophone for the summer. Two thoughts cross your mind initially. Scenario one is that if you hand over the sax, there is a chance that the new enchantment may result in a loss to the clarinet section. Scenario two is if you don’t hand over the sax, you may lose the student’s interest in band. At what cost does doubling come?

    There is a point in a music student’s academic career when the thought of learning a second instrument is enchanting and a new challenge. There are advantages and disadvantages to allowing your students to participate in this type of learning experience. The origins of doubling go back to the big band era of the 1930s and ’40s, during which reed players frequently doubled on parts in Broadway shows, big bands and station bands. In these cases, the saxophone players doubled on clarinet, flute, oboe or bassoon.

  • Orchestrating a Successful First Concert

    Mike Lawson | September 1, 2003

    Does the thought of a beginning band concert conjure up aural images of colliding asteroids or a visit to the sound effects studio for Jurassic Park? Do you find yourself mourning the loss, the perceived besmirching, or possibly the compromising of great musical themes and favorite national airs, subjected to unrecognizable renditions by beginning bands? Granted, unhappy outcomes can always occur, but there are strategies for making those first concerts less traumatic and less likely to alter or destroy your sense of humor and emotional equilibrium.

    Wise Music Choice, Careful Preparation

    When you pick music for the first concert, use the best-sounding five or six melodies your students have been playing in their beginning band method. Parents typically don’t care if their fledgling band students are playing “London Bridge in Quarter Notes” instead of the “Too Difficult For This Band March,” as long as it sounds good and the students feel positive about the result. Make your number-one criterion selecting whatever the band can play that sounds good, period. Whether they play three, five, eight, or more pieces, just be sure to pick the ones your group can play well.

  • Momentous Marching Moments

    Mike Lawson | August 1, 2003

    Fans of college marching bands know just by watching the halftime show that the musicians on the field are talented, entertaining and athletic. But many of these college marching bands have more than school spirit, professionalism and showmanship on their side. Each year’s batch of marching band members must follow in the footsteps and uphold the traditions of their predecessors.

    So what, exactly, do these bands have to look up to? SBO dug into the colorful histories of some the country’s favorite college marching bands to find out.

  • Working with a Jazz Clinician

    Mike Lawson | March 1, 2003

    A series of visits from professional Chicago-area musicians in high school is forever emblazoned on Dave Samuels’ mind. These visits opened Samuels’ eyes and ears to the creativity and what he refers to as the empowerment of hands-on music education.

    “We’d hang out with them and occasionally play with them. Those were unbelievable experiences,” recalls Samuels, now a professional jazz percussionist who performed with Spyro Gyra from 1977 to 1994.

    As a clinician himself, Samuels strives to leave that same kind of indelible impression on the students he coaches.

    “The thing about doing a clinic, as far as I’m concerned, is that you want to inspire them, you want to give them information, you want them to leave the clinic with something tangible that they can work with.”

    Chris Vadala, a performer and the director of Jazz Studies at the University of Maryland, remembers his life-changing first encounter with a professional musician/clinician.

  • Listening with the Other Ear

    Mike Lawson | January 1, 2003

    When musicians come together to make music in a group, we assume they listen intently. But music-making uses so many mental and physical skills that the ears are often eclipsed.

    We can view an object for its color, its texture, its size, its shape, its distance from us, and its dance with positive and negative space, or look directly at it and not consciously notice anything. The same is true for our ears. To transition from involuntary hearing to active listening takes intention and practice. We must activate new auditory perceptions through isolation exercises that involve learning how to activate the brain differently to create multi-level listening. When we do this, it’s as if we’ve discovered a new way of hearing.

    Think of the brain as a series of muscles. If one “muscle” is over-used, it will become dominant, which can retard development in the other “muscles.” The body/brain will keep funneling control into the stronger skill; it’s a built-in default system.

  • Percussion Methods for the Non-percussionist Teacher

    Mike Lawson | November 1, 2002

    Reprinted with permission from Hal Leonard Corporation. The exercises presented are excerpted from “Essential Elements 2000″ percussion book series by Willis M. Rapp. All of these exercises appear in “Essential Elements 2000 Percussion Book 2,” except for exercise 10, which appears in “Essential Elements 2000 Keyboard Percussion Book 2,” also by Rapp.

    This article addresses performance issues associated with the snare drum, cymbals, triangle, tambourine and keyboard instruments. It is designed to help music educators guide their students through the challenges of performing on these instruments.

  • Interactive Percussion Programs

    Mike Lawson | November 1, 2002

    Rhythm can strike a person where sometimes words and pictures fail. Like the pulse of the heart, that thump on the skin of a drum pulsates through the body’s senses, which can stimulate the brain. Of course, stimulating the brain is what all good teachers are looking to help their students do.

    And virtually anyone can whack a drum. Because it’s so accessible, so fun, and so easy, kids respond quickly to it. They pay attention. They focus. It is one of the reasons that percussion programs seem to have struck a chord in the classroom over the last 10 years. And a variety of programs, to fit many circumstances, are available virtually everywhere.

    “The reason percussion works so well is that it captures everyone’s imagination,” says Ruth Cahn, chair of the education committee for the Percussive Arts Society (PAS). “Everyone wants to do it. When a violinist plays, you see them and think that’s wonderful, but you don’t necessarily want to try it. You see a drum and you want to hit it.”

  • The Secret of a Good Woodwind Sound

    Mike Lawson | October 1, 2002

    Recently I was in Washington D.C. doing a residency for the Kennedy Center. One of the groups I coached was the award-winning Walt Whitman High School Jazz Ensemble. When he heard me playing long tones to warm up, director Chris Allen said to me, “There are only two kinds of players that practice long tones: Beginners, because they can’t play anything else, and professionals, because they know how important long tones are.”

    It’s so true. Every teacher tells students to play long tones, and every student thinks they’re the most boring thing in the world. What’s interesting or fun about holding out one note for a long time?

  • U.S. Navy Music Program

    Mike Lawson | September 1, 2002

    The U.S. Navy is looking for a few good musicians. With six 45-piece “large fleet” bands and two 35-piece “small fleet” bands stationed throughout the United States, as well as three overseas bands, the Navy Music Program is constantly seeking the nation’s finest wind, brass and percussion players to serve the country through music. Like the Army, Air Force and Marines, the Navy fields its own ensembles to perform at military functions and special events. But, according to Gary Seitz, director of recruiting for the Navy Music Program, the Navy ensembles differ from those of the other military branches in that their primary mission is music.

    “In the Navy Music Program, you don’t do anything but music,” he explains. “In the Marine Corps and the Army, the musicians are soldiers first. They hit the fox holes and the music is secondary. But in the Navy Music Program, we do music, period.”

    The musicians in the Navy bands function as a wind ensemble and marching band, and many players are also involved in smaller groups, such as a woodwind quintet, a rock band or a Big Band.

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