Developing a Beginning Band Percussion Section

Mike Lawson • November 2022Percussion • November 13, 2022

The age-old problem for bands is having too large a percussion section and placing students in the section where they will be successful. The argument could be made that skills necessary for a successful percussionist could be beneficial for any instrument. A great beginning band needs musical talent in all sections. This article will discuss how to select percussion candidates from your beginning pool of students and then develop them into successful percussion students. 

Students that have a solid piano background usually transfer the knowledge to percussion quite well. Sometimes what band directors and students consider a solid background is quite different. If a student tells me they have a piano background, I give them a quick explanation of the note pattern similarities on the marimba, then ask them to identify random notes on the keyboard. If they find the notes accurately, that is a good sign. 

The next phase of testing involves checking for ability to read notes on the treble clef staff. If they have no piano background, I give them some formulas to use to determine the names of the lines and spaces. I then point at various notes on the staff to see if they can successfully identify the letter name. Students that have a piano background and can successfully identify letter names of notes are then asked to hold mallets and attempt a simple 3-5 note melody on marimba.

There are several methods I use to test coordination, rhythm, and tempo skills. Most band programs have a rhythm counting system. This is crucial for the vertical success of the entire program, not just beginning percussion. I ask students to tap their foot and count aloud (1+2+3+4+). I then ask them to clap steady quarter notes while counting and tapping their foot. Students are finally asked to clap 8th notes. During this entire sequence, students are evaluated on their ability to tap their foot in steady quarter notes, count aloud using the numbers and subdivisions, and clap the designated rhythm. If students can handle all of these elements, it is a strong indicator of good percussion aptitude.

The final step in the process is putting sticks in the student’s hands and have them repeat the coordination evaluation process playing on a drum or practice pad. I give them a quick explanation of grip and stroke and see how comfortable they look. I ultimately am not worried about initial sticking patterns but encourage them to alternate right and left. I am watching for an overall level of coordination and comfort. I conclude this part of the evaluation by having the students attempt a simple quarter note/quarter rest rhythm example on snare/pad. This sometimes requires giving the student a quick overview of how to read basic rhythmic notation.

If students fare well through this process, I strongly encourage them to consider percussion as an option for beginning band. I inform them of the responsibility of essentially having two instruments to practice (marimba/snare) versus only one woodwind or brass instrument. The practice responsibility becomes even greater once timpani and other instruments are introduced. Financial cost may also be a consideration depending on the required percussion kit the band program requires. Having a good quality keyboard practice instrument at home is essential for melodic success. Great advancements in entry level percussion kits have occurred in recent years. The industry standard usually includes a 2.5 – 3 octave keyboard with composite normal size bars. I recommend avoiding bell kits due to the size and construction of the bars making it difficult to play with proper technique. The tone of the bells is quite bright for home practice and not ideal for practicing rolls. Hopefully your band room inventory includes multiple keyboards for the students to play during class to get the feel of the traditional instrument.

Most kits include a good quality practice pad. It is important students do not develop a habit of playing with a large stroke to make the pad simulate the actual volume of a snare drum. Practice pads are not a musical instrument and are solely for the purpose of having an inexpensive and quiet resource for practicing. I have my students begin playing with a six-inch legato stroke (strike in one motion from six inches above the head/pad and automatically rebounding to six inches). This translates well to the actual snare drum in beginning band class.  Some directors have students place a rubber practice pad on the snare drum while playing with the full beginning band. This further increases the tendency for the percussionists to use a large stroke to compete with the sound of the rest of the band. I have my snares play without pads and reinforce the importance of not overplaying. This is a great way to introduce the principles of good ensemble balance.  Some students may wish to have an actual snare drum at home for practicing instead of a pad. This may have to be purchased separately unless the band program provides the option of renting/purchasing an upgraded percussion kit.  Although having a good quality keyboard is a higher priority, students may find practicing on a real drum more fulfilling than a practice pad.

Once the beginning percussionists are selected and equipment is rented or purchased, it’s time to get to work. Good instrumentation for an average beginning band would be 1-2 snare drums, one bass drum, and the rest on keyboard. Students should frequently rotate from one instrument to another avoiding gravitating to a single instrument. I recommend stressing keyboard percussion in the first weeks of playing. Developing the ability to read basic level music without the need to memorize is a priority. Do not allow students to write in the letter names of notes on the page. They will never learn to read the language of music if this occurs. Have students place their music stand level with their keyboard so they can use their peripheral vison to see the music and keys. Most beginning band books introduce the first five notes of a BH major scale in the first few pages. I tell the students to pretend that the rest of the keyboard does not exist. I often ask them to improvise on their first five notes playing by step up and down, in thirds, any two notes together, and use any speed and rhythm they choose. This further enforces the ability to quickly see the notes on the keyboard. If note accuracy is an issue, I ask the students to say the letter names of the notes to a particular exercise in tempo. My slang expression is “If you can’t say it, you can’t play it.” 

Regarding technique, I teach them to do a 6-inch legato stroke which is consistent with snare drum. Make sure the students are playing on the correct location of the bar for optimum tone production. For the natural keys, both mallets should be in position over the resonator or center of the bar. The mallets should form a pocket with the right inside the left to ensure both mallets can strike in the center. The front edge and center work for the accidentals. If a single hand is striking an accidental, use the edge. If both hands are needed to play multiple accidental notes, place the right hand on the edge of the bar and the left in the center. Keep an eye on the sticking students use to play various exercises. Some students tend to use their strong hand to play multiple notes. In order to develop both hands, I tell the students to use no more than a double stoke pattern and favor alternate strokes. Many beginning band methods include sticking above the notes in some exercises. If not, you can ask students to write in stickings that develop both hands and, but in greater note accuracy. The note pattern often dictates a practical sticking pattern.

For snare drum, the rhythm patterns and technical demand in the first stages of most books is not particularly challenging. They should focus on using the proper stick grip and developing the legato stroke. Beginning students often use too much arm and not enough wrist, do not keep control of the sticks with all fingers wrapped around, and grip the sticks too tightly. Playing percussion should look and sound comfortable. If you are not a percussionist yourself, teaching match grip first gives the students a quicker path to a proper grip. The lefthand traditional style is physically more complicated and can frustrate some beginners. This can be introduced in later years if the student wishes to perform more advanced music or perform ensembles that favor the traditional grip and heavy rudimental style. 

With rhythm and tone being easy in the beginning for snare drum, it would be a good idea to move the percussionists ahead to get started on the basic rudiments. The flam, multiple bounce closed roll, and paradiddle are three of the more accessible rudiments for beginners. Before attempting a flam, the students need to be taught how to play an “up stoke” and “down stroke.” The combination of those strokes creates a flam. The down stroke begins at 6 inches but only rebounds to 2 inches off the head/pad. The opposite of this is the up stroke that starts 2 inches of the head and rebounds to 6. (Strokes can be at higher levels for stronger dynamics. 9-inch, 12-inch, 15-inch etc.) 

The multiple bounce is usually introduced by simply striking the instrument once, one hand at a time to get each stick to bounce as many times as possible. Firm the grip with the thumb and index finger while relaxing the back fingers in order to allow the stick to vibrate and bounce when making contact with the head. Once this is developed on an individual hand basis, play multiple bounce strokes in quarter notes then advance accordingly to 8th notes and sixteenths. It is important to note that every snare roll is a rhythm. When encountering a written roll, students have to determine the proper hand speed to make the roll sound full and connected. This is usually dictated by tempo. Fast tempo calls for slower hand speed and slow tempo calls for faster hand speed. Common hand speeds include 8th note, 16th note, triplet, and sextuplets. Double bounce or diddle rolls are usually introduced later, perhaps at the end of the first year or when the student is ready for the added challenge. This requires a controlled even bounce of only two notes per stroke.

The paradiddle is a simple, repetitive sticking pattern of R-L-R-R-L-R-L-L. Start by using all legato strokes. The more advanced version calls for a pattern of stokes (down–up–tap–tap). A tap is a 2-inch legato stroke. This places an accent at the beginning of each paradiddle which is common in rudimental style drumming.

In general, getting the percussion students off to a good start with fundamentals is crucial to their long-term proficiency.  Be very thorough and take things slow in the beginning, insisting students use the proper technique. Bad habits can set in that will limit the student’s technical ability and lead to frustration. Review and repetition will lead to success!

Shane Fuller is director of bands at Liberty North High School in Missouri.

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