Practicing Percussion During the “Apocalypse”

Mike Lawson • GoodVibes • March 27, 2020

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How do students keep up their practice of percussion when the grocery store shelves are empty of food and essential bathroom items? I can definitely give advice for the percussion part of that question.

It may seem like the apocalypse has come and that it is the end of the world, both musically and socially, but there are definitely strong upsides to these situations.

First of all, instead of looking at the situation of leaving school band practice as something negative, there are many advantages. Your students will have time to reflect on the direction of their musical training, the amount of time they practice every week, and just how committed they have been to achieving musical goals.

This is a perfect opportunity to reevaluate, set new goals, practice, write new music, and be creative! Moments in life that force isolation can be a blessing in disguise. They make us realize things that we haven’t before and create a new perspective that otherwise may have never been found. These moments change the directions of people’s lives. With the right attitude, the “apocalypse” can send your students in an amazing new direction of success. I am going to specifically address ideas for percussionists, although the concept can be grasped by all musicians.

Your percussionists should bring a couple of pairs of drums sticks and a practice pad home. This is an awesome time to bond with their practice pad and analyze the intricate details of technique.

Your students should focus on stick control, proper grip, rebound, and where the sticks are hitting the pad. Taking time to dissect each hand movement to make sure the hand placements are correct and that the sticks are moving in a perfect vertical motion is a great idea. Addressing stick heights for accent and tap patterns whether they are 3, 6, or 9 inches is also essential.

Going back to the absolute basics and refining drum technique to absolute perfection is a wonderful way to utilize all of these hours. Drummers are often obsessed with speed, when accuracy, technique, timing, control, and mental focus are the subjects that are really most important. Have your students take these hours as a “get back-to-the-basics personal camp.” How often do your students get hours and hours of time to practice? I even recommend revisiting older books that were basic to your students when they first started. Dissecting these books will create a new perspective on these basics when they are visited a second time. Drummers can also refine their technique on pillows, which are absolutely amazing because they have no rebound! This forces a percussionist to build wrist strength and power without relying on the rebound from a drum. I actually practice like this all of the time.

Another goal that students should embrace during these hours is learning new solos and expanding their horizons. During a four-week quarantine, your students can learn four or more new solos. This will help take their minds off the gloomy news going around. They should learn to focus all of the negative energy and anxiety they are feeling into the music!

A percussionist’s strength flows from emotion. Focusing their hearts and everything they are feeling into new solos can be very powerful. Back in college, when I was going through hard times, I chose a work called “Therapy.” The movements were entitled “Anxieties,” “Fantasies,” and “Aggressions.” From personal experience, I can honestly say that taking an emotional venting approach to this work truly was therapeutic! It actually ended up helping me both musically and emotionally. At the end of the day, is that not what music is really about? Have your students take all of their fears and pour them into the music.

How can your mallet students utilize this time if they do not have an instrument at home? That is the situation I was facing during high school. I could not afford a xylophone or marimba and I practiced at school. This can be devastating for a mallet player, to suddenly lose this outlet. Luckily, I came up with a creative solution. I found a table, and I found a roll of masking tape. I made my own marimba on a long table by taping boxes all the way up the table shaped like notes, in the pattern of a marimba! I used this to practice on the table without having an instrument. I was able to play scale exercises, etudes, solos, and even some blues improvising.

The only issue was that I could not hear pitched notes. All I heard was endless thumping of the same pitch. I was able to use this to my advantage, though; because I could not hear the pitches, I had to be laser-focused on accuracy, making sure I was playing every single note precisely and in the correct spot on the bar. I did not have audio pitch verification to tell me when I hit a wrong note. Playing in this environment definitely helped my accuracy. I was also able to clearly hear every stroke I made on the table. I could hear unevenness of wrist strokes and flaws regarding how I was striking the “instrument.” This helped me precisely define my mallet technique, stroke, and the rhythmic sounds that I was making.

I was able to refine my technique to perfection because I did not have musical pitches hiding my flaws in execution. Percussionists do not need to fear quarantine. Everything can be a percussion instrument! Your students’ parents won’t like this, but it is true. The back of a couch, kitchen countertop, or even the floor can make a great drum. This is the advantage to playing percussion: when a student has a pair of sticks, everything looks like a drum (this includes apocalypse zombies)!

Kevin has been nominated for 38 music industry awards for his Echoes in the Sand album, and he won the 2016 American Songwriting Awards. He performed with the Madison Scouts Drum and Bugle Corps from 1992-1994 and won the DCI Midwest Individuals in 1994 for keyboard percussion. He placed 2nd in the United States for concert hall percussion at the Music Teachers National Association collegiate competition in 1997.

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