The More Musical Percussionist

Mike Lawson • • November 1, 2019

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Our collective goal as musicians is to make music – to communicate musical intent through our instrument. Simple, right? For percussionists, though, this can be challenging – or at least different. Let me explain.

I’m sure you’ve probably all said to a percussionist at some point, “I need you to be more musical.” It’s an easy request, but what does that actually mean to me as percussionist? How do I actually do this as a player? How do I translate that into something that I can actually do/create with my instrument? We probably can all think about something like this in our lives, where we know what we want, but maybe it’s a little tough for us to get a plan of action in place and then execute it.

I often share with my students the story of my lessons as an undergrad with the fantastic player and teacher, Steven Schick. I remember my frustrations as a musician and asking him “I get how to play the instruments, but how do I make music like you do?” We had long conversations over cups of coffee talking in detail about musical approach. We spend so much of our time in the physical aspect playing, the set-ups of our instruments, the technique and the details of mastering our approach, that we often lose sight of the final and most important piece of the pie – our musical intent and its communication to the listener. And isn’t that essentially the most important part?

I’ve found throughout my teaching career that percussionists fall into a category of the 7/8 idea, or some variation of this concept. What this loosely means is that we as percussionists get 7/8 of the things we need to do, but we’re missing that 1/8. Guess which one is that 1/8? You guessed it – musical communication.

For some reason (possibly since we are so technically based and have significant physical movement as part of what we do). We focus on those seven things and miss the eighth.

Those other seven things are hugely important, like how we set things up, the sticks or mallets we choose, which sticking choices we make for a certain passage, where we are hitting our instrument, etc. Unfortunately, as I mentioned, the listener only really cares about that eighth piece. Therefore, we as players and you as teachers must remember that value and make sure you are holding your percussionists to this musical standard.

As a teacher, what can you specifically do to help guide us? What are literal tools I can equip you with to aid your percussionists to think and ultimately communicate things musically?


As players, we have to make musical choices, but often, we don’t. We miss that piece, and thus our performance comes across flat, or at least flatter than what we want. It’s truly as simple as making a choice. Decide what you want to play and then communicate that to the listener. Even if you decide not to shape something, it’s still a choice. You’ll be amazed at how following through with your players with this will instantly make them more musical. Use whatever means you’d like, for example asking them to sing a melodic line, or having them tell you what they want to play by utilizing an emotion. Once you start down this path, it will unlock this portion of their performance more often, hopefully all the time. This goes for marimba solos, as well as snare drum parts in concert band, and even triangle parts in orchestra.

In conjunction with this is making sure they see if their intent was communicated or not. Many times, my students know what they want to do but merely aren’t communicating it effectively. Almost everyone has a smart phone nowadays, so we have a means to record a performance or practice session. Also, I’ve discovered I have to help my students, then understand how to analyze these recordings. I just tell them to ask themselves, before they watch, what they are expecting to hear and see. Also, what are the traits that they would want in order to deem something musical or a “good run” of something? Watch the recording and then see if it came out the way they wanted it to.

What they’ll find when they begin analyzing is that if they exaggerate their intent just slightly, it will come across perfectly. It’s a small amount of work for a big result. Once your student begins to make the connection to what they need to do during a performance to get the result they want. they’ll close the gap on having to analyze as much. They’ll train themselves to do what they need to do from the start to get the results instantly.

What Musical Things Can We Actually Do

You need to help your students understand that our musical expression capabilities really sit within our dynamic and tempo choices. Yes, we can have timbre choices as well, but the bulk of our expression comes from what we do on the instrument with whatever stick or mallet we’ve chosen. We will decide on color for the specific piece, instrument, environment, and sound we want, and then it’s up to us to craft our music. Dynamics, and often tempo choices are the main places where our musical intent gets realized.

Make them focus on the shape of the line via dynamics. How loud? Crescendo or decrescendo? How much does it taper at the end? What kind of release to the note are you imagining? Have them understand that dynamics are a huge part of our musical potential and that they need to follow through with deciding what they will do and how. Also help them realize that any amount of subtlety they want to add to their intent will be perceived. I believe sometimes percussionists don’t do that because they think it won’t be picked up by the listener. Any degree of minute shaping they want to do, as long as they intend it, will be perceivable to the audience member. Nuance is key – reinforce it every day. That’s where the real shaping happens, on the very slight and small level.

Sometimes, especially during solos, we can be more manipulative of the tempo as a musical choice. Sometimes we can’t. Just have them remember that it’s a musical choice as well when appropriate.

Connect the Dots

This idea or concept is a big one for me when it comes to phrases. I’ve had a good amount of success with this in aiding my students to understand what it means for us as percussionists to make a musical phrase specifically on the percussion instruments.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous article, we percussionists live in a very short world. Our sound exists in an incredibly limited amount of time when you compare it other instruments. Our contact occurs in an instant. We may have sustained our sound with crash cymbals or vibraphone, but it’s still not that initial contact continuing, it’s the sound after that. We are used to short sounds.

Thus, the concept of longer ideas is foreign to us, or at least we have to cover a larger gap to hear things in a longer or more horizontal framework.

A musical phrase is a longer and horizontal idea. For us, living in this short existence, to execute a long idea requires a massive stretch. Add to this the fact that we can’t actually play that longer idea with the sustain like we want to, and that makes it even harder for us.

The visual reference I give my students is to think of the musical line like connect the dots. Our actual notes that we play, say on a marimba for a two-mallet melody, are the dots, but we have to connect those dots in our mind in order to make sure the phrase comes across the way we want it to. Even though I’m not actually playing the line I draw between two points, if I know it’s there and hear it in my head. Then, when I do play the dots in their specific places, the listener can also connect those dots in their ear. The curve of the crescendo and slight diminuendo at the end, I can draw all those lines between my dots, but I can’t actually bend my notes to do that (unless I’m rolling on the instrument, which isn’t often an option).

It’s a very simple thing to do and it’s incredibly effective. If you think about it, this relates right back to the ideas of intent and musical capabilities. We have to know what those dots look like beforehand in order to perform them with the dynamic and tempo shaping factors taking into consideration. Thus, it’s easiest to think of this third idea as really a culmination of the two before it.

Of note to add here…we are striving for this musical statement, always. Be sure, though, to also remind your students to listen to that intent and the physical aspect of how they are playing the instrument. Consistency when we play is key, as is making sure we are symmetrical with our technique and even with our interaction with how we play. Sometimes a failed musical line’s fault is not on the intent, but merely the lack of accuracy of how we are playing, for example not hitting the xylophone bars in the same spot during the whole passage. Just remember to help them pay attention to those kinds of details so that their interaction with the instrument supports their musical intent and doesn’t actually hinder it.

A fantastic example of all of the above is my good friend, percussionist Dr. Alex Stopa, performing one of his arrangements on marimba. Have your students listen to this as an example of how to make musical choices and communicate them.

I always say I am musician first and a percussionist second. It’s on the top of my Percussion Studio Handbook. I must remember this each and every time I approach any instrument, regardless of what it might be. If you can share these thoughts and ideas with your percussionists and have them keep this “on their radar” you’ll find that it becomes more and more second nature to remember that eighth piece of the pie. We can’t ever forget it – it’s the most important piece to the listener. We must serve the music in every way, period. It merely takes you reminding them that they need to do it.

And watch – they will.

Dr. Jeffery Crowell is a professor of music at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where he is the director of percussion studies, as well as assistant director 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, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and the Percussive Arts Society International Convention. Crowell is also a member of the Percussive Arts Society’s University Pedagogy Committee.

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