You Can Teach Percussion (Even if You Don’t Play)

Mike Lawson • Features • November 4, 2018

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I have always felt that percussion students can easily be overlooked, maybe because they are way back in the room, but after many years of teaching, I have also come to realize that some teachers may not feel prepared or are intimidated when teaching percussion— especially as a non-specialist.

Fun fact—my primary instrument is trumpet! Here are some thoughts to consider when approaching percussion lessons.


Have you heard the phrase, “Fake it ‘til you make it”? I share this tidbit of wisdom with students often. What I mean is not to actually pretend you have knowledge but to approach it (whatever the task) with confidence. To me it means: Be confident. Own it. Stand tall. Speak clearly, and carry yourself with pride. You are a professional and are going to do a fantastic job with your percussion students—it starts with believing in yourself.


Now that you have the “faking it” part down to a science, work toward the “making it” part. One of the top priorities Dave Black and I had when writing Sound Percussion was to make sure that we were providing a resource that helps support teacher understanding of percussion specific skills. Prepare by doing some personal study. Examine each student book from Sound Percussion and watch the videos available on SI Online. Once you see how the skills progress and watch the demonstrations of the exercises, you will be well on your way to “making it.”


When students come for a lesson it is important to have a clear plan. Don’t wing it. I advocate sharing your plan with students. When they know the goals of the lesson they feel more involved in the process. In one of my recent percussion lessons, the goals were to reinforce the proper mallet grip and to begin building student confidence with their mallet note reading with exercises 1–19 (see excerpt below), from Sound Percussion. It was a really fun lesson and because my students knew the objectives of the lesson, they were focused and goal driven. They knew I had a plan. This excerpt is from Sound Percussion for Individual or Group Instruction. For a PDF of the full page, go to


Another step toward “making it” is for YOU to spend some time practicing percussion. Over the years I have worked to develop my own percussive skills. I feel it is important to be able to demonstrate how to produce a good sounding roll, both open and closed. I remember being unsure of what to tell a student to do when they saw a snare drum roll at 60 beats per minute. If you aren’t sure, check out Sound Rolls, Level 6. If you aren’t ready to debut your mad percussion skills, keep working on them and use the available SI Online videos to help. Practice with your students, they will cheer you on!


I like jokes. There are a couple of trumpet player jokes that are funny. With that said, I would encourage you to treat your percussion students with respect; and don’t make them the punchline of every joke. Also, percussion students aren’t in your class to be kept busy or out of trouble. Involve your percussion students in class discussions and the warm up. Percussion students need to think about balance, blend, and tuning like the rest of the ensemble. Treat them as the valuable contributing students that you know they are.

With the right resource, desire to learn, preparation, and planning, you will go from faking it to making it in no time.

Composer, clinician, and teacher Chris M. Bernotas is an active composer and arranger of concert band music. Bernotas is published with several music publishers, including Alfred Music. His music has been performed at the Midwest Clinic and has appeared on J.W. Pepper’s Editor’s Choice list and numerous state lists.

Sound Percussion is comprised of four books plus a Teacher’s Score: Snare Drum / Bass Drum • Mallet Percussion • Timpani • Accessory Percussion. Each book can be used independently to focus on a particular instrument or in any combination as a full percussion ensemble. Lessons are presented in a fun and interesting way so that all members of the percussion section are engaged. Learn more at


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