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Start a Beginning Percussion Class

The benefits of a beginning percussion class outweigh any concerns about enrollment, instrumentation or instruments. You will be able to spend more time with your wind players and percussion students.

As a percussionist, it was frustrating to see my beginning percussion students at Lexington Junior High School marking time through our beginning classes while I spent quality time with the wind players on breathing, use of air, articulation and intonation. Although there are productive ways to include percussionists in these lessons, they’re not the most efficient way to teach percussionists what they really need to know. I decided that a change was needed and worked with my school’s counselors to create a separate class for beginning percussion.

While some may think that this would create a plethora of percussionists in a band program, it actually balances out quite nicely as long as certain requirements are met. Because of the larger size of all my other classes, I capped the percussion class at 30 or less (I usually try to have at most 10% of the program’s students in the class). Of those 30 students, no more than half are in 8th grade (Lexington is a 7-8 school), including some who are learning percussion as their second instrument.

By the end of the year, I have about 15 to 20 7th graders who are ready to move on, with some who will choose to try a different elective or maybe a wind instrument the next year. That usually leaves about five to seven percussionists for each of our two concert band classes for next year, and several of the 8th-grade percussionists will go into the high school program.

Numbers aside, the benefits of this beginning percussion class outweigh any concerns with enrollment, instrumentation or instruments. Removing percussionists from your beginning band classes allows you to spend more time with wind players, more quality time with the percussionists and less time dealing with discipline issues due to downtime in class. The percussionists are much better prepared technically and musically when they enter concert bands or the high school band the next year. All your band students benefit!

Getting Started

The prospect of leading a percussion class can seem daunting, especially for a non-percussionist. However, when armed with a few fundamental concepts and an idea of the process you want your curriculum to follow, it can make your life easier!

tightening stand
It’s important to go over percussion instruments’ many parts, screws and connections to prevent damage. One turn to tighten or loosen is usually enough!

A beginning percussion class requires a few things. If you have the flexibility to choose where the course fits in your school day, consider putting it when you’ll have time to change your room setup. I have mine at the end of the day, and the class before puts away all the chairs to make space. Percussion classes are usually arranged in a circle or in rows. I prefer three rows (more on my class setup later).

You’ll need basic equipment and instruments for your class. Our school provides a Yamaha bell and practice pad kit to all students, and they purchase a stick bag with a pair each of SD General sticks, marimba/vibe mallets, hard bell/xylophone mallets and timpani mallets. We buy the sticks in bulk and pass the savings on to the students. We usually pick up a small portion of the cost to lower their price even more. You can also have students purchase drum pads and sticks individually (the Vic Firth Heavy Hitter slimpad and SD General sticks are a good combo), and the school can use funds to purchase mallet instruments or other percussion instruments.

At Lexington, we are fortunate to have accumulated quite a few drums, stands, accessories and large mallet instruments over the years (there was almost nothing playable when I started here), but with even a few instruments, you can utilize a rotation of students quite effectively. You’ll also need to find space to store equipment, which sometimes takes some creative thinking. We often move larger instruments to and from a storage room next door, for instance.

Our overall goal with this class is to produce musically literate percussionists who are armed with the necessary techniques and knowledge to participate in a concert band class or other ensemble, and to prepare our 8th graders with a basic understand of what may be expected in marching band in high school. Currently, we use my book, “Drums, Keyboards, and More!,” that I developed specifically as a curriculum for this class. In the past, I have found other books helpful, including “The Performing Percussionist” by James Coffin, the Mark Wessels “Fresh Approach” books and Mike Huestis’ “Developing the Percussionist-Musician.”

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Grip, Stroke and Reading Notation

I prefer to start percussion students with sticks and pads to help them develop grip and stroke because keyboard mallets have a very different feel and do not encourage rebound of any kind. For the non-percussionist, consider the grip to be equivalent to an embouchure, and the stroke to be akin to the “use of air” for a wind player. Both will have the greatest effect on tone and technique. Percussion students start by learning the basics of rhythm and rhythmic notation in the same manner as our wind players learn quarter note and rest values. Because most percussion instruments are non-sustaining, it is important for students to learn beat subdivision at this level. This is followed by a detailed lesson on setup and care of their equipment and time spent developing grip and stroke.

proper snare drum stroke
Start and end of the full stroke.

At this point it is important to monitor student progress to make sure that these concepts are properly established from the beginning! Students will use sticks and pads to develop a rebound stroke, which is sometimes called a “full stroke.” This is a down-up stroke that starts high and ends high and is fundamentally applicable to every percussion instrument. We spend a good amount of time playing repetitive stroke patterns and reading lines in the book along to drumbeats from Garage Band or songs that are 80 to 100 bpm. Counting aloud while playing is strongly encouraged. At this point, students are ready for their first playing assessment, which evaluates their stroke, grip, rhythm, reading of quarter notes and rests, and pulse (more on assessment later).

Once grip, stroke, pulse and reading basic notation have been established, students can move into reading pitches and playing keyboards. I make sure that students have a page in their notebooks of a keyboard diagram on which they add the letter names. The physical act of writing the names, and later touching the keys on the page helps to establish familiarity with the names and placement of the keys. We’ll then go through the setup and care of their bell kits before moving on to the mallet grip.

While keyboard mallets can fundamentally be gripped with the same matched grip used for snare drum, I teach a slightly different grip for several reasons. Because the keys do not provide rebound, the keyboard grip does not require a fulcrum. In addition, mallets are thinner and more front heavy than snare sticks, requiring students to be able to lift the sticks more easily. I have my students grab the stick starting from the back fingers first, then use the index finger to make a platform for the stick that is supported by the thumb. This also helps the transition to holding four mallets later. If you’re more comfortable staying with the same grip for sticks, you won’t do any harm.

proper mallet grip
Keyboard mallet grip and start of the keyboard stroke.

In establishing the keyboard stroke, we’ll often play rote repetitive note games, such as saying “C, C, C” or “C, D, C” and then playing that pattern on the keys with one hand or eventually alternating mallets. Doing a lot of this initially will help students develop stroke accuracy and increase their confidence level when it’s time to read a page of music without turning their head down.

This next step is critical in developing percussionists who will read keyboard music confidently. After a brief introduction on how the treble staff works, I introduce a few notes at a time, and diligently have the students name the notes before playing. They must be able to name the notes at the tempo we’re going to play them. When notes are introduced, they’re in a stepwise order, adding one at a time, eventually working up to the same simple three-note songs we use with our wind players.

A key factor to make reading music and seeing the keys easier is the placement of the music stand — the bottom of the stand should be at the level of the keys, and the student must stand back far enough to be able to focus on the stand but also keep the keys well within their field of view. (I’m not concerned with students watching a conductor this early on). I also introduce mallet keyboard rolls at this point, both as a precursor to understanding snare drum rolls later and to provide sustain to half and whole notes, which helps students understand that these notes have length. An assessment on the song of the student’s choice follows.

Assessments and Room Setup

Playing assessments are done individually at first, and later I give students the option to take them in duets or trios. I use a form with a 25-point rubric that allows me to quickly circle areas of concern and write brief comments.

Students play in front of the class, and I’ll often ask the other students to provide positive-only feedback (or I’ll have the class work on a note-naming or counting activity while they wait for their turn). After students play, I record their score. When they come up to get their form, I also provide some quick corrective or encouraging comments.

After the first two assessments, I will use the combined scores to place the students in order based on their performance. We’ll then arrange the class in rows so that the strongest students are in the back row and those needing the most attention are in the front. Later, when we’re learning new concepts or reviewing for a playing test, we’ll rotate the back row to the drums or large keyboards first, then the middle row, and by the time the front row gets back there, they’ve heard the examples played well several times.

Sometimes we’ll also used mixed groups, with students from each row playing together. It’s an effective way to scaffold instruction. Students are encouraged to retake assessments as many times as they wish, and their row position is affected by a higher score.

When the students go back to pads and sticks, they are ready to learn eighth notes, and I also introduce the snare drum. A detailed lesson on parts of the instrument and setup is followed by a written quiz. Then students “rotate” by row through the eight or nine snare drums we have on their etudes.

Snare Drums, Mallet Instruments and Drum Sets

You don’t need expensive snare drums for your students to sound good, but good heads and properly tuned drums are extremely helpful.

A Remo Ambassador or Evans Genera Dry batter head tuned at approximately an “A” is a good start. I’ve accepted donations of drum sets to get another snare drum to fix up.

student learning drumset by playing on practice pads

When learning these new rhythms, I’ll often combine lines so students can hear multiple parts being played. I’ll also mix things up by clicking sticks, playing on the rim or even the pad stand to get different sounds for fun. Part of the students’ assessment in this unit includes proper setup of the drum, as well as a simple etude.

As the class moves back to mallets, I start introducing the larger keyboards — marimba, xylophone, vibraphone and chimes — and students will take a quiz on parts, care and which mallets to use on each instrument.

At this point, our curriculum will regularly alternate from mallets to pads, utilizing the pads to learn new rhythms and rudiments, and the keyboards to introduce new notes and melodic playing. We’ll typically spend seven to 10 days on each unit with an assessment at the end before moving on to the next lesson.

Our mallet curriculum will eventually take students through C, F, G and Bb major scales and studies, and the snare drum curriculum will cover rhythms through 16th notes, rolls (long roll, 5, 9 and 17 stroke), and three basic non-roll rudiments (flam, flam tap, paradiddle).

Interspersed among these mallet and snare drum units are additional topics. Besides providing the opportunity to learn new instruments, it provides a break from the usual routine. In addition to material available in books, there are quite a few excellent online videos — such as Vic Firth Percussion 101; Drums, Keyboards, and More!; Steve Graves beginning percussion videos and World Drum Club  — that demonstrate techniques that you can teach your students.

One of the students’ favorite units is drum set, which is usually near the end of the year. Over the years we have collected enough donated drum sets and when combined with my own equipment, we have enough sets to rotate a row at a time. The remainder of the class uses their pads while seated as they wait to rotate in. Drum set fundamentals that I emphasize include use and care of the set parts, how to read notation, reading basic charts, developing several different styles of beats, and developing independence. By the end of the unit, every student can play at least three different feels with a steady pulse.

Additional Topics for the Beginning Percussion Class

bass drumBass Drum — A unit on how and where to strike, dampening and reading snare and bass drum parts together is an essential component to master before reading band parts.

Tom toms – I use these to help students read non-pitched multiple percussion parts. Toms are a helpful pre-introduction to timpani. We also spend time in class reading simple duets between single toms and snare drums. It’s really fun to divide the class up this way. You don’t need actual concert toms for this— drum set toms or individual toms on stands will do.

students playing tambourines
Students learning tambourine technique with their drum pads.

Essential Accessories — The accessory instruments used most often in band literature are triangle, tambourine and woodblock. After a detailed lesson from the book on how to hold and play each of these instruments, students learn a short etude to demonstrate mastery of skills. While it’s helpful to have several of each of these instruments on hand, you can do this with few of them and rotate students through them.

Timpani — The grip, stroke, tuning basics, reading bass clef, and playing duets with snare drums or mallets are studied in several separate units throughout the year.

Latin Percussion Accessories— Our students will briefly study claves, cowbell and shaker (a favorite lesson is creating their own shaker with Pringles cans – especially emptying the cans!) as additions to ensemble music and in drum circles. A drum circle is a fun way to rotate the students through multiple instruments, encourage improvisation and build student confidence.

Hand Drums — The basic principles of sound production on conga, bongos and djembe are studied and utilized in drum circles and ensemble pieces.

drum circle
A drum circle is a fun way to rotate the students through multiple instruments, encourage improvisation and build student confidence.


students playing timpani duets
Students playing duets on timpani as a class.

During the year, as concert dates approach, the class will learn concert music together.  This usually starts by learning the snare and bass drum parts to each piece together as a class. Once we’ve gone over each piece, every student is assigned to play at least one piece with the full band, and additional parts (accessories, mallets, timpani, etc.) are assigned. We’ll then rotate every 15 minutes with one group working with me, often playing along with a recording, while the other groups work independently. It usually takes the class about one week to prepare their band parts. During concerts they also play a couple ensemble pieces as a class.

While this may seem like a lot of material to cover in a class, all you really need to get started is a fundamental concept of grip and stroke to share with your students. Everything else is pretty much the same as picking and teaching literature to your wind players. You don’t need to cover nearly all the subjects listed here, but you’ll find it rewarding to discover many of them along with your students. In the end, all your instrumentalists will benefit from gaining more quality time from you!

Steve Graves’ book “Drums, Keyboards, and More! A method book for beginning class or individual instruction” is available through JW Pepper.

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