Four Ways to Empower your Percussion Section

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by James Campbell, Professor of Percussion, University of Kentucky

It takes imagination, creativity, and discipline to be a successful percussionist. The percussion section includes tuned and un-tuned instruments that produce sound by striking them, crashing them together, rubbing across them, and shaking them. Composers often don’t include enough specific information for them to properly interpret their music, so they often ask questions like:

  • What size drum do I use?
  • How soft/hard a mallet do I play with?
  • Should I let this instrument ring or should I muffle it?

You can empower your percussion section to develop their musical skills by following these four guidelines. When you include students in the problem solving involved in interpreting percussion music, they mature faster as musicians and will enjoy rehearsal more.

1.) Include them in every part of your rehearsal.

Post your rehearsal order so that the percussion section can get the instruments and mallets set before class begins. Include the percussionists in your warm-up period. They can benefit from participating in breathing, singing and technical exercises you may use with your winds prior to rehearsing the musical selections. The more they are included in the ensemble warm-up, the better aware they are of concepts like tuning, phrasing, and clarity.

2.) Provide them with the right tools.

Give the percussion section a variety of instruments to choose from. Equip the section with several sizes of concert snare drums, cymbals, and accessories such as woodblocks, cowbells, and triangles. Supply them with a selection of the larger concert beaters for bass drum and gong. Give them adequate and safe storage space so that they can keep their instruments organized and easy to setup or tear down. Provide covers for keyboards and timpani so that they stay clean and safe from damage. Provide the section with enough stands and trap tables to hold mallets and accessory instruments.

3.) Reinforce their concepts of good sound production.

Students are often focused solely on the rhythm and dynamics of their music. Your first priority is to give them feedback on their quality of sound. Help them learn to recognize if they are playing on their instrument’s “sweet spot” for the most vibrant tone. Reinforce the correct playing area for each instrument, not just the correct note. Achieving consistency in the playing area is the first step toward playing with a characteristic tone on percussion instruments.

4.) Give them musical directions they can interpret.

You can micromanage your players when you tell them what mallet to use. Instruct the percussion section with a musical direction or suggestion, not specific details regarding mallet choices and stickings. Comments such as - Can you make the tone darker here, are more effective than - Use the red mallets here. Allowing the percussionist to solve the musical problem gives them stronger skills in interpreting all their music.

Sometimes a musical problem can be solved when the percussionist explores a variety of solutions. They begin to listen deeper to their own sound quality to find a workable interpretation. They may change playing areas, mallets, dynamics, striking technique, or even stickings to produce the desired sound. The more they experiment, the more their musicianship develops. A successful director will foster this type of creativity in all their students as they empower them to grow as musicians.