Rachel Maxwell is a member of the MakeMusic Innovators program.
With multiple instruments to learn and independent parts, integrating the percussion section into full-band music can be a challenge. To ease the transition, we’ve developed a process that has each student master all of the percussion parts before splitting the section onto their individual part assignments.
We are fortunate to have a team teaching schedule and see our middle school band students daily by grade level and instrument sections. However, this process is also adaptable to a mixed instrument class.
Here are the steps we take to introduce beginner percussionists to performing full-band music.
All students annotate their music during class time. We guide students through marking in measure numbers, key signatures, time signatures, accidentals, define all musical terms and symbols, and identify any rhythms that students perceive as tricky. We provide a sample and check the student’s music at each step.
Snare Drum and Bass Drum
We project the music onto a large screen using MakeMusic Cloud while learning together. This lets us ensure everyone is in the right place in the music. We can clarify repeats and other potential road map confusion, and the students can follow the cursor on the screen.
Each percussionist starts on a practice pad learning the snare drum part. We break the music down into chunks at a slow tempo, then start to piece it together while increasing the tempo. Once the entire group can play the snare drum part, we move on to bass drum and follow the same process. We focus on music reading and basic rhythm and will address bass drum technique in a future class.
After that, we split the class and take turns having half play snare drum, while the other half plays the bass drum part. During this entire time, they play along to MakeMusic Cloud’s backing tracks on the screen.
Auxiliary and Mallet Percussion
We follow the same process with auxiliary percussion parts, approximating the motion for the triangle, cymbals, etc., with hands or pads. We play through all of the non-pitched parts, putting 2-3 students on each part, then rotating, but always playing with the entire group.
We move to the mallet parts and will often double or triple up on the xylophone or marimba for the sake of learning the music. We spend a lot of time working in small and slow chunks with MakeMusic Cloud’s looping feature before running the entire selection. The older students will often be assigned tuba, bassoon, and baritone parts to play on marimba to expand their comfort with bass clef and diversify the mallet assignments.
After the students can play all the parts in isolation or paired with one other part while following MakeMusic Cloud, we will assign each student a starting instrument. Every time we work on the piece, the students move to the following instrument, rotating in the same order each time to the right or left. This plan may create rehearsals where a student plays a mallet instrument for a few runs, but they are changing instruments. We only place one player on the snare drum, but can include up to two or three others on drum pads if needed.
A week or two before concerts, we create an assignment chart that we use all year to track part assignments. Students are assigned the part they will play for the performance and have several rehearsals to ensure they are comfortable. We work to ensure students play several different instruments at each performance so no one feels stuck or avoids specific instruments.
Gradually introducing beginner percussionists to full-band music will help set your students and ensemble up for success. The process may take a little more rehearsal time at the start, but it will create musicians who are well-rounded and comfortable on any part put in front of them.