Power Up! Tips for Teaching Beginning Snare Drum

beginning snare drum

Teaching beginning percussion students can be a very exciting experience. However, without the proper first steps, bad habits can be set that could take years to undo. Percussion can be somewhat terrifying if you’re “thrown into the fire” without prior experience or sufficient methods training in college. While it’s easier to get a characteristic tone from percussion than it is with wind instruments, there are many pitfalls that can set students up for failure. Here are some essential first steps for the snare drum that will help get your students started successfully:

1. Before you hold the sticks

If possible, you can have the students play basic rhythms (half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes) with their hands on their lap or on hand drums, practicing those essential note values as well as learning how to alternate between the hands. This will give them one less thing to think about when they are holding sticks and in front of a pad or drum for the first time.

Pre-Playing Skills for Snare Drum

2. Fulcrum position and hand/wrist placement

You want the fulcrum (rotational point of the stick in relation to the fingers) to be about one third of the way up the stick, leaving about 2 inches sticking out of the bottom of the hand, give or take. If you have a Vic Firth stick, I like for the student’s thumb to be placed on the flag insignia. The main part of the fulcrum involves three fingers – the thumb, the pointer finger, and the middle finger. The ring and pinky fingers should still be on the stick, but are mainly used for support and not for the fulcrum. The stick should be coming out the side of the hand near the bottom of the pinky finger – NOT in the center of the hand. The student’s wrists should be facing flat towards the ground, but not raised up or lowered to create tension on the wrist. There should be a natural curvature from the forearm to the wrist that goes straight to the stick. 

Fulcrum and Hand Position


3. Tension level of the fingers

The fingers should NOT be tense when holding the stick. This actually affects the tone coming out of the drum as well. If the fingers are too tight, then the drum will sound ‘choked’ and won’t have a full sound. This also can cause pain in the student’s fingers. Many times, this is caused by the student only using the thumb and pointer finger for the fulcrum and feeling like they have to hold on as hard as they can lest the stick fall out of their hand. Quite the opposite is true—you should be holding loosely enough to where the stick is gripped, but could be pulled out of the hand with a little bit of force. This will open up the sound of the stick as well as the sound of the drum.

4. Playing position on the drum

You want the sticks to be about one inch above the rim of the drum as it’s crossing over. For normal playing, you want to strike the drum just north of the center. It is important to emphasize that both sticks should be hitting the same spot on the drum; if the student has their sticks on different parts of the drum, then they will be creating two different, uneven sounds. Only introduce playing towards the edge when you introduce softer dynamics (halfway to the front edge for mezzo-piano, about 1/2 inch from the edge for piano and below). My suggestion: get them playing in the normal playing position for some time before introducing the dynamic zoning changes.

Playing Position on Snare Drum

5. Drum placement and height on the stand

The drum should be set on the stand with the snare wire pointed directly away from the student – think vertically, towards the student and band director. This way there will be proper snare response at all dynamic levels. Do NOT have the snare wire horizontal to the student. This will cause a difference in snare response at different dynamics when zoning. The height of the drum should be between the waist and belly button, depending on the arm length of the student. The arms should be bent at the elbow and the forearm pointed slightly down towards the drum. It is very important to teach students to adjust the height of the drum for their specific size. Beginning students are many different heights, and it is not a one size fits all approach.

Drum Placement

6. Basic strokes

There are four basic strokes the student needs to become acquainted with at the beginning – Full, Down, Tap, Up. They are as follows:

    1. Full: The student starts with the stick up about 9 inches, drops to the head with a quick velocity, and brings the stick back up with the same quick velocity to the original position. This is a loud stroke.
    2. Down: The stick starts up about 9 inches again, and again with a quick velocity, but this time they use the wrist to stop the stick about one inch above the drum head after striking it. This is also a loud stroke, but sets the student up for playing softer strokes.
    3. Tap: The stick starts about one to two inches above the drum head, has a quick velocity, and returns to the same spot just barely above the head. This is a soft stroke.
    4. Up: The stick starts about one to two inches above the drum head, has a quick velocity, but returns back to the higher position of 9 inches above the head. This is also a soft stroke.
    5. Once the student is familiar with these four stroke types, they can play them together in the order of Full-Down-Tap-Up, repeating.

Four Different Snare Drum Stroke Types

7. Pad playing versus actual drum playing

Most band directors are understandably hesitant to let ALL their percussionists play on snare drums at the same time, especially in larger programs. It is completely acceptable to have some or most of them play on a pad at any given moment when beginning. However, the band director needs to be cognizant of how hard the student is playing on the pad. It’s VERY easy to overplay on a pad since it creates a very small amount of sound compared to a snare drum. Young students will want to try to match the volume of a pad to a snare drum, and once they get on the snare drum, they are playing far too loud. Make sure that they use the same velocity that they would use on a drum while playing on a pad to keep consistent sounds throughout the section.

Pad Playing vs. Drum Playing

With these steps, you should be in great shape to get your beginning percussionists started on snare drum! The biggest thing to teach them is patience. Since they can create a characteristic tone quicker than their wind counterparts, they will want to go off to the races and play as many notes as possible. But with proper technique and repetition, their sound quality will improve vastly and they will be set up to conquer more advanced patterns and techniques in the future.

Explore More Power Up!

Mr. Brandon Kunka is a private teacher, educator, performer, and composer based out of Roswell, GA. He currently has a private studio comprised of students from all over the Atlanta area who consistently earn membership in the Georgia All-State Band, All-State Jazz Band, District Honor Band, and audition-based groups such as the Atlanta Youth Percussion Ensemble, Atlanta Youth Wind Symphony, Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra, and Rialto Jazz. at the middle and high school levels. Many of his students have been accepted to music programs at universities which include The University of North Texas, Indiana University, Columbus State University, Florida State University, the University of Georgia, the University of Miami, Georgia Southern University, Georgia State University, Georgia College and State University, Kennesaw State University, Middle Tennessee State University, Vanderbilt University, and Belmont University.

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