Establishing Strong Fundamentals on Reading Keyboard Percussion

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This post was originally an article written by John Willmarth, a fellow IP artist and instructor in the North Texas area. Building a student’s peripheral vision and speed in reading music is usually neglected in the music classroom. Incorporating some of these ideas will boost your percussion sections reading abilities!

Percussionists have the unique challenge of trying to develop facility in a variety of
instruments very early in their development. Splitting time between snare drum and
keyboard percussion often causes percussionists to lag behind the rest of the band in
reading skills. Because most band methods feature short excerpts, elongated rhythms,
and familiar melodies, it is common for students to rely on memorization. Students often
become disillusioned as the band method and repertoire progress because memorization
becomes too difficult. Unfortunately, once poor habits become ingrained, they can
plague a musician for years to come. These problems can be avoided if proper sight
reading fundamentals are formed from the beginning.

Although sound production on keyboard percussion instruments is initially easier than
many other instruments, the process of reading presents unique challenges. Most
beginning percussionists purchase or rent a percussion kit which includes an undersized
set of bells. The bar size on these instruments is extremely small which gives the student
a very slim margin for error. Wrong notes can often be the result of simply missing the
target rather than misreading the note. Percussionists also have the added challenge of
being disconnected from the keyboard. With every other instrument in the band, the
musician is physically touching the keys, slide, or valves. In the case of keyboard
percussion, the mallet separates the player from the instrument. This lack of physical
connection can also cause accuracy problems. These issues often result in students
getting lost because they end up looking at the instrument rather than the music.
Addressing the following elements of reading will help your students develop strong
reading fundamentals.

I. Note Recognition

Because percussionists split time between instruments, they invariably get less
reinforcement than the rest of the band. Percussionists need extra practice with note
recognition to level the playing field. I use the following methods to drill note
recognition:

1. Flash Cards
2. “Mad Minute”: Give the students a sheet of music comprised of whole notes about 32
bars in length. The students have one minute to fill in the note names. A proficient
reader can get through the page in 30-35 seconds. You might be surprised at first,
however, how many percussionists will struggle to finish the page.
3. Vocalization: Choose an exercise or musical excerpt and simply have the student say
the note names out loud (including accidentals). The students should speak the note
names rather than trying to sight-sing the part. Make sure you go at a slow tempo
otherwise it can be quite a tongue twister. It can be helpful for beginners to remove the
variable of rhythm and simply vocalize the pitches of the melody in a steady beat pattern.

II. Muscle Memory

When you repeat a task the same way thousands of times the mind forms a strong
connection with the given task and it becomes second nature. Your mind controls your
body without conscious thought. All musicians use muscle memory to play their
instruments. Repetitive motions such as fingerings, valve combinations, and slide
positions become second nature as a player’s skill level increases. For a percussionist,
muscle memory is crucial because of the separation between player and instrument
created by the mallet. Encourage your students to be patient as muscle memory will take
a long time to develop because it requires much repetition. There are some things you
can do, however, to expedite the process. Approaching the instrument the same way all
the time is a big key to success. The instrument should be set to the same height every
day. Take a sharpie and make a small mark on the stand so that the student knows
exactly where to set it every time. Be sure the students have the right stance and posture
behind the instrument.

1. The feet should be shoulder width apart with the weight evenly distributed.
2. Stand with the shoulders square to the instrument.
3. Students should never have to reach for notes either right to left or front to back.
Stand far enough away from the instrument so that when the elbows hang naturally at
the sides, the mallets rest comfortably above the bars.

Developing muscle memory is a process of trial and error that, after a period of
reinforcement, becomes habit. Think about learning to type. If you have ever taken a
typing class, you were taught the proper hand position and told to keep your eyes on the
screen. Once you begin typing, you receive instant feedback on your performance.
Adjustments are made based on what you see on the screen. As this process continues,
you increase the frequency of correct choices based on previous experience and your skill
level rises. Of course, if you’re one of those who use your index fingers and stare at the
keyboard, you’re not going to get much better. Unfortunately, many percussionists are
essentially using the same approach when they try to play keyboard percussion
instruments. A consistent approach with the right technique will produce the desired
result.

III. Peripheral Vision

The eyes can be a valuable tool or a great hindrance in developing reading skills.
Students often rely on looking directly at the instrument too much, which results in the
eyes moving back and forth between the music and the instrument. It’s ludicrous to think
of another instrumentalist consistently looking down at their fingers or hands to find a
note, but percussionists often learn to play that way. Because it’s impossible to look
directly at the keys and the music simultaneously, indirect or peripheral vision must be
used. Teach your students not to look down: especially for mistakes! Let the ears, not
the eyes, be the guide. Missing notes or hitting the dreaded screw is more desirable than
looking down. It’s a hard sell at first because students don’t want to hit wrong notes and
stick out in the sound. Complimenting them early and often for making good mistakes ill help them buy into this concept. In order to fully realize the potential of peripheral
vision, students must learn to use landmarks to help find notes. Landmarks are any notes
that can be seen with peripheral vision. Because the naturals or so called “white keys”
won’t be visible peripherally, students must use landmarks to find them. In other words,
we use what we can see to find what we can’t see. For example, by using B flat as a
landmark, the student can find A by essentially going left and down one note. To
introduce the students to this concept, I use the following exercises:

1. While the student is standing in playing position, instruct them to stare at the stand as
if they were reading music. Call out note names and have the students touch each note
with their index finger. Start slow and use accidentals initially as they are easier to find
peripherally.
2. Try recapping the vocalization exercise from before. While keeping their eyes on the
music, instruct the students to touch the note with their index finger as they name it out
loud. Be sure they’re not looking down!
3. When you have the band silent play, the keyboard percussion can “finger” through the
phrase by lightly touching each note with eyes on the music.

Here’s the big catch: the stand has to be at the right height to utilize peripheral vision.
When set up correctly, the student should be able to see the accidentals while looking
directly at the music on the stand. If the stand is too high, the keyboard will be out of the
visual range and the player is forced to rely solely on muscle memory. This will greatly
decrease accuracy, especially for young players. Most students will get frustrated and go
back to looking directly at the keyboard in this situation. Stand height can be a sensitive
issue because many band directors like the students to have the stands high, so they have
a better line of sight to the conductor. Although I certainly don’t prefer this method for
keyboard percussion, if you’re dead set on this I suggest a compromise. Allow the
students to lower their stands for sight reading and the initial rehearsals until they really
know the given piece. Wait to raise them until you get close to the concert to help
heighten their awareness and tighten up the ensemble.

IV. Final Thoughts

I think you’ll find that most students truly enjoy playing keyboard percussion instruments
when they have the fundamentals and can develop at pace with the rest of the band.
Don’t allow students to take the easy road and sacrifice good technique for accuracy early
on. In the long run, the development of good habits will lead to a high skill level.

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