Back Row Blues

Each year, a wide-eyed and excited lot of beginning band students rush into the first day of band class eager to begin learning percussion.  It doesn’t take long however, before these same students are drowning in a sea of boredom, while their fellow instrumentalists receive the lot of the attention.  You’ve seen them back there.  The 6th, 7th, and 8th grade percussionists.  They are the bored looking group in the back, possibly lighting things on fire while you work with the flutes.  Can you really blame them?  There is absolutely nothing worse than being a 6th grade percussionist.  We should make members of Al Qaeda be 6th grade percussionists as an enhanced interrogation technique.  It would probably be more effective than water boarding.  A couple of weeks playingTime for Band and they would give up their own mothers.   What I have seen time and time again in so many groups is that the percussion section contains some of the brightest and most enthusiastic kids in the band.  However, they quickly get bored with the slow pace that usually happens in the beginning band world, and quit.  This problem is especially wide spread in schools that do not have a strong instrumental music tradition, where the end result of hard work isn’t directly seen.  I can’t blame these kids by the way.  The band director is working with the trumpets, trying to get the high G to come out instead of a low C, and the poor percussionists are in the back of the room counting the ceiling tiles. This of course raises the question, “what do I do with my middle school percussionist?”

Maybe this article doesn’t apply to you.  Perhaps your middle school percussionists are sweet little angels.  They’re cherubic little bundles of enchantment, whose eyes are full of wonder and hearts are full of love.  However, more than likely, you have the same wild tribe of hobos and nincompoops that the rest of us have, and you need to come up with a game plan to keep them from potentially burning down the dump.  Lucky for you, band director, you have options.

INVEST IN DRUM PADS

A class room set of drum pads is a wonderful investment for your beginning program.  There are a wide variety of companies that make small 6” or 8” pads that are perfect for young groups.  I myself just purchased a classroom set of BDL drum pads and my kids love getting to work on them.  When your little hoodlums aren’t playing, Merrily we Roll Along, then they can be working on their pads.  Even if it is just to work on proper grip and stroke, that use of time would be very beneficial.  If you don’t want the excess noise to disrupt what you are working on with the rest of your band class, set up a “percussion room” for them to go to and practice.  This will allow them to have the opportunity to work on things and stay active, and not create too much disturbance.  I still do this for 7th and 8th grade concert band situations with limited percussion parts.  Just because a percussionist isn’t playing on a particular piece doesn’t mean he shouldn’t have the chance to use that time to improve.

INVEST IN LITERATURE

There are great things about beginning band literature.  Many of the instrumental books that most bands use for their young groups give them all the tools they need to succeed, and get off on the right foot.  However, it is not unreasonable to state that many of these books are lacking in their quest to develop strong percussion technique from an early stage.  However, there are plenty of other books and literature to invest in to give your students something fun to work and with which to improve.  Many of which have play along tracks and groovy parts with which to practice, and kids love getting to drum to something fun.  Make sure when purchasing extra literature like this that you find a book that not only demands a student become proficient at mallet and snare drum technique, but also teaches tempo and dynamic control.  I like the book Five Minute Drill by Ralph Hicks and Eric Rath.  This book covers all the bases for young percussionists and gives them great things to practice on both drum and mallet instruments.  Also this book features a play along C.D. that is extremely well done, and very fun to play along with.  Combine this book, or one similar to it with your newly purchased drum pads and you’re off and running.

INVEST IN PEOPLE

Most programs have a “drum guy” that works with the high school marching band.  Sometimes it’s a music major from a local college, sometimes it’s an alumnus that just likes helping out, sometimes it’s an actual degree holding musician with an impressive resume.  Whoever it is, find someone you trust to work with your young group and let them come in and work with just percussion once or twice a week.  Not only would this help to establish technique and basic fundamentals that can be carried vertically through high school, but it would also give the students something to look forward to each week.  You may say, “But my program is poor.  We don’t have enough money to bring anyone in.”  Have you ever met a college music major?  I once worked a percussion clinic for a Taco Bell gift card.  Trust me, you can afford it.

These are just a few of the things you can do to keep your students invested and interested in the slow paced world of beginning band percussion.  Above all, I think it is important to be honest with these young players.  Go ahead and tell them from the beginning that it will be a little boring for a while, but the pay off is a great one.  After a while, as your program develops, your young students will see the accomplishments of your older students, and see that the method works.  Once they see what they can achieve, then the rest of issues will take care of themselves.  Before you know it, you will be handing them percussion ensemble literature and solo pieces.  And, you won’t have to call the fire department one time.

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