What I Wish Every Young Percussionist Knew

This post will probably be read by several actual junior high band directors, all of whom have far more experience and wisdom than I do. At the risk of enduring a few, "duh!" comments, I offer the following.

"It's a riddle, really - does percussion attract squirrelly people, or do they become squirrelly because they play percussion?" - Band Directors Everywhere!

I was asked to fill in for a junior high percussionist (seriously) at a concert.* It was a great experience on the whole, but I was reminded about all the things I wish I'd known when I was an 11-year-old beginning band student. Here are a few of them.

You already have a reputation.

With the band director - who's known too many percussionists - and with the mass of the human population. Drummers (and I know there's a discussion about drummers vs. percussionists, but it's for another time) are known for being flaky, not taking things seriously, never being on task, not knowing what's going on, etc. Because this stereotype is reinforced by 99.9% of all stick and mallet wielders around the globe, you have to work doubly hard to break it, or even better, never fall into it at all.

They already think you're cool.

No need to flip, twirl or spin your sticks, carry your mallets in your back pocket, or otherwise draw attention to the fact that you're in band and are a percussionist. The people you're trying to impress already are, and the one person you absolutely must impress - the teacher/conductor - is not impressed when you drop a stick on the gym floor in the middle of the soft section.

Believe it or not, percussionists can play dynamics.

Drums are loud, right? Yes. And, no. As the musician, you decide how loud any given instrument is at any given time. Do you want the director to get off your back about always being too loud? Pay attention the next time s/he talks about dynamics, and learn to control the sound of your instrument. Be a musician, and you'll get treated like one. (Can I tell you a secret? You'll also have more fun when you learn to play with great dynamic control.)

One more tip: Next time you play a mallet part, try doubling the dynamic level. I challenge you to get the director to say, "Um, yeah, that marimba/vibraphone part is just too much. Can I get you to back off a little, please?"

Own a pencil.

Actually, own a bunch of them and put them all the places you might need one. This may be a tough habit to develop in the 8th grade, but it will pay off for the rest of your life. I'm almost neurotic about this - I have two pencils in each stick bag, a handful each in my laptop bag and in my car, in my desks, in my kitchen, etc. Anytime the band director makes a comment, change, or suggestion, you'll never have to think, "I'll remember that....I think."

Watch the conductor.

I cannot count the number of times I have been saved from mistakes, getting lost, or missing an entrance simply by watching the baton or making eye contact with the conductor. Here's another little trade secret: If something goes awry in the percussion section, guess who will not be in trouble when the band cuts off? The percussionist who is standing (or sitting) right where they're supposed to be, sticks or mallets at the ready, and looking calmly and confidently at the conductor. Also, the conductor will start to be confident in you as a musician, and feel more comfortable with the band. It's for another blog post, but this pays off in countless ways.

Listen to the band.

This sounds obvious, but can sometimes be the hardest thing to do. Especially in the beginning stages of being a musician, it's easy to get buried in your own part and play your own notes and worry about your own thing. Try to remember that your part is only one component of a large, complex machine and won't make sense without being connected to and aligned with what the rest of the band is doing. Every time you play a note, try to listen to everything that's going on in the entire band a make a conscious decision about what you're contributing to the music.

Nothing is more important than keeping time, unless staying together is at risk.

I see this a lot in jazz band settings, but it applies everywhere and especially in performance. One player feels like s/he is, "right," about where the pulse is, and keeps doggedly playing at that tempo even if s/he's straying far behind or getting noticeably ahead of the band. There is definitely merit to keeping great time, driving the band, and locking in a groove, but if it starts to tear the band apart, you've got to give a little ground. Again, listen to the band and watch the conductor, and you'll be able to make a good decision about whether to hold your ground or flex.

When it comes right down to it, it's much more important to keep the band together than to keep them at a specific tempo.

Your band teacher is right, even if your private teacher disagrees.

As someone who has taught private lessons for a long time and taught band, I see both sides of this argument. Your private teacher's number one job is to make your percussion life better, but sometimes they can train-wreck it by saying, "I'm the expert, and your band teacher plays trombone. Don't do it their way." The last thing your band director needs is for you to proclaim that s/he's wrong in front of the whole class.

Most times (this is what I tell my students), you can apply a certain concept at school and another outside of the classroom. Or, better, have a private conversation with your band director at an appropriate time (wait until they're not swamped) and say something like, "I'm taking private lessons with so-and-so, and there's a little bit of conflict between what s/he's teaching and what you're teaching. Can you help me clarify that?"

Chances are that your teacher is either going to explain why s/he wants a certain thing, or s/he's going to call your private teacher and learn something new. This will help you, your director and the band, not to mention grow some very important relationships.

You're better, brighter and more capable than you know. Don't ever think you're not.

There's nothing that makes me crazier than young people (or any people, really) missing out on great things simply because they're lazy or make a dumb choice, or sometimes don't make a choice and just miss the opportunity. I'm not saying throw caution to the wind, but I am saying that you shouldn't be afraid to play out, be a star and believe that you're a good musician. Are you going to be Dave-Weckl-good at age 13? Probably not. But neither was Dave Weckl!

Those students who are legitimately teachable and are willing to try their hardest at anything - especially new things - are those that will grow the fastest and likely go the further in music and in life.

Happy drumming!

*Why did I get called to sub for a 13-year-old? Her parents told the band teacher, "We are taking our kids to Disneyland, but we don't want them to know until we are getting in the car to leave. Is there any way you can cover our daughter's parts at the concert without her knowing about it?" AWESOME!! I was happy to do it, and it was a great reminder to me of what it's like to be learning this great art we call, "music."

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