• March 1, 2024

The Percusionist’s Role

“Why do you want to play the drums?” For example, I ask my students on their first lesson, “What made you decide to learn how to play the drums?” Usually, the responses are something like “I like how they sound” or “they look cool.” Perhaps a family member carried them out. Sometimes the response is, “I’m really good at Guitar Hero!” I occasionally get the response, “I don’t know?” The excuse that they were influenced by the kind of music they like to listen to is almost never the case. For the sake of this article, I’ve defined “drums” and “drummers” to include percussion and percussionists.

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When we start a hobby or learn to play an instrument, many, if not most of us do so because we first see ourselves in an ideal, flawless, or ultimate state. For example, we could buy a book because we envision ourselves reading it while cuddled up in that comfortable chair, with just the right amount of light streaming through the pages, calm music thumping along in the background, a crackling fire, and soft snow falling outside.

That may not seem all that different from the thoughts that enthusiastic children have when they choose to get a drum set. There’s a seductive romanticism about it. After hearing their reasons, I politely disprove their notions of what learning to play the drums truly requires!

The sentence that comes before this one is satirical, but it also has some truth to it. I am aware that a lot of band directors struggle to control the quantity of drummers that enlist in their ensembles. After reading this piece, perhaps all those wannabe drummers will have something to think about. By explaining these facts to my students, I hope to increase their understanding of what drummers do rather than deter potential drummers from pursuing a career in drumming.

I periodically have parents or children ask me, “When will I get to play a song?” after a few weeks of teaching. The first response on a lengthy list of mine begins, “Songs are not played by drummers.” I doubt very many people are musicians, yet there are countless numbers of people who sing. On the other hand, percussionists and drummers accompany tunes.

In short, the exercises I give the pupils range from one to four measures and are designed to improve a certain area of drumming. These activities typically target three domains of development:

Roll development using stick guidance
designs with or without taps or accents

I also provide reading assignments and fundamentals to my pupils.

Even though I’ve made it very clear what my pupils should be striving for and why, they still ask eagerly, “When will I get to play a song?” My students usually respond enthusiastically, “Yes!” when I ask whether they want to learn anything new.

Now, I will play for my students many snare drum parts for band pieces (such as a Sousa march), drum set parts for popular rock ‘n’ roll songs, and symphonic pieces (such as a classical pop tune), all of which they have probably heard at some point in their life. These sections are intentionally devoid of titles. I give them a minute to examine them and test their ability to recognize the object only by its appearance. If not, I’ll take up the position in their place. If this doesn’t give away the title, I’ll play a recording of the song. The next reaction is usually a loud “Oh!”

The main objective of this exercise is to compare these literary works with the assigned studies and etudes. Most of the time, students are unaware of the differences between the two. All together, we usually come to the conclusion that the band, symphonic, and drumset examples are quite repetitious. You’ll play a measure or two here and twenty measures there since the parts are brief. For these parts, a mature intermediate degree of experience is usually sufficient. Studies and etudes usually do not have a great deal of repetition or random playing.

The second purpose of this practice is to make the student aware of the drum sections in the music they are listening to.

Some people find snare drum exercises and etudes to be tedious, repetitive, and even uninteresting. Band and symphonic music might potentially alleviate some of the variety seen in etudes and studies, as we have previously established that they differ from the literature in this regard. Students have their sights set on learning how to play the drum set, even if it could be too early to start them. Popular rock ‘n’ roll songs that I play for the students and band and symphonic music have a lot in common, including repetition. Even though band, symphonic, and drum set music contain a lot of repetitious and boring periods, drummers nevertheless need to treat these sections with seriousness and musicality.

At this time, most students begin to comprehend their role as drummers. I remind them that focus is one of the most important skills a drummer should possess. Excellent tempo control is the most important component.

John Riley, a writer and jazz recording artist, states that “the drummer’s main job is to make the band feel comfortable.” This applies to the snare and bass drums as well as the whole percussion set. Riley’s suggestions are just the tip of the iceberg; in all of his writings, he goes into deeper detail and describes the precise tasks that drummers need to complete in order to make the band feel at ease.

Even while keeping track of time and controlling pace are important, there are other things to think about. The title of the composition is occasionally revealed by a few accents or a little tempo change when I’m playing the snare drum sections and orchestral samples to the band. Expert musicians constantly incorporate characteristics into printed pages that are just not possible to capture, such as softer accents, additional spacing between notes that defies quantification or note value explanation, or fills supplied where none is needed. These short or long sections can help the ensemble transition smoothly or better let the composition to develop or settle.

Attending live performances and listening to a diverse range of recordings in many genres are two essential ways that drummers may acquire and refine these ideas. Drummers must realize that their role is to take the lead, not to follow. The argument that “it’s hard to play this without the band” is used by a drummer does not make them worthy of the designation of drummer. Rather, it should be impossible for the band or any individual member to do their part without the drummer. In a similar vein, being a drummer who can follow his part, comprehend the “road map,” and keep an eye on the conductor to make any necessary modifications at any time requires a great deal of preparation, awareness, and sensitivity. A band director will also require organized drummers. Drummers have several instruments to play, a wide range of techniques to employ, sticks, mallets, beaters, and the ability to go from instrument to instrument without any problems. It’s not only about music and an instrument to maintain.

Drummers and percussionists will surely have their share of solo or feature moments in practically every ensemble; yet, good solos and features come from honing all these fundamental talents.

Teach aspiring students and seasoned performers the importance of concentration, focusing on continuity, tempo control, timekeeping, leading, listening, and bending time appropriately. You can also demonstrate how to follow a conductor to lighten his workload, use technical know-how and dynamic control, add a figure here and there to help with transitions, organize, improvise, and create solos. Using the right examples will yield an accurate analysis of the function of a drummer.