Keeping percussion students involved throughout every rehearsal can be a challenge, especially on pieces that don’t include several percussion parts. Below are some tips to help both avoid and respond to this challenge.
In a well-crafted piece of music, percussion parts are not simply an afterthought; they’re an integral part of the musical score. They often relate to other instruments performing similar or complementary parts. Consider the role the percussion section plays when selecting repertoire.
Also consider the number of students in the percussion section (as you would for any other section of the band). This can be challenging when trying to select music that will help develop all players, but a little thought in the selection of your pieces can ensure that all players are engaged.
It’s important to make sure you have the percussion instruments to cover potential pieces, too. Many programs have the basic instruments, such as a snare drum, a set of bells, etc., but don’t have all of the necessary accessory percussion instruments required for the piece.
To start, include percussionists in your warm-up. Because the percussion parts have been written as an integral part of every exercise and chorale, consider using Sound Innovations Ensemble Development to help develop ensemble skills and provide an opportunity to perform in all areas of the percussion section.
A multiple bounce/buzz roll on the snare drum can be used if dynamic changes are incorporated in a long-note warm-up. To help the rest of the ensemble with counting long notes, the snare drum and accessory instruments can provide an underlying rhythmic figure (tuplets, quadruplets, mixed rhythms, etc.). This will help keep percussionists active as members of the ensemble, help control the balance, and give players much needed warm-up time.
Incorporate tuning at the end of a chorale or scale, and ask your students to compare their pitch, quality, and balance. By including balance in the equation, the percussion section will be engaged as well. This is especially true of the student playing timpani (a position that should be rotated). By having percussionists identify their role in the music, they will not only hear how their part fits in, but will feel more involved with the group and recognize their importance in the band.
Keep them Playing
When appropriate, consider doubling the percussion parts (mallets, snare, etc.), especially if you have an overstocked percussion section. Remember that it’s an educational experience first, and an artistic one second. When it comes to the actual performance, you can always scale down the parts to the originally desired orchestration.
In rehearsal, when working with other sections, try to keep the percussion section playing as much as possible. For example, if you want to hear a particular section (flutes, clarinets, etc.), ask for flutes and percussion or clarinets and percussion. This not only keeps the percussion section engaged, but lends rhythmic support to the other instruments as well.
Remember that mallets frequently double the winds, and timpani the low brass; this is an easy way to involve those percussionists. You may also find it useful to have accessory percussion instruments (tambourine, woodblock, castanets, etc.) double difficult rhythms to help other players in the ensemble become more confident rhythmically. Thorough score study will ensure these parts are not overlooked.
If a percussionist is not playing a written part, consider having the player ghost the rhythm of another section. This not only gives him or her something to do, but encourages the player to listen to the other instrument parts to solve any rhythmic challenges in the melody.
As mentioned above, make sure your percussionists switch instruments frequently. This ensures they don’t become complacent or comfortable specializing on just one instrument. If you have players who have advanced skills in certain areas, use them to mentor less-experienced players.
Encourage the entire percussion section to support each other through mentoring and positive role modeling.
When There Are Rests
When a player has a long section of rests, consider having the student chart/write the entry of each section on his or her music by using the lead instrument and/or rhythmic figure as a guide. This will encourage the student to listen to what the rest of the ensemble is doing.
Let Them Know the Importance of Their Role
Make percussion a priority in your ensemble rehearsal. Share your vision about the music with the percussion section so they can use their skills to support you. Having discussions and dialogue with students regarding the role of percussion in the repertoire will not only encourage you to be more involved through your own score studies, but will also help students achieve a clearer, overall view of what the composer intended.