Monday, April 3, 2017
IN THIS ISSUE:
When Palen Music Center asked me to write an article about beginning percussion class, I was so excited! I have been known to frequently get on my soapbox about how the first year of band is by far the most important year. We have the opportunity to shape students' musical habits from the very start, and we all know it is much easier to teach a great habit than it is to break a bad one. I am also the first to admit that there are tons of correct ways to start beginners, and teachers should do what works for their teaching style and for their students. If I were not a percussionist and needed to teach beginning percussion class I would want to know these things:
In this article, I will go over all of these things. I won't cover the basics that we teach in all beginning classes (notes, basic rhythms, basic theory), so we can really get down to the percussion specifics.
I recruit percussionists when they are fifth graders. My percussion audition involves a five-step coordination test that involves hands and feet. These are the steps:
Typically, the kids who end up in my class can do at least four out of the five steps correctly. I award partial points if they can teach themselves a coordination skill on the spot. I do not have a piano requirement because I know I can teach kids how to read music, but it is much harder for uncoordinated kids to be successful in percussion class. My motto is, "Set students up for success!" That is also how I present audition results to parents.
In my class, we start on bell kit. If we had the resources to start every kid on a marimba, I would definitely do that! I teach basic grip. The students know all of the grip check points: fulcrum between the index finger and the thumb, thumb points toward the end of the stick or mallet, fingers wrap around the mallet, close the gap, palm is flat to the floor. I focus mostly on basic stroke, though. I use a high ninety-degree triangle as a constant check point. Here is how you do it. Make a ninety-degree angle between the mallets on your bells. Then lift from the wrists, not the elbows, but keep the triangle. Notice that you cannot go too high in the triangle, or your mallets will split apart at the top. We always start our stroke in the high triangle and end the stroke in the high triangle. Another fantastic thing the high triangle will do is make students play with their palms flat to the floor. You'll notice that if students try to play thumbs up, it is almost impossible to make a high triangle, but with palms flat, it is easy. It is so much easier to say, "Find your triangle," than to go over all grip and stroke checkpoints all the time. Grip and stroke work the same way on the drum pad, but when I teach them using bells, I can teach note names and locations at the same time. I also teach notes while I teach paradiddles, double paradiddles, paradiddlediddles, and other stickings. In fact, we play the quarter and eighth note rhythm lessons in our drum pad book on our bell kit in addition to the lessons in the mallet book.
Let's talk stickings. There are lots of schools of thought on this topic. I use a right-hand lead sticking system because I feel like it helps with rhythmic recognition and reading when the same rhythm is played with the same sticking every time. For quarter notes, put right hand on beats one and three and two and four. We start in 4/4 time, and by the time I introduce new time signatures, stickings are pretty second nature, so it isn't tough to transition. For eighth notes, right hand is on the numbers and left hand is on the "te's." For sixteenth notes, right hand plays numbers and te's. Left hand plays ti's and ta's. That makes the rhythms "1, 2, rest, 4," "1, te, rest, te," and "1, ti, rest ta," all have the same sticking: right, left, left. After all, those rhythms are all identical, so why not play them with the same sticking? It has worked pretty well for me.
I let the kids start drum pad for the first time at the end of October, once they know all of their major scales, thirds, and arpeggios. From October until the end of the school year we alternate days on bells and drum pad. At first, we focus on rhythm and stroke, just to get the new feel. Drum pad is much bouncier than bells, so students always have a tendency to play too high, but if you focus on keeping the triangle, it is easy to fix. I quickly introduce sixteenth note combinations "1 ti te" and "1 te ta." I also quickly introduce two new concepts.
The buzz is one of the first things we do on drum pad. Every kid wants to know how to do a "drumroll please!" I teach buzz rolls by bouncing the stick as many times as it will bounce on each hand. We go slowly at first and experiment with putting pressure on the fulcrum to speed up and slow down the bounce. Then we speed up our bounce and overlap buzzes from hand to hand. Within a few lessons, I have students try to stop the bounce after two, creating a diddle. Make sure they aren't muscling out two notes and that it is a legitimate bounce. Once everyone understands, they get to make it into the 50/50 club, a fun and exclusive club invented by Palen Music's own percussion extraordinaire, Charlie Bartrug. To make the club, they have to do 50 perfect diddles on each hand with no mistakes. Once the majority of the class makes the 50/50 club, I teach the "diddle exercise." We do alternating eighth notes, RLRLRLRL, as a check pattern. Then we just bounce the right hand (RRL RRL RRL RRL). The rhythm should sound like "1 ti te." If it doesn't, the diddle may be too open or closed. It is a great way to reinforce sixteenth note combinations while teaching diddle control. The next lesson we will bounce only the left hand (R LLR LLR LLR LL). It should sound like "1 te ta." Then once everyone can do those, we bounce both hands creating a roll (RRLLRRLLRRLLRRLL.) From there, we learn 17-stroke rolls, 9-stroke rolls, and 5-stroke rolls on the beat and on the te. Student progress dictates how quickly you can move on to the new concepts. After they can play the rolls, I have them read music with rolls. It is always best to teach sound and skill before sight for best understanding.
The other technique I introduce within two weeks of starting drum pad is stroke type. Most people use terms like "piston stroke, legato stroke, taps, down stroke, and up stroke." Those get confusing for sixth graders, so I use what my teacher, Andy Heitz, taught me. Each stroke type is two words: where the stroke starts and where it ends. Up-up stroke is what we have used since the beginning of the year as we start and end in a high triangle. Now we get to learn down-down strokes, up-down strokes, and down-up strokes. These are the foundations of accents and flams. Once we isolate the new stroke types, we start incorporating them into an eighth accent exercise where the check is down-down strokes and we accent the beat. Do a measure of check with the right hand, and then accent the beat and tap the te (up-down stroke followed by down-up). Then do the same thing with the left hand. Then we add an accent on the te (down-up stroke followed by up down). It is always fun to challenge the kids to tap their foot on the beat while they accent the te. Foot tap in percussion class is something we always do, and we always play with a metronome as well. Once everyone has grasped the accent exercises, I am able to introduce single hand flams (down-down stroke in one hand and up-up in the other hand). Then I can introduce alternating flams. I call them "switch flams" because one hand starts down and ends up and the other starts up and ends down. The hands switch places. From there you can teach flam-taps, which are really just "switch flams" with a tap between flams that is played by the lower hand.
By the end of the sixth-grade year, my goal is that my students will know all of the information they need to learn their seventh-grade snare and marimba all-region music at home on their own during the summer if they choose to do so. For our region, that means they need to know 5, 9, and 17 stroke rolls, sixteenth note combinations, flams, drags, accents, triplets, and dotted quarter and eighth note rhythms for drum pad. They also need to know how to read music on the bells with about a two-octave range. Then I feel like I have set them up for success!
I hope this article has been helpful to you! If you have any questions for me about recruiting or my teaching process, please feel free to e-mail me at email@example.com. I am happy to help! Thanks to Kirby Swinney and Palen Music for asking me to write this Palen Quick Note.
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