One of the most important steps to a successful beginning band is helping students find an instrument in which they are well suited for. In my school district, we currently test all interested 5th graders during the school day. We will travel to 5 different elementary schools and test around 200-250 students for the beginning band. This results in about 3 – 5 minutes to individually test potential percussionists. The process I use to test students interested in percussion looks at specific elements. What I am looking for in a beginning percussionist is:
- The ability to keep steady time.
- Basic independence between limbs.
- Ability to demonstrate basic snare drum skills (grip, stroke, rhythms, etc.)
The beauty in this process is that it can be changed to fit the individual needs of any program. You can choose to expand portions of the activities, or cut them short if you feel a student will be better suited for a different instrument.
Activity # 1 — Tap & Pat
Supplies: Metronome and chair (optional)
- Ask the student to tap their right food with the beat.
- While keeping the right foot tapping, pat your right hand on your leg with the beat.
- While keeping the right foot tapping, pat your left hand on your leg with the beat.
- While keeping the right foot tapping, alternate patting your right and left hands to the beat.
One of the first areas I look for in potential percussionists is their ability to keep a steady pulse, and basic independence between their limbs. If I need to model this activity, I will demonstrate it very briefly. Try to keep the coaching to a minimum. Through this activity, I have a basic assessment of their ability to find the pulse, keep it, and the independence between their limbs. A majority of beginning percussion development revolves around these basic skills.
Activity #2 — Wrist Strokes
Supplies: Pad or drum, two (2) pairs of concert snare drum sticks, metronome (optional)
Adjust the pad or drum to the correct height for the student. Continue to face each other, with one person on each side of the drum.
- Hand the student a pair of concert snare drum sticks; you then pick up yours. Using matched grip, I will place my hands in playing position on the pad or drum. Then ask the student to “make your hands look like mine.” After the student has attempted to copy my hands, I will point out some basic elements of matched grip: thumb and first finger on the stick, the back fingers gently wrapped around, no pointer finger, and turning the hands over.
- After I have demonstrated and taught the basic elements of the grip, I might make a few small corrections to their grip. What we want to see is if they can mimic you with little to no instruction.
The second portion of this activity is to see how their basic wrist motion works.
- Place metronome to 70-80 bpm.
- Demonstrate a basic wrist stroke, and point out what “hinge” you are using.
- From playing position, ask the student to make a right-hand wrist stroke.
- After they have demonstrated a basic wrist stroke on each hand, I will ask them to play “eight on a hand,” or I will say something to the effect of “let’s see if we can do that eight times on each hand without stopping.”
- Eight on a Hand: RRRR RRRR LLLL LLLL
At this point, I can decide pretty confidently if I am going to continue testing the student. If I am seeing a student struggle with playing a natural wrist stroke, I will make some corrections and try again. Some common errors that students might do:
- Thumb sticking out over other fingers – “Thumbs Up.”
- Pointer finger going down the stick.
- Arm stroking.
- Digging tip of the stick into the head, and not letting it rebound.
If these issues exist after some minor instruction, I will talk with the student and help encourage them to find another instrument they are interested in. Personally, I am not as concerned if the student starts with the sticks in down playing position or up playing position. I am more focused on the natural movement in the wrist.
Further, I will continue to assess the student’s ability to keep a steady pulse with the metronome.
Activity # 3 – Rhythm Game – “Call & Response”
Supplies: Pad or drum, two (2) pairs of concert snare drum sticks, and metronome (optional).
Activity #3 is an extension to Activity #2. I will often do both activities back to back, as they tend to flow into each other.
- After completing Activity #2, I will tell the student that I am going to play a rhythm, and I would like for them to play it back for me.
- Start with a simple quarter note and quarter rest rhythms. Perform the rhythm one time for the student, and then ask them to play it back.
- Progressively move to rhythms that use eighth notes, sixteenth notes, and eighth note triplets. Keep each rhythm example to one measure in length. Sixteenth note and eighth note triplet rhythms might initially seem like complex rhythms for an instrument test. However, you would be surprised how quickly students can pick up on them. This also includes basic syncopation.
- Give the student 1-3 tries on each example before moving to the next one.
What you want to see is if the student continues to use a natural wrist stroke, and demonstrates basic rhythmic capabilities. Some students might mirror your sticking, and that is fine. Most importantly, you want to see if students can perform basic quarter and eighth note rhythms with a metronome and 90% accuracy. I try to limit student attempts to 3 tries per rhythm. This activity will be the biggest help in deciding if the student should pursue percussion.
Should I Test Mallets?
I often do not test potential percussionists on mallets. The development that needs to take place to successfully play mallets, is too detailed to do in a 3-5 minute percussion test. I will have the mallets set up next to the pad or drum during testing. I want my potential percussionist to know that we will be learning both drums and mallets.
Do I Require the Student to Have Taken Piano Lessons?
Personally, I do not require potential percussionists to have taken piano lessons prior to starting beginning percussion. This is a unique requirement that works for some programs, but not all. The benefits and detriments of requiring a piano background is a topic for another article. However, I will leave this topic with the statement that all potential students with or without a piano background can be successful as a percussionist, especially mallet percussion.
Other Things to Consider…
Being a percussionist requires the student to be a very independent person. In many settings percussionists are often one to a part, and are constantly moving between various instruments. Further, beginning percussionists are primarily learning two instruments (pad/drum & mallets), as well as various accessory percussion instruments. Percussionists are often stationed in the back of the band room, which is furthest away from the director. This combination means that beginning percussionists need to be able to work independently and have a strong willingness to learn multiple instruments.
With this system, you can choose to use a pass/fail or a point rating system. When I first introduced this system to our instrument testing day, I used the point rating system. I used a 1-10 point scale to rate students. If students achieve an 8-10, then they generally demonstrated the ability to keep a steady pulse, good wrist/hand mechanics, and performed most rhythms perfectly or near perfectly. Students who scored a 7 or below would not be allowed to enroll in percussion and are encouraged to find a wind instrument that better fits them.
The result of this process is the ability to select potential students that are well suited for percussion based on specific criteria. This process will also identify students that are not well suited for percussion. I find that having this type of process and data allows me to have more meaningful conversations with parents when they want to know why their child was not selected for percussion. It can also help a student make the decision if they are choosing between percussion and another wind instrument. Overall, the process of fitting beginning instrumentalists to their instruments is an individual one for each program. I hope this process helps with the selection of your beginning percussionists. If you would like to talk more about any ideas presented here, please do not hesitate to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kyle Lutes is an active educator, clinician, judicator, arranger, and composer. He currently serves as the Assistant Band Director and Percussion Director for Seymour Community Schools. He is a graduate of Indiana State University where he learned a Bachelor of Music Education and a Master of Music in Percussion Performance. He is a proud member of the VicFirth Education Team, Percussive Arts Society, and National Association of Music Educators. You can learn about him at www.kylelutespercussion.com
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