My Ongoing Drum Set Journey, Pt. 1

Reflections

Over the past few months, I’ve done as much as I can to improve a particular aspect of my percussion abilities: drum set. While furiously writing my doctoral document, I was also doing my best to perfect basic drum set grooves. It had been the first time since high school I had lessons solely devoted to the drum set. Looking back, I will be the first to admit that drum set was largely overlooked throughout my musical studies. However, now that I’m done with school, I find myself playing more drum set gigs than marimba gigs! I’ve had some time to reflect on my drum set journey. For the most part, I want to answer why such a vital percussion skill was left out of my life

There’s only so many resources and only so much time.

As I’ve told many aspiring educators, drum set is a tough instrument to teach. There’s usually only one set in the band room and there’s always a decent sized percussion section. Also, much of the drum set repertoire is limited to jazz band, which is an extracurricular activity for many band programs. In my high school jazz band, I was assigned piano and vibraphone. My percussion peers, who weren’t as comfortable on tonal instruments, were assigned drum set. While I understand this was a logical compromise, it was detrimental. By pigeon-holing me and my percussion peers into certain roles, we were not given the opportunity to improve on weaker aspects of our playing.

For those who teach or take private lessons, there’s only so much time to go over everything in the music folder. When I was a youngster, I remember always having All State audition music, honor band parts, and pieces for the next concerto competition. I was pressured by family and teachers to pursue these events. It’s difficult to cover all that in just a 30-60 minute lesson, let alone make time for drum set.

Drum set may or may not be a part of the typical percussion degree.

Depending on the degree, drum set lessons may or may not be covered in the percussion degree. For me, it was not at all a major part of my undergraduate studies and was only a part of my graduate studies because I took the initiative to get the extra lessons. Unfortunately drum set was hard to fit in because I was expected to focus on my skills in orchestral percussion, chamber music, and solo repertoire during my degrees in percussion performance. Like in high school, there just wasn’t enough time to add drum set to the mix. If anything, I remember a certain snobbery towards drum set. Drummers studied in the jazz department, and percussionists studied in the percussion department.

Myself and other factors

While there are many factors that prevented me from studying drum set, the biggest mental block was myself. As I grew older, my head started filling with thoughts that prevented me from learning a new skill:

  • I’m a better mallet player so I should just stick to that.
  • The guys always play drum set. They’re better than me, anyways.
  • I haven’t been taking lessons, so I probably shouldn’t try it on my own.
  • I’ve got to learn this marimba solo, this snare drum excerpt, and this timpani etude. There’s isn’t enough time to learn drum set.
  • I’m too embarrassed that someone will hear me practice on the school drum set.

As I look back, most of these claims were just excuses. I was afraid. I was afraid to step up and get on the drum set. I was afraid to admit that I had a weakness. I was afraid to ask for lessons. I was afraid to fight my instrument assignments. At the same time, there were people who didn’t take me seriously when I asked for lessons. There were even some who made fun of me for not “really” knowing how to play drum set. It was frustrating and severely isolating. Having these fears and doubts made me feel less valid as a percussionist and a musician. So I avoided drum set for a long time.

What these experiences have taught me, thus far.

Fortunately, not every student will face these same hurdles, but I have noticed similarities throughout my time teaching. As a percussion teacher, I’m doing my best to implement the lessons I’ve learned into how I teach my students.

Be sure that your percussionists have a well-rounded education and set of experiences.

There comes a time where you should rely on your percussionists’ strengths. But you should also recognize the importance of providing a well-rounded education. Learning to play popular music on drum set is just as valuable to a percussionist’s education as preparing for an All-State audition.

Recognize a student’s workload and balance that with their goals.

As I’ve been teaching, I’ve noticed the pressures placed on my students. There is school work, auditions, and competitions. As a teacher, please assess a student’s workload. If your student had started lessons wanting to incorporate drum set but can’t find the time, perhaps help them reevaluate what they truly want to accomplish. If your percussionist wants to major in music, be sure that they have at least a good foundation, including drum set. If learning to play the drum tab to a favorite rock tune can be a way to de-stress, be sure the end of lessons include this instruction. If a student wants to have two separate weekly lessons, one on drum set and another for other percussion instruments, see if this is a possibility in their schedule.

Drum set is important in a percussionist’s career.

Although it is important to prepare for a solo recital, play orchestral percussion, and put together chamber groups, drum set is probably going to be the most marketable gig during and after college. Thus, don’t limit your skills, and don’t miss the opportunity to learn this instrument.

Don’t be afraid to learn.

I want my students to have a solid foundation in their percussive studies. But most importantly, I want my students to have the confidence to try something new. Perhaps the biggest lesson I have personally learned from drum set is to not fear vulnerability. I recognized that I’ve been wanting to study drum set. And I’ve learned to be okay with the late start. After all, music is a life-long learning experience. Because of my experiences, I now have the foresight to help my students be fearless and to steer them in a positive direction.

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