School Band Percussion 101

Kid - “I wanna join band.”
Parent - “That’s wonderful! What instrument do you want to play?"
Kid - “The drums!”
Parent - Silence

Parents, if this conversation sounds familiar you may be suffering from a case of "percussive misinformativ-itis." Fear not! Far from a chronic headache of blast-beats and drum rolls, band percussion can be a literal symphony of sounds and textures. A burgeoning percussion student will soon discover that the decision to "play the drums" in school means learning all the note-reading skills of his/her peers as well as developing proficiency on a half-dozen unique instruments. This instrument choice, however, can become overwhelming as parents feel the pressure to decide what equipment to buy.

First Purchase

The most obvious first instrument choice for a new percussion student is a snare drum. Beginning lessons will focus on stick technique and rudiments, so a snare kit with a stand, case and sticks is an essential purchase. We recommend the Ludwig LE2477RBR drum kit with rolling bag as a first purchase for your new drummer.

Concert Band and Orchestra

Within any music program, a multitude of options exist for new instrumentalists looking to explore the percussive arts. Concert band and orchestra will usually require an entrance audition, and ensembles such as marching band and jazz band may or may not be extra-curricular. The process of choosing the correct sticks depends on what type of music your student will be performing. Band and orchestra will require specific sticks, as well as mallets for timpani and xylophone. We recommend the Vic Firth SD1 General, the Vic Firth T1 Timpani Mallets, and the Mike Balter “Band Director’s Special” pre-pack.

Jazz Band

If your student gravitates towards the drumset, jazz band may be an appropriate choice. Most programs require students to audition for a concert band spot, and jazz band class may not be included as part of the curricular program. Jumping into the world of the drumset can be daunting for families without space (or distance from the neighbors) to accommodate a full acoustic kit. Keep in mind, however, there are drum mutes that work quite well for practice, and of course, the option of an electric drumset. As far as regular sets go, the Gretsch Catalina Club Kit is also an inexpensive standard drum set for students looking for a be-bop trap set.

Good Vibrations

While drumset may be the obvious choice for jazz oriented percussionists, vibraphone is also an option and the request to "play vibes" will definitely perk up any director’s ears. We recommend the Mike Balter Pro Vibe 23 Mallets with rattan handles for vibraphone.

Marching Band

Drumline and marching band go hand-in-hand with football season, and this activity requires a special set of implements. Most, if not all, programs provide drums, and depending on the assigned spot, it is a good idea to purchase a personal set of sticks or mallets.

Holding The Line

For percussionists in the drum line, we recommend the Vic Firth Ralph Hardimon SRH Marching Snare Drumstick, the Vic Firth Corpsmaster Multi Tenor Stick or the Vic Firth Corpsmaster Marching Bass Drum Mallet. Side note - if your student is playing marching bass drum in the line, be sure to purchase the correct mallet that corresponds to the size of his/her drum.

In The Pit

If your percussionist is performing in the front-ensemble (pit), we recommend the Mike Balter Chorale Series Birch Handle Marimba Mallets and the Vic Firth T3 Staccato Mallets. Again, the Mike Balter “Band Director’s Special” pre-pack is a good investment as your student will likely perform on more than one instrument if he/she is placed in the front-ensemble.

Keeping Time

A percussionist’s best friend is his/her metronome. No setup is complete without a quality time-keeper and most brands can be adapted to project through headphones or an amplifier in high-volume situations. We recommend the Boss DB-60 Dr. Beat Metronome for general applications. Drum set musicians will also appreciate the Vic Firth SIH1 Isolation Headphones. These headphones feature an internal metronome as well as volume control, and a line-in for playback and monitor mixes.

Taking The Next Step

It is important to note that this guide is intended for percussionists who are entering their school music programs without much if any prior experience. As your student progresses, choices will be made regarding instrument specialties and style preferences. Mallet/keyboard instruments such as marimbas and vibraphones can cost thousands of dollars and tend to take up a large foot-print of space in a house or apartment. Timpani can be even more expensive, and transportation alone requires a large van or truck. Even a drum set can be a financial and spatial investment. While no student should be discouraged from pursuing a specialized percussion instrument due to cost or space concerns, most band programs provide access to these instruments during school hours. Every attempt to take advantage of school-owned equipment should be made before a student commits to purchasing his/her instrument.

On A Final Note

While this guide provides you with the tools to properly equip your budding percussionist, there is no substitute for a good teacher. Practicing technique and mindsets correctly from the beginning can save time later and build the foundation for a lifetime of amateur or professional playing. While we don't have listings for great teachers on Reverb (yet), you can at least make sure your child is prepared with the right tools when you do find the right instructor.

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