The Role of the Percussionist


“Why do you want to play the drums?” or “What made you decide to learn how to play the drums?” are questions I pose to my pupils during their first class. “I like the way they sound” or “they look cool” are typically the replies. It’s possible that a family member performed them. Occasionally, the reply is, “I’m very skilled at Guitar Hero!” Every now and then, I receive the reply, “I don’t know?” Almost never is the explanation—fill in the blank—that they were influenced by the type of music they enjoy listening to. I’ve included percussion and percussionists in my definition of “drums” and “drummers” for the sake of this article.

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Many, if not most of us, take up a pastime or learn to play an instrument because we initially picture ourselves in an ideal, perfect, or ultimate state. For instance, we might purchase a book because we picture ourselves curled up in that cozy chair, the ideal amount of light falling on the pages, gentle music playing in the background, a roaring fire, and softly falling snow outside.

That might not be that dissimilar from the ideas that excited kids have when they decide to pick up a drum kit. It has an alluring romance about it. I gently refute their ideas about what learning to play the drums actually entails after hearing their motivations!

Although the preceding statement is meant to be cynical, it also contains some truth. I am aware that many band directors find it difficult to manage the number of drummers who join their programs. Maybe all those aspiring drummers will find something to ponder after reading this essay. My goal in sharing these things with my pupils is to help them understand what a drummer does, not to discourage someone from considering a career in drumming.

After a few weeks of instruction, I occasionally have parents or kids ask me, “When will I get to play a song?” I have a long list of replies that start with the phrase “songs are not played by drummers.” Although I doubt many individuals play music, there are uncountable numbers of people who sing. However, songs are accompanied by drummers and percussionists.

To put it briefly, the resources I provide the students consist of one- to four-measure exercises meant to enhance a particular aspect of drumming. There are usually three areas of development in these exercises:

Roll development with stick control
Patterns with or without accents or taps

In addition, I provide my students reading assignments and rudiments.

I’ve been very explicit about the purpose and objectives that my students should be aiming for, but I still get asked impatiently, “When will I get to play a song?” When I ask my pupils whether they want to learn something familiar, they always say “Yes!” with enthusiasm.

I will now demonstrate to my students a number of snare drum parts for band pieces (like a Sousa march), orchestral pieces (like a classical pop piece), and drum set parts for well-known rock ‘n’ roll songs, all of which they have undoubtedly heard at some point in their lives. These sections purposefully lack their titles. I give them a minute to look at them and see if they can identify the piece just by looking at it. If not, I’ll assume the role on their behalf. I’ll play a recording of the tune if this doesn’t reveal the title. The response that follows is typically a loud “Oh!”

Comparing the allotted studies and etudes with these literary pieces is the primary goal of this practice. Students typically don’t know the distinctions between the two. Collectively, we typically conclude that the drumset, symphonic, and band examples are quite repetitive. The sections are short; you’ll play a measure or two here and 20 measures there. Typically, only a mature intermediate degree of experience is needed for these portions. Studies and etudes typically don’t include a lot of repetition or sporadically occurring playing.

Making the pupil aware of the drum parts in the music they are listening to is the second goal of this exercise.

Exercises and etudes on the snare drum can seem tiresome, monotonous, and even dull for some people. We’ve already determined that etudes and studies have more variation than the literature, so adding band and symphonic music might help with some of this. Even if it might be too soon to start a student on the drum set, students nevertheless have their sights set on it. There are similarities between the band and symphonic music and the popular rock ‘n’ roll songs I play for the students, including a lot of repetition. Drummers must approach repetition in band, symphonic, and drum set music with seriousness and musicality, regardless of how tiresome, repetitive, and dull these passages may be.

Most pupils start to understand their position as a drummer at this point. I tell them that one of the most crucial abilities a drummer should have is concentration. The most crucial factor is superb tempo control.

According to jazz recording musician and author John Riley, “the drummer’s main job is to make the band feel comfortable.” This holds true for the entire percussion kit as well as the snare and bass drums. Riley’s advice is only the top of the iceberg; in all of his publications, he delves further and outlines the specific duties that drummers must perform to create a comfortable environment for the band.

While maintaining time and regulating speed are crucial, there are other factors to consider. Every now and then when I’m playing the orchestral samples and snare drum parts to the band, a few accents or a small tempo shift reveal the piece’s title. Professional musicians are always adding elements to the printed page that are simply impossible to record, like lighter accents, extra spacing between notes that defies measurement or explanation in terms of note values, or fills added in places where none is called for. These brief or long passages can provide a smooth transition for the ensemble or better allow the piece to build or settle.

Drummers can learn and hone these concepts in a very crucial way by going to concerts and listening to a wide variety of recordings in different styles. Drummers need to understand that their job is to lead, not to follow. A drummer who uses the justification that “it’s hard to play this without the band” is not deserving of the title of drummer. Rather, without the drummer, the band, or any member of the band, should find it difficult to play their part. Similar to this, it takes a lot of planning, awareness, and sensitivity to be a drummer who can follow his part, understand the “road map,” and keep an eye on the conductor to make any adjustments at any time. Organized drummers will also be necessary for a band director. Drummers have more than just music and an instrument to maintain; they also have a variety of instruments to play, a vast range of methods to use, sticks, mallets, beaters, and the ability to go from instrument to instrument without incident.

In almost any ensemble, drummers and percussionists will undoubtedly have their fair share of solo or feature moments; yet, strong solos and features result from the development of all these core skills.

Show potential students and seasoned players the value of focus, emphasizing continuity, tempo control, timekeeping, leading, listening, bending time appropriately, following a conductor to ease his workload, utilizing technical expertise and dynamic control, sprinkling in a figure here and there to aid in transitions, organizing, improvising, and crafting solos. An accurate examination of the role of a drummer can be obtained by using the appropriate instances.