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10 Ways to Better Manage and Direct Your Percussionists

Ryan R. Laney

Before I begin, let me say that this article is not designed to address specific percussion playing techniques, grips, dampening techniques, or even specific conducting techniques. This article is instead designed to help you as a conductor (and likely non-percussionist) help your percussionists by understanding the things we see and feel in rehearsals that were never covered in your college methods classes. Along with identifying peculiar aspects of the percussionist’s daily rehearsal, this article aims to give suggestions on how to solve simple (but common) rehearsal and performance problems that can occur in the concert band, jazz band, marching band, and percussion ensemble settings.

1. Understand All Percussion Notation

Generally speaking, percussion music is very straightforward and has clear guidelines for who plays what and when. However, many times there are confusing instructions in the parts. This is especially prominent in parts that have multiple players on one page. Arrangers will sometimes just compile all of the percussion parts into 4 or 5 staves without regard to ease of reading or stage setup.

In addition, noteheads and part placement can be a task to interpret sometimes. X’s in a bass drum part, diamonds versus X’s in cymbal parts, a snare part on the standard “c” space suddenly changing to the “e” space above it, accents and tenuto markings, etc. are all things the average percussionist will encounter at some point. While uncommon in modern practice, these things do happen and can cause quite a hassle in your percussion section.

What you can do to help:
Study the percussion parts in your score for just a few minutes prior to the first rehearsal. Be sure to go through every single bar and make a note of anything that confuses you since it will also likely confuse your percussion section. Figure out what needs to be done in that part and write it down so you can tell your percussionists on day one. If you are absolutely lost and confused, ask a percussionist for help. If even that doesn’t help, e-mail the composer if possible.

2. Understand That Percussionists Play Multiple Instruments Every Day

Percussionists play multiple instruments of varying sizes and placement in the ensemble every rehearsal. It’s easy for other members of the band to go from one piece to another when they simply have to turn over their sheet music. In addition to playing different instruments from piece to piece, many parts in contemporary band music have percussionists playing multiple instruments on the same piece, sometimes with very tricky transitions. I once played a piece where the player had to play a note on crash cymbals followed by a chimes note in the very next measure, which is virtually impossible.

Often, players will get frustrated when a shaker or specific cymbal is missing, which is usually the result of someone else putting something where it doesn’t normally belong. This can cause both delays in your percussionists’ setup and unrest amongst your players: two things any band director can do without!

What you can do to help:
Give your percussionists an organized section complete with labels and adequate space for anything and everything they use. Labels are especially important since they let players easily know where things go without having to ask someone else in the section, or even you. Disputes on where something belongs are easily resolved this way, if they even come up at all.

Also, to help with planning, write the order of pieces on the board before class starts so that the percussionists can start setting up as soon as they get to class and can mentally prepare the order of tunes. Be sure to write individual movement numbers when applicable since different movements sometimes call for different percussion instrumentation. The less your percussionists need to set up, the better, and there’s no need preparing for pieces you won’t rehearse that day.

3. Help Out With Repetition And Rests

Percussion parts are often filled with two things: lots of repetition, and lots of rests. Some parts (for any percussion instrument) may repeat for 20 or 30 measures, and many transcriptions of older works for orchestra may be over seven or eight minutes long and only have three notes on a bass drum, or even just one crash cymbal note. This can result in very bored percussionists and often some missed counting of rests or measure repeats.

What you can do to help:
Go through the score and find places of extended rests or repeats in the percussion parts. Writing in things such as “+ Woodwinds” or “Low Brass Has Melody” when applicable, and then telling your percussionists will help them keep on track with their parts. Giving good cues for cut-offs or entrances are always advised as well. Marking these in your scores with a color or symbol unique to the percussion section will be beneficial to everyone.

Some schools avoid this problem altogether by having a separate class for percussionists where they can study their concert band music along with more advanced percussion ensemble music. This keeps your percussionists engaged in their work and also makes concert literature more enjoyable for them. See if there is any way such an arrangement can be worked out in your program’s schedule.

4. Make Your Percussionists Take Pride In Their Instrument

Many percussion sections across the country consist of worn-out marimba mallets, mismatched sticks, and cowbells with more dimples than a golf ball. The main cause of this is that many band programs provide every single mallet, stick, and accessory instrument to the percussionists. While this is a good idea on paper, it often leads to bad habits and generally uncaring attitudes towards the upkeep of the equipment due to a lack of true ownership.

What you can do to help:
Make your percussionists provide their own equipment. If your wind sections can spend the several hundred (or sometimes several thousand) dollars it takes to buy their instrument plus reeds, oils, etc., then your percussionists can spend the relative pocket change it takes to buy a few pairs of snare sticks, yarn mallets, hard plastic or rubber mallets, and some timpani mallets. Some school districts don’t allow the band program to require students to provide their own instruments or to pay for school-rented ones, but whenever possible the program should be implemented. The drawer of 6-year-old mallets in the percussion cabinet belongs in the trash.

Also, it’s important to make sure that your percussionists are not playing on shoddy equipment whenever possible. While it’s understandable that it’s not always in the band budget to get new timpani because the current ones are dented beyond feasibility, there is no excuse to ever have a triangle suspended by a shoestring (which I have surprisingly seen more than once) or to have cymbals rattling because there is no $.30 cymbal felt on the stand. Imagine that you had to play on those instruments each day yourself and do what you can to make the students feel proud to play them.

5. Help Them Plan And Manage Time And Space

Take a peek into the percussion cabinet and I bet there’s a good chance you’ll find old warm-up exercises, sheet music from last year’s marching show, and that temple block part that’s been missing from your copy of Sleigh Ride for as long as you can remember. This is not uncommon since many percussion arrangements have more copies of a single part than needed; the extras end up in the bottom of those drawers or get turned into paper airplanes.

The cabinet is not the only thing often in disarray in the percussion section. Many band directors complain about how their percussionists always seem to be slacking and are unable to keep pace with the band when moving from piece to piece, or even when moving from section to section of the same piece. Sound familiar? What most of these directors don’t realize, however, is that there are many unseen things that can be causing these problems, all of which have very simple solutions.

What you can do to help:
There are three main things we’re concerned with here:

    1. Disorganization of sheet music
    2. disorganization between pieces
    3. disorganization in the middle of one single piece

The first problem can be solved simply by making your percussionists use folders and never put sheet music in the percussion storage cabinets. This quickly leads to lost music and general shoddiness in the section. Make sure all extra parts are returned to the master set on the first day of new parts being issued. Having a list of assignments for who plays what instrument on each piece that is in some way written down(!) also helps immensely. It’s also important to make sure that your section as a whole agrees to a system of moving sheet music from stand to stand. Generally the method of having everyone keep their entire set with them, only moving music between pieces, works the best. However, the method of having everyone leave all of their music on each instrument’s respectable stand at the start of rehearsal also works as long as everyone agrees on it and no one accidentally takes someone else’s music after rehearsal.

Our second problem is the most easily solved of all. As mentioned earlier, write the order of music for that rehearsal on the board at the front of the room long before class starts. This will ensure that no matter how early percussion gets there they will be able to set up both physically and mentally for the rehearsal. This is something that every band director needs to get in the habit of doing, not only for the percussionists, but also for the winds and for the conductor.

The third problem here is really an issue that you are potentially setting up for yourself with the literature you pick, but even then there are ways to deal with it. Changing timpani tunings, going from snare sticks to brushes, moving from the chimes to the cymbals, etc. are just a few of the very common things percussionists deal with in the middle of one piece of music. Imagine an oboe player having to change reeds 4 times in one piece, or a trombone player having to use 5 different slides throughout a section of music. Going deep into a piece and then working backwards can cause some adversities in your percussion section if there are any unusual setups or timpani pedal changes. It is wise to tell your percussionists where the next rehearsal marks will be if you’re jumping around a bit and then, while they prepare, listen to the winds alone and diagnose any problems heard there. Even if there weren’t any problems to being with, it helps keep the pace moving and everyone in the band stays engaged.

6. Address Any Problems Concerning Unusual Stickings

This is a problem that most often appears in marching band, especially with your quad players. Oftentimes percussion writers will have an idea for a great visually appealing sticking around the drums but will neglect to write the R’s and L’s under the notes to show what they had in mind. Any crossovers or scrape patterns (going from one drum to another with the same stick in one motion) should have the stickings written in, but sometimes they are left out.

Your snare line can also suffer from this common problem. Any well-organized snare section in a marching band will have matching stickings throughout the entire show (unless you specifically need a variation, of course). Sometimes an unusual rhythm or a single left-handed player on the line can make this more difficult than it should be.

What you can do to help:
Hiring your own percussion arranger is the best way to get around this problem. However, since this isn’t always in the band budget, at least have some way of contacting the arranger that wrote the original parts for the score if you bought a pre-made show. Most percussion arrangers can be found simply be searching their name through the internet and, more often than not, they’ll be happy to tell you what they had in mind if you send them a quick e-mail.

Another very easy way to get around this problem is to simply have your percussionists get together and write in their own stickings. Many times they will come up with some very exciting visuals in the process!

7. Be Able To Explain All Unusual Playing Techniques

It seems that every year there are new percussion techniques being discovered and put to use in new music literature. Some of these are as simple as striking the instrument in an unusual spot while some practically require a visit to the hardware store to properly perform. Generally these are easy to understand in the music, but sometimes the composer asks for a technique that would stump most college percussion professors.

What you can do to help:
Firstly, don’t ever give your percussionists the “just do whatever sounds good” answer when they ask for help in this situation. Doing so is a disservice to your percussionists, the composer, and yourself. Read all of the technique notes several times over with your percussionists to make sure you aren’t missing anything in the directions. If it’s still unclear look in the program notes at the score, if there are any. Oftentimes there is a fairly in-depth explanation in the score about unusual techniques.

If all of this fails, though, and you still aren’t sure if you’re getting the proper sound, ask the composer! Any good composer will have actually tried out his new technique before writing it into a part and therefore will know exactly what should be done. A quick e-mail sent their way will often settle the matter in just a day or two. Many composers have sections on their website or in their section of their publisher’s site regarding unusual techniques. David Holsinger’s site comes to mind instantly, on which there are numerous explanations and even pictures about a few unusual techniques in his compositions.

8. Get The Sound You Want

Dynamics, articulations, and technique markings in a percussion part can be interpreted in a myriad of different ways depending on who you ask. Snare parts that have tenuto markings, accents next to marcatos, and seemingly useless phrase ties can all be played different ways. The composer put these markings in the percussion parts for a reason and it is your job as the director to decipher what was asked for by these markings.

In addition to that, there are many different ways to play even a simple quarter note on any percussion instrument. On a concert bass drum, for example, mallet type, stroke type, stick height, dampening techniques, strike point, drum orientation, towel usages, and allowance for resonance can all affect the same one note in a part. It’s uncommon for percussionists at the K-12 level to really think about how something like a single bass drum note sounds in relation to the melodic lines of the piece and it becomes your job to make that one note sound exactly as you want it to.

What you can do to help:
Get the sound you want. If it doesn’t sound right, fix it! Whether it’s a bass drum’s length of resonance, a tom’s pitch, a triangle’s shimmer, or a marimba’s warmth, there is always a way to get the sound you want. Take time in a rehearsal to really focus in on your percussion section and be sure to not only listen to them but also to watch them. Bizarre habits form early and are hard to break. It may not be until March in the school year until you realize that one of your percussionists hasn’t used a music stand all year and has instead been putting his music on top of the counter. This sort of habit also goes for technique and should be addressed soon so that you don’t have to re-address it many times throughout the year. However, be sure to listen in on every single piece to make sure that the sound you’re getting works for that piece, specifically. If you are unsure how to get a particular sound or tone, ask an experienced percussionist for help.

9. Get Their Heads Out Of The Sheet Music

This easily applies to concert band settings, but is especially important to think about in jazz band. Most directors can relate to the problem of having percussionists bury their heads in the sheet music (which is bizarre considering there may be 20 bars of repeats at the time) and then losing time with the conductor resulting from a lack of connection.

In jazz band (and often in pep band if you use a drum set player) it’s not uncommon to see one bar of a beat followed by 14 bars of repeat and a bar of fill in the drum set sheet music. Some older charts simply say “play time for 8 bars” and don’t have a hint of fills and set-ups anywhere. The drummer is so focused on keeping his place in the music that he begins to lose his musicality and ability to play with the band, not to mention his connection with the director since the player’s stand is often off to the side and hardly in a decent line of sight.

What you can do to help:
First of all, make sure your percussionists can see their music and the conductor at the same time! There is a reason that most music stands are able to be raised so high. This applies to any ensemble that uses percussionists.

For jazz band, give your set player a copy of the lead trumpet part (or whatever a good lead instrument for the piece is) instead of the drum set part on the very first day of rehearsing new pieces. The drum set part is usually permanently unnecessary. This will show him what the melody line is, what dynamics should be throughout the piece, and where big hit points are, allowing them to fully embellish what the winds are playing. Some percussionists might be intimidated by this and not know what groove or style to play. If this is the case, either tell them what the style is or play a recording for them that has a good representation of what you as the director want. When a change in the drum part is needed, simply tell them the change and have them pencil it into the music.

If a drum set player asks what you want them to play in a new section, encourage them to experiment but be careful of your wording. Instead of “I don’t know, just play whatever”, try saying “Experiment with a few different things and we’ll see what works” if you yourself don’t know what should be played.

After a few weeks of rehearsing with the music, have the drum set player put away all music completely and play solely by ear and memory of the tune. This is, of course, not possible with all pieces of music, but should be implemented whenever possible.

10. Keep Them Engaged

There’s a reason percussionists are always the first ones to be caught not knowing where the band is in the rehearsal. There’s a reason percussionists start chatting with each other while important directions are being given to other sections of the band. There’s a reason percussionists get bored, restless, antsy, and end up building veritable works of modern art out of brake drums, bass drum beaters, and triangle clips during “the chorale piece”. Simply put, percussionists are often left out in rehearsals because they are not only the furthest away from the director, but they also are often ignored unless there is a glaring mistake that sticks out like bagpipes in a flute choir.

Directors rarely listen enough for true tone quality and musicianship in their percussionists. Even in the simplest crash cymbal note, however, there is a definite difference between a poor performance and one of true artistic ability.

What you can do to help:
Push your percussionists to be true musicians, not living, breathing metronomes! Push them to use proper technique, to listen to the winds at all times, to play every note with careful and intentional relation to the melody and mood of the music, and to understand what the true function of their parts are in the piece!

There are many ways to keep your percussionists engaged in the rehearsal. If they appear bored, there’s a good chance that either the music is too easy for them or they feel like they don’t matter much to the group. Make sure you approach and instruct each of your players in the back of the room just as well and with the same intent that is given to your star clarinet player. The results will amaze you.

Ryan R. Laney holds a B.M.E. from The University of Northern Colorado and is currently a graduate teaching assistant at Kansas State University. He is a composer and arranger of winds and percussion with self-publications being performed around the world. His music and services can be found at

For more information, contact Ryan Laney at