The beginner band is a big challenge, you have an endless band of students who are just starting to learn their instruments, and you are trying to both educate and inspire them to play.
Getting the percussion section to work effectively can be one of the biggest challenges, particularly if you do not know a lot about percussion.
Do not let them be "drummers" only – be "percussionists" instead
This is the most important thing to realize – that band students are often attracted to percussion so that they can play the drum set. The drum set (or drum kit) is often used in the school band, and often is very important, so students feel that if they are not playing it they have to sit there and wait.
The band director has to find a way around this situation – if you only have one drummer, then great! They can play the drum kit and away you go.
The issue can happen when you have multiple drummers in the band, sometimes two, four, eight or ten! One way that works very effectively and has been used for many years is to have one player playing snare drum, one playing bass drum, and one cymbal player, even if you have a "drum kit" part written out. If you have this type of band I recommend having this setup at all times, and making the students stand up to play the snare drum. You then have the cymbals and concert bass drum, and its designed to be played by three players all the time.
Have an Auxilliary Percussion Table – and make them stand up to play at all times
There is nothing worse than vaguely hearing a shaker or tambourine in a school band, and struggling to see the person sitting on a chair behind the drummer!
When playing tambourine, triangle or shaker – these instruments are often more critical to the sound of the band than the snare drum or drum set, so therefore they must be taken really seriously .. by the band director as well as by the players.
So always have a "traps" table with everything in easy reach. Its not too expensive to make one or buy one of the available professional ones.
The players must always stand up to play, and have their music stand set up so that they can look immediately over it at the band conductor.
Warm up – please do not ignore us!
I've been a percussionist in a school band … there is nothing more frustrating that spending your time sitting in the school band room while you wait for the wind players to tune up and warm up. Often the band director will spend up to half an hour warming the players up – and expect the percussionists to remain quiet during that time.
How to deal with it?
– If you're going to warm up for half an hour …. Tell the percussion section to arrive later than the rest! – it makes no difference to you and its better than them being a distraction!
– Why not send them into a different room for their own section rehearsal during this time? Get a specialist teacher or assistant to work with them on their parts
– Use predefined warm-up routines that go along with what you are doing with the wind players. (does not always work, but can do depending on the materials you have)
Be prepared to supplement the band book
When I helped out with beginner bands I found it necessary to supplement the band books that the students were using with additional materials – often the materials are not interesting or they do not have enough variety to keep the students engaged in the materials.
They'll need lots of work on basic rudiments and rolls – often the band books do not address those things early enough. So there before you may be able to supplement it with other material which is available online and in books.
Everyone playing mallets?
I'm going to leave this up to you – it depends on the different personalities in each of the bands you have. One popular series of band books the "standard of excellence" has snare drum / bass drum on the left hand pages of the book, and mallet percussion on the right. Another type the "essential elements" has one snare drum and one mallet percussion book.
I think that percussionists should rotate and do as much as possible, and if that means that they each need two books, whereas every other member of the band needs only one .. then that's the way it should be!
There are no quick fixes to make percussion better in the beginner band, but hopefully this article can give you one or two ideas that will help!