On Keeping Percussionists Busy


"I have (x) percussionists in my band, and I need a good grade (x) piece that will keep them busy."

Does statement above sound familiar? Now I ask you... have you ever heard a band director talking about finding a piece that will keep other instrumentalists busy? Sure, "challenge the flutes" perhaps or "go easy" on some other "weak" section, but "keep them busy" ... do you see what I'm pointing out here? Implicit in the phrase "keep them busy" is the idea that we need our percussionists out of our way, occupied, or otherwise tied-up in some activity so that we can teach... the others.

Have you ever programmed a piece that had a third clarinet part with only one whole note in the middle of the piece, and one more at the end? Or a piece that called for no more than three trumpets, and demanded that the others sit out in order to preserve "the composers intent" or some other such nonsense?

Of course not!

You would never do that to your woodwinds and brass, would you? But how often do we program a piece that has no more than two suspended cymbal rolls, or make the decision not to double (or supplement) percussion parts, leaving percussionists sitting in the back of the room "causing trouble?"

I've been teaching a long time, and believe me I realize that there are many challenges when it comes to finding music that fits your entire ensemble. Lest this post be seen as nothing more than a rant, here are some suggestions:

Don't be a purest

Did you ever notice that most directors will program a piece even if the fourth horn part will be left out, yet they refuse to add mallet parts because "that's not what the composer intended?" Do we think the composer intended for parts to be left out either? So why do we worry about adding parts? Seriously, let's remember that our main objective is to teach all students to become self-sufficient, expressive musicians. That does not happen when students are sitting out. If I have to choose between composer intent and actually teaching every student in the room, that is an easy choice.

Don't program garbage just to keep percussionists busy

True, there are newer works that have many percussion parts, and we need to encourage composers to continue to treat the percussion section as an equal. But much of this new music is trite, repetitive, and requires very little critical thinking. And sometimes the percussion writing may be interesting but the woodwind and brass parts are not good. I would much rather see teachers program excellent repertoire and supplement and/or double the percussion parts than spend 8 weeks playing trite music.

Don't ignore the long-term problem

Most of us will readily address the issue of not having any tubas or clarinets. But few of us will address the over-enrollment of percussion. At some point, we must be willing to enact long-term solutions that get instrumentation in balance. If you are the only teacher you have control over this issue, and if you are part of a group of articulated teachers you must work together to solve it. But solve it you must.

Think outside the box. Couldn't you make it standard practice that all percussionists also double on another instrument? If you did, might some decide to play that instrument permanently? If you strengthened your recruitment efforts for instruments of need, might you see more students elect to play those instruments instead of percussion? Those of us who taught during the era of the saxophone's popularity had to solve these same issues of over-enrollment. But unfortunately some teachers only deal in the near-term (crisis mode) rather than looking at the causes and address those in order to insure long-term success. Is your problem that you can't find music to fit your band, or that you have no system for recruiting, promoting, and sustaining balanced instrumentation?

If this post aggravates you a little bit, I hope that you will count to ten and do a little soul searching first before falling into a defensive frame of mind. Yes of course, your situation is unique, and no one will fully understand what you are going through except you. But at the same time...if you won't solve it, who will? And let me be clear: Keeping your percussionists "busy" is not solving anything. I also want to be clear that I too struggle with this very issue. Finding repertoire that serves all students is difficult. And yes, sometimes a percussionist is going to have just two rolls on suspended cymbal. But that same student had better have some meaningful learning on the remaining pieces on the concert.

Start by shifting your focus. We are not paid to keep students busy. We are not paid to leave students out. We are not paid to put the composer's interests above our students' education. We are not paid to teach a woodwind and brass ensemble with percussion accompaniment. Get creative, get motivated, and get about the business of programming great repertoire and teaching all of your students to be great musicians.

1 response
I really enjoyed reading through this tidbit of wisdom. As a percussionist myself, I was often very very bored counting measures and only having two notes in one song. However, i think that that occurence helped teach me patience. As a percussionist, i also have an incredibly short attention span and a very creative imagination. Those factors caused me to lose focus during almost every piece that had 4 or more bars of rest in a row. Staying attentive and listening to the music was the only thing i could do to stay on track. Therefore, i had to teach my self to stay attentive and not drift off. That-a-way i could dodge the band director's snarky comments about how big of a failure i am because i missed my cue.