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What’s in my favorite stick bag?

what's in my favorite stick bag

Let’s get real about sticks and mallets. There are thousands of INCREDIBLE products! There is a huge variety, and we all have our absolute favorites. But let’s be honest; not everything can make it to every gig.

I have approximately 10 stick bags. One of them is huge, and has an obscene number of sticks and mallets crammed in there. Another hangs on my vibes, another on my drums, a few more are in storage containers.

And then there’s the holy grail: the stick bag that literally goes everywhere, and to every gig.  It never leaves my car, unless I NEED it.

What’s in my favorite stick bag?

Let’s find out.

They all fit in there like this:

Holy Houdini, that’s a lot of stuff!

Before the nitty-gritty, please notice the high fidelity ear plugs from Vic Firth. I have several pair of these, one in every stick bag, and some in my wood shop at home.

They are great, comfortable, durable, and cheap. Not a lot lost if you misplace them, and the benefit of properly protecting your ears, and advocating that your students do the same is INCALCULABLE.

Seriously, you’re a musician, and you’re going to ram notes on a kevlar head, or a 5 piece kit, or a glockenspiel, in an enclosed space, and not protect your ears? Really?

1.) First, the stick bag:

I love these round stand up stick bags. The one I have is by Humes and Berg/Galaxy, and holds an incredible array of implements in a small package. This stick bag has banged around in my vehicles since 2010, and shows no signs of wear.

I once found it in the cab of my truck with a truck chain, a pile of dirt, and some plywood on top of it, and everything brushed off. For more on that, check out my wife’s blog about our house, and you’ll understand why there was so much junk in my truck!

Pro tip: keep your brushes away from your timpani mallets.

2.) Sticks: They’re what the bag is for!

As you can see, there are a variety of sticks available, should the need arise.

Orchestra concert? You can’t beat a pair of Graham C Johns #1 from Cooperman as a go to stick, with a pair of Firth SD2s as a back up.

Marching rehearsal? Tom Aungsts from Vic Firth feel great…and are some of the longest lasting marching sticks I’ve encountered. I have actually preferred the feel of Ralph Hardimon and Jeff Queen sticks, as well as the old Scott Johnson stick, but when I buy, I want my sticks to last, and those Tom Aungsts keep taking a beating. Your mileage may vary, and that might be a product of my individual experience.

Drumset? No problem. Harvey Mason, Firth 5A nylon, heritage wire brushes, and a pair hot rods/rutes, take care of business.

Pro tip: the rubber end tips found on most hot rods double as rubber mallets on wood blocks and other items.

3.) Timpani, remember, away from the brushes!

That’s a serious warning. I was in a hurry after a drumset gig one night, and didn’t make sure the brushes were fully closed, and far away from my timpani mallets. As you can imagine, when I went to teach lessons the next day, I had shredded a pair of T1 generals.

That cost me, for sure, but it also gave me the impetus to make a change; you’ll notice no T1s in my bag.

I actually prefer a pair of Firth Ultra Staccatos, and T3 staccatos. The round cartwheel mallets are from a brand that I don’t remember, but are this weird combo of soft and articulate. If anybody knows what they are, I’d appreciate knowing; they were old stock at a music store that I picked up for like $10, and promptly threw away the package, and of course, the writing is long gone.

Those three pair of mallets do just about everything I come across, and I do have a pair of cartwheels at home, but the general last minute call is almost always sol-do, and at least semi articulate.

4.) Mallets: for mallets!

Believe it or not, I have found a number of times when I needed four matching mallets during random concert band/pick up type gigs, even four matching glockenspiel mallets.

Much less often do I need matching xylophone mallets, which is why there’s only one pair of BB34s (Becker Blues, all time favorite xylo mallet), though I do have a match in my gargantuan stick bag, should the need arise.

Those glock mallets? They’re Firth M142s, which aren’t as harsh as brass, and are much more general. They tend to be a little light, but most pick up gigs for me are on the small ensemble end, and thus, these are perfect.

Mallets are rounded out by some nice general mallets for vibes and marimba–M25 Gary Burton and M112 Robert Van Sice from Firth. Both are nice general mallets on their instruments, and the M25s can be a harder choice on the upper end of a marimba, while the M112s also are nice cymbal mallets.

Pro tip: sand the ends of those M112s for Stevens grip playing.

I can’t stand finish on mallets, just too slippery for me, but to each their own.

5.) Tools: They’re how rehearsals actually happen!

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve arrived at a rehearsal, and found that some part isn’t being played because “their instrument is broken” “their carrier doesn’t fit” “the pedals jump” “we haven’t had time to change a drumhead!”

I find these statements incredibly disappointing. In the vast majority of cases, 30 seconds to 5 minutes of effort will allow an ensemble member to perform, a part to be heard, a student to contribute.

I really get it, percussion instructors and band directors are busy. I’m both, and sometimes it’s overwhelming. Sometimes students just have to make do…and sometimes the director or instructor has to sacrifice a moment to either fix it, or teach someone how.

I will admit, there are instances where these things are unavoidable: back-ordered heads/sticks/destroyed instruments for various catastrophic reasons, but most cases are simple fixes.

To that end, I developed the habit of carrying a few common tools, just so that I could fix simple issues. Flat drums dirty? Well, younger players tend to have issues if the carrier is in the wrong place, whether that’s a reach thing, or whether the belly plate is cutting a hole in their hip bone. You get the idea.

Of course, there are drum keys: concert snare, snare T-key, timpani key. Did you know an emergency fix for lots of timpani pedals slipping is tightening a clamp along the mechanism, and that it uses a regular size key?

Pro tip: buy a pack of concert keys, and give one to a student after teaching them how to use it. You’ll have a friend for life. Also, ratchet keys are fun, but sometimes wear out. Do you know what never wears out? A T-key. Same one for 15 years.

Next, adjustable wrench, small. You don’t need a big one, and if you do, find a band roadie/parent. I tend to carry a multi-tool in my pocket, which can double in a pinch for the other bolt/nut. Carriers, drums, everything has bolts and nuts in pairs.

Hex/allen keys-standard and metric-especially for those falling apart carriers, and a multi bit screw driver, because yeah, you’ll need that, and for all the things.

Pro tip: don’t get a hex key that is all together, get the kind that has individual keys.

There are instances where you can’t reach/access what you need with the other kind. Keep hex keys in a mic bag–not pictured. A tape measure is essential, in case you don’t have every single drum size memorized, or if you can’t remember that you add two inches for extended collar timpani heads, in comparison to bowl sizes.

6.) Sundries-because anything’s possible!

Ever been at a gig, sunny when you load in, and pouring when you load out? Yeah, suddenly that small umbrella makes a lot of sense. Pro tip: the small one can be left in your car once wet, and will eventually dry out.

Everyone needs a metronome/tuner…kind of. I honestly almost never use this anymore, because my smartphone is better, and handier. On the other hand, that Korg TM 40 (the link is to a TM50–they don’t make the TM40 anymore!) has got to be the most durable met/tuner I’ve ever had–it’s ridden in various stick bags for over a decade, which is longer than any of my “doctors” ever lasted. Maybe I’m just too hard on things…it’s possible.

I still carry a lighter in my stick bag, just in case I need to melt some bar cord, though I also carry electrical tape, and find taped cord much easier to thread through a bar.

Pro tip: dip the ends in super glue for a really great thread action, and durability…but don’t keep super glue in your stick bag, it travels POORLY.

Last, but not least, I’ve had several occasions where the only thing that salvaged a mostly botched re-head was my lithium grease. It never fails that someone, somewhere, didn’t dry their drum, put it in the case…and then left it for 5 years, and now the ensemble needs it. That’s the same tube I first bought 15 years ago, and that grease is still going strong. It doesn’t take much, but when you need it, nothing else works!

Pro tip: clean out your stick bag on occasion. I didn’t realize that triangle clip was in there until I unpacked. It’s useful…but if I’m playing triangle, I bring my accessories case, which is a totally different post!

Please let me know what you think. Am I CRAZY, or does your stick bag look like this too? Let me know in the comments below!

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How to Choose a Music School

You’ve practiced, performed, and have a great audition prepared. Honor band, check. Solo and ensemble, check. Indoor, maybe drum corps? Check. Private lessons, check. You’re ready for the next step in your musical journey–here are the steps that will help choose a music school!

Your first step is to determine the type of school you want to attend.

Remember that all types have benefits and weaknesses, but that it matters more whether a school fits you.. In general, you can study music Universities, Liberal Arts Colleges/Universities, Conservatories, and through some online outlets.

Large Universities tend to have the largest class sizes, and Liberal Arts Schools the smallest. Conservatories run the gamut, but tend to have more focused study in music, and fewer general education/liberal arts courses. The choice here tends to be–whatever the school bills itself as, do I want a small school or large school, and do I want that in an urban environment, or a rural environment?

Smaller schools are nice, because they offer more individual attention, and everything is taught by actual professors, not graduate assistants. Larger schools, though offer a larger network of fellow students, which can be an asset. Urban schools offer the advantage of a happening music scene that you can join during school, while rural schools tend to have fewer distractions, allowing you to really focus on your playing, and finding your passion.

Online outlets, such as Berklee online, can be valuable if you’re tied to your location, and live far from a school, or have limited time to take classes. More and more institutions are finding ways to offer online education, and they can even be great to supplement another school–I had a music minor student that missed a course offering due to a conflict with a major course, and took an online class that was able to transfer in as credit.

Once you’ve determined the type of school you think you’d like to attend, it’s time to take these steps:

1.) Visit several schools of that type.

Get a feel for what the school offers. Make sure you speak with current students, as well as attend a class/rehearsal.

2.) Listen.

Learn what the specialties of the private lesson teacher at your top 10 schools are, and go listen to their music. Listen to the music of the alumni of that school. If you find that you really dig what you hear, move that music school to your top 5. If you don’t, drop it from the list. For instance, if you’re interested in attending MSJ, where I teach, please take a listen to my music!

3.) Take a lesson!

Learn who your primary private lesson teacher will be. At smaller schools, this is typically a single individual, while at larger schools, there may be more than one. It is VITAL that you find a mentor teacher that will guide you, that you can learn from, and that you won’t be fighting with everyday of your undergrad. Generally, music majors spend an incredible amount of time with their private lesson teachers, and a positive relationship can turn into a lifelong friendship. The opposite can easily happen, as well, so be choosy when you’re considering how your lesson went, but do remember that you want someone that will push you, and will expect you to improve.


What kind of opportunities does the school you’re considering offer? If you want to perform, does it offer regular performances in the idiom of your choice? For instance, if you want to win an audition as a principle timpanist at a major orchestra, it would make very little sense to attend a school with no orchestra program. It can be done, but it’s not the most logical path. Do you want to compose, record, teach, engage in music therapy, or lead a church ensemble? Make sure you can find programs that engage in the activities that speak to your passion.

When you’ve spent some time on those 4 items, it’s time to choose.

You probably have a list of 3-5 music schools that really speak to you, that you really get a great vibe from the professor, and that you’re blown away by their offerings. At this point, the major differences usually come down to these two items:

1.) Cost.

Pick any 5 music schools in the country, and you will have a list of costs that are completely unique. You need to be realistic with this, especially in relation to your field of choice. In other words, can you attend the schools you’re looking at, and graduate with little to no student loan debt? It’s one thing for a doctor to graduate with a bunch of student loan debt, but the average musician does not make as much as the average doctor. I know, you’ll beat the odds, and become a household name. Most of the people that do, do that without massive student loans. Research the real cost, and research enough scholarships to pay for your program. There’s another aspect to cost and debt–be wary, because if you take loans to pay for school, but for instance, never finish school…you still have to pay those loans back, and we all hope that it’s not an unbearable burden, most especially at that point.

2.) Distance

There are those of us who want to pack a carry on, fly to southeast Asia, and spend 4 years getting a degree. Others feel better closer to home. Distance is a major factor for many of us. Face it, if you want your family to come to a concert, next door is easier than a world away. If family attendance and living situations aren’t a consideration, then packing your bags for some of the tuition free universities in Europe might be the right thing to do, but really think about that before you sign on the dotted line.

One more tip to remember–there are many fish in the sea. If you have only looked at one school, you’re doing yourself a disservice. There are thousands of opportunities, each with their own characteristics, and schools are hungry to get you in the door–it is to your benefit to speak to multiple schools, especially when we include cost, scholarships, and financial aid in the conversation.

Let me know your thoughts below, and make sure you join me on Facebook, YouTube, and Noteflight!

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10 Things to Expect as a Percussion Major

Whether you’ve already been accepted, or are still wondering whether to audition, here are 10 things you should expect as a Music Major.

1.) Time Management is your new catch phrase.

Seriously, between lessons, percussion ensemble (including steel drum band), band (or orchestra and jazz band), and classes, you’ll be wondering how to get it all done. Not to mention that as a percussionist, you have to do that practicing on different instrument groups, as well. Ever played a thumb roll on tambourine? How about a one handed roll on mallets? What about all the standard rudiments? Ever played melodies on timpani? How about jazz versus Latin versus rock drum set? If these questions excite your desire for music, read on!

2.) Ensembles make the world go ’round.

We all know that the private lesson is one of the main points of going to music school. However, the politics of music schools mean that the school tends to revolve around the large ensembles. After all, that’s what the large performance hall was built for, they’re what represent the music school on university events, and in many cases, ensembles account for a good portion of your scholarship dollars. Pro tip: play in as many ensembles as you possibly can. The experience you gain, and the ability to balance in many settings is what will get you hired again and again.

3.) The conductor is always on time.

5 minutes early? Nope. 5 minutes late? Nope. The concert or rehearsal begins when the conductor begins, and not a moment before or after.

4.) Call time is when you show up.

It’s generally a half hour to hour before a concert or rehearsal. It is literally the time at which if you’re not there, someone is on the phone trying to see if you’re still alive, and if they have to reassign all the parts, or get a substitute. Fun fact, call time should always be earlier than the actual time. If not, how will you setup your instruments in time, when the conductor walks in 5 minutes early, and starts the show?

5.) Exploration is encouraged, but master the basics, please.

Every teacher wants to hear about cool new avenues of music, and how you relate to them. We all want to help you explore your personal passions, BUT, if you haven’t mastered the basics, give it a second. The basics aren’t some arbitrary set of skills we drill into people for fun, it’s because they are the literal base for all future playing. If you haven’t mastered the basics, expect your passion project to play second fiddle in your lessons, if it is mentioned at all.

6.) Strong personalities abound!

Whether in Percussion, or other instruments, you will encounter strong personalities, who are absolutely convinced that their way is the only way, and all other approaches are wrong. Observe what these people do well, and learn from them. Take the rest with a grain of salt, because there’s about a trillion ways to play a paradiddle, an infinite variety in the major scale, and many approaches can lead to the same result.

7.) You’re going to learn piano, and you should pay attention!

Next to your primary instrument, piano is at the center of a music school. Want to get better at theory? Play those inversions on the piano. Want to understand why a melody is so smoothly connected to the harmony? Put it on the piano. Piano is the physical representation of music theory, a subject many people struggle with. The better your piano skill, the better your theory grade.

Not to mention, the piano has so many uses. Perhaps your first job is directing a choir, but there’s no extra budget for an accompanist–turns out YOU are the accompanist! Perhaps you compose at the piano–just think, that’s how Pictures at an Exhibition began!

8.) Percussionists, you need to sing.

I get it, you’re a drummer, not a vocalist. Suck it up and match pitch. Nothing will change your tuning skill on timpani faster than your own ability to vocalize pitch. Not to mention, the better your singing, the easier it is to tune an ensemble, and the easier it is to get people to play a phrase a certain way. Remember, if you can sing it, you can play it.

9.) Make friends with the Education Majors, if you’re not one.

As a percussionist, you will get SO many jobs because they don’t know how to put together a hi hat clutch, or balance a timpani head and pedal. That doesn’t even include how many jobs you’ll get because they didn’t pay attention in percussion methods, or don’t have time to teach their percussion section separately from their winds.

10.) You need ear plugs.

Let’s be honest, percussion instruments are LOUD. Especially if you are practicing in small spaces, it is only a matter of time before you shred your ears. Take care of your health, and buy some high fidelity ear plugs. Vic Firth makes some great ones, but others do as well. If you’re practicing loud passages, or with abrasive instruments/mallets, plan ahead, and make sure you protect your ears. Even if playing softly or lightly, enough hours of Porgy and Bess, 12/8 Afro Cuban drumset, Ditty, or a million other examples can ruin our greatest asset as musicians-our ears!

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7 Tips to Ace a Music Scholarship Audition

Your audition is scheduled, your video is in progress, your music is polished, and now you’re wondering:

How do I ace this audition?

My scholarship audition was a mistake.

I delayed the audition, because I didn’t think I was ready.  Turns out I was just scared.  When I finally did audition, I was nervous as all get out.  Sure, I had played solos, and had private lessons, and been in a number of ensembles.  But these guys were professionals!  I had read their bios, met their students, and heard their ensembles–it’s why I wanted to go to their school.

Plowing ahead, I performed anyway, and they asked me to do a few things that seemed normal, and a few things that seemed strange.  I was shaking through most of the audition, especially when I blew a measure in the Goldenberg snare drum etude I was playing-it was tough getting over that!

At the end, they told me I’d done well, and wished that I had auditioned earlier.  When I asked why, they said, “Most of the money has been given away already–we’ll have to see what we can do.”  I was flabbergasted–I’d never even thought that they could run out of scholarships!

I did end up with a scholarship, and a nice one, too.  But I can still remember that audition, and the experience leaves me with much sympathy for hopeful young musicians.

You see, now I’m on the other side of the table.

I’m the one asking students to do strange, and yet normal demonstrations of musical knowledge and skill.

So how DO you ace a Scholarship Audition?


Learn what the professors that are sitting on your audition are looking for.  This is most easily accomplished by asking them directly, either face to face, or through email.  Websites are wonderful, and many list requirements…and many are also out of date, or are very vague.  Direct contact is best.  I ask students to perform at least one lyrical, and one technical piece.  As I’m the Department Chair at MSJ, I tend to sit a wide range of auditions, but I do get more specific for percussionists, asking for snare drum, mallets, timpani, and drum set.  I also let students of all instruments know that they should expect to be asked to demonstrate scales, arpeggios, and perhaps some sight reading.

Generally, I tailor these expectations to the students’ ability level, which becomes obvious with the demonstration of any of the above items.  In other words, I want to see what the student believes is their best work.  It honestly doesn’t bother me at all to hear a student make a nerves mistake at an audition.  It DOES bother me to hear a student attempt to play a piece way above their ability level.  In that case, some gentle questioning usually reveals a lack of private lessons, or a private lesson teacher that is…opinionated.


The next item I look for is their base level skill, and how deep it is.  For instance, I’m not impressed by someone who can play the newest, most difficult, modern piece, but can’t play their major scales.  That shows a lack of respect for what the basics can teach, or is a telling commentary on whether this student has a teacher, or can be bothered to watch 5 minutes of YouTube videos.  Seriously, learn your scales, and in all keys, please.  Believe me, scales can teach A LOT.  So I’ll ask for scales, rudiments, etc.  If you think you can hack your way through the latest hybrid rudiment, but can’t play a decent long roll, open AND closed (multiple bounce for those picky people), then I’m not so impressed with your book reports into blue cheese paradiddles.

I’m all for new rudiments, but again, learn the basics first.  That’s why they’re THE BASICS!


Whatever your instrument, learn to sight read.  Just do it everyday, and you’ll get better.  There’s a lot of strategies to improve your sight reading, but long story short, the more you do it, the better you get.  If you’re struggling to read diatonic scale patterns with basic rhythms, don’t try sight reading Flight of the Bumblebee.  That won’t help.  Start by reading things you succeed at, and then increase the difficulty.  Beyond Auditions, the better you read a piece at first sight, the faster you get to a performance ready level.


Almost all college professors will let a prospective take a lesson with them before their actual audition.  Your future lesson teacher is most likely watching the scholarship auditions, and when the time comes to dole out dollars, their opinion will carry a lot of weight.  Making sure you hit the points that professor is looking for could be crucial to your success.  Taking a lesson could also save you from a wasted audition–in other words, your lesson could tell you that you aren’t a good fit for this school, because you can already tell that you and the professor are NOT going to be sharing the same goals for your musical journey.  Best to figure that out before you commit to 4 years at an institution.


Ever heard of Murphy’s Law?  It states that what can go wrong, will.  It’s pretty simple.  Traffic will be terrible on your audition day…but only if you’re running late.  You’ll forget to bring a crucial item, but only because you didn’t get out of bed early enough to leave on time.  Perhaps you’ll arrive, only to find that none of the equipment is in the audition room, whether that’s a piano, a music stand, timpani, etc, and you have to take time out of your warm up, just to make sure that you’re able to play at your assigned time.  I’ve seen it all, and trust me, if you’re even anywhere close to being late, most of them will tend to happen.  Those who arrive early are ready to fend off Murphy, and play their audition free from his insidious influence.


Some of us college people are still old school–I have colleagues that wear a suit and tie everyday.  Some of us are not that formal, but the music world is strange in this regard–whatever you’re playing at your audition, you should have that level of dress.  For instance, if you’re playing Bach, I expect you to look a certain way.  If you’re playing Rush, I expect you to look different than if you’re playing Bach.

Frankly, cognitive dissonance is a thing, and it can negatively affect the perceptions you create in the audition committee.  Don’t wear ratty jeans and a t-shirt if your audition entails high level orchestral excerpts in a recital hall.  On the same note, don’t wear a tux if your audition consists of you performing with your heavy metal garage band at a local club.  Music programs vary widely, and expectations can as well–dress to expectations, and you’ll do better.


Finally, this is good life advice.  If you’re hard to deal with in your audition, or particularly needy, or outright rude, the committee has to get past that.  If you’re polite, prepared, and ready to be challenged by the committee, you’re more likely to do well, and receive a scholarship.

Here’s why–that rude person?  The committee conversation would be like this, “That person was a great player, but I just couldn’t believe they were so rude!  Can we justify giving them a scholarship?  How will they represent our school?”  On the other hand, imagine the conversation around someone that is polite, “That person was a great player, and so polite!  They were prepared, and when we threw them a curve-ball, they rolled with it!  Scholarship for sure!”

If you enjoyed this, have a tip to add, or disagree, please leave me a comment!