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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!