Choosing the Right Percussion Program: Part One
by Don Skoog
a cliché that music is a tough business, but it’s also
true. Poor preparation almost guarantees a mediocre career, if any, while even
the most talented musician will have some bad times. I don’t say this to
discourage young drummers, but to focus their efforts on developing the skills
they’ll need to navigate the educational shoals. Good training
is the key to a happy career and choosing the right college is the
key to good training.
first choice many students and parents face is whether to seek
a music career at all. Some kids are just born drummers and there’s little doubt about
where they’ll end up. Some kids play well but have other
interests and will have a tough decision to make. Some kids
are less obviously
have a deep love for music, and for them music may be a crucial,
if less clear-cut, alternative. Some kids have little talent
or motivation and
should not go into
music. Also, talent alone is not enough if the inner drive
is not there.
Parents worry about their kids’ future. Many
see a music career as only slightly better than being a surf-boarder, or
there are opportunities for musicians who are willing to train
well and work hard. Being a musician is like owning a hot dog stand. To
to drag your butt out of bed, go buy the wieners and buns,
then get out there and
sell. Every day. A successful musician is a businessman as
well as artist. He must continually study the craft, practice a lot, and
gigs. If you
love to play and are self-motivating, or could learn to be,
then music school may be a good choice for you.
Some people believe college is a place to educate the mind, others
see it as vocational school. Will Johnny be able to write a declarative
or will he be able to pay his rent once he graduates? There are bad
examples at both extremes. I know a would-be drummer who just graduated
in comparative religion and history. He’s working as
a cook. What was he thinking? I know another whose college
inability to do basic research or express himself in writing.
Both still have serious work ahead of them. Finding the right
is an individual
that depends on the person, and how well they choose will be
discernible only in hindsight.
Which school a kid picks should depend on his personality, intelligence,
professional goals, and finances. Parents are the critical partner
in the choosing process,
both big-picture and in the details: helping to define goals, order
catalogs, set up auditions, make applications, and organize financing.
the student’s responsibility to complete all those tasks, but in reality
they’ll need some assistance and perhaps a little gentle prodding. This
is a good time for parents to be patient and supportive, expressing their concerns
without stomping on the kid’s dream. Bite the bullet
and open the checkbook Dad, and pass the Pepto-bismal.
The teacher’s first priority is to not get between the student and parent
if there is a disagreement. Your job is as an advisor: explaining educational
options, identifying financial resources, preparing the student for auditions
and for the realities of college life once accepted. Your relationship to the
student will change as you start to hold him to a higher standard while supporting
him through a nerve-racking audition process. It’s a combination of empathy
and tough love that will vary with each student. You are also an informed resource
for the parents, advising them on the field, the process, and their kid’s
prospects. You have to be honest and you have to know your stuff. I realized
the depth of my responsibility years ago when a mom told me they were selling
their summer cottage to finance their son’s first-year tuition. She backed
me up against a wall and asked what I thought his chances really were. That’s
when I started doing some serious research. Here are some basics.
The first consideration is whether the kid wants to be an Education
or Performance Major. I emphasize the student because I think many
are influenced out
of performance and into education by their security-minded parents. “You can
always teach” is a glib truism that should be carefully considered before
being acted on. It’s not that easy. An education degree prepares the student
for grade- or high-school positions (but isn’t necessary to teach college),
and it’s a great career if that’s your dream. If teaching middle
school is what you really want to do, good for you! Go for it. But if you really
want to play for a living, and are just hedging your financial bets then it’s
probably a bad idea. Why?
Because there are way, way too many education majors aiming for careers
in a field where there are fewer jobs every year. If your plan is to
stable option to fall back on you’ve got a lot of company, and a lot of competition.
Also, while you’re trying to figure out how to put a trombone together,
the performance-majors will be practicing. It’s difficult to maintain a
career-level practice schedule while keeping up an education major’s other
commitments, and it’s pretty hard to get good if you don’t
practice. So for many people their backup choice will become,
by default, their career.
That is, if you can even find a job. The job search is all-consuming
for newly graduated Ed. majors. The odds are that if you can’t find a position soon
out of school then you probably never will. Who wants to hire a teacher with
a ten-year-old degree and no experience? If you don’t get a teaching job,
then what’s the point of having the degree?
If you do find a job in your second-choice field, you’ll have much less
time to devote to your playing career. This can lead to bitterness and disillusionment
-- the Mr. Holland’s Opus syndrome. My high-school band director was a
failed orchestral trumpeter. He often told us how lucky he was to have gotten
an Ed. degree as it was impossible to make a living in music, and that we should
train to do something else as well. If he had prepared himself to succeed as
a performer he might have actually wound up as one. If he had given it his best
shot and failed, then he might have chosen a new field that really interested
him. Instead, he ended up teaching band in the Chicago Public Schools, and he
hated every minute of it. We don’t need more bad teachers.
A number of my students have opted for education careers. For a couple
turned out to be a good choice, they love it and are happily ensconced in good
teaching positions. But teaching band is a rough gig and if you don’t
really enjoy it you won’t do well. Most eventually dropped out and are
working construction, selling cars, or trying to get back into playing. It’s
the kid’s life and he has the right to aim for the career that will make
him happy. As a teacher or parent your responsibility is to support his efforts
that happy life. If it turns out that either performance or education wasn’t
right for him, it was his decision and his responsibility to move on, and if
they are ever to grow up they need to be able to make choices and accept the
consequences. Many students change majors in midstream and others, having gotten
the wrong degree, go back and get the right one. For many, it’s
part of the process.
kid chooses education or performance, there are three
considerations when looking at a school:
1) How is the program structured?
There are different types of percussion schools, with different
artistic and educational philosophies. I break them down
into four main categories: general
percussion programs, instrument-specific programs, jazz/commercial music
programs, and nontraditional or interdisciplinary programs. Of course
there is a lot
of overlap between the various approaches -- one school may have elements
of several, or different programs running side-by-side -- but the main
each should be fairly clear from reading their catalogs. Let’s
take them one at a time.
General percussion programs are by far the most
numerous and unquestionably my least favorite. Their curriculum generally
instruments, theory, and music history (although they can include
drumset, Jazz studies, and other Non european traditions as well). They
predominate because the first music conservatories in the United
States were established
or European-trained musicians as farm teams for recently established
American orchestras. Orchestral music was the only acceptable music
in American academia
for over hundred years and remains the foundation of most school
The high school concert band tradition evolved
as it did for the same reason, with the exception that the clarinet,
being cheaper and easier to play, replaced
the violin as the central instrument. This cycle became self-stoking
and, for the most part, uncriticized. (And this is a shame as thousands
of clarinetists graduate every year only to find that there is no place for
them to play.
simple fact is that there are virtually no professional concert
in the United States.) For percussionists, what started as a sectional
marching band or orchestra has evolved into an eclectic concert
music that embraces folkloric instruments, contemporary theory, Jazz, and
a distinct element
of theater. But this sophisticated genre has little exposure
outside the college environment, and even fewer paying gigs, so classically
trained percussionists often seek protection from their creditors by
playing in orchestras.
Please don’t take this as an insult to the classical tradition -- I love
orchestral music, but the question is how many jobs are there for orchestral
musicians? Let’s say there are twenty orchestras (and I’m
being charitable here) in the United States with pay scales
that enable you can
earn a good living. If each has four percussionists on staff
. . . well, you do
the math . . .where do all the others go? Why they teach college,
of course, training another generation of musicians who are
going to face
hard reality when they graduate.
There are exceptions to this trend. Some schools have strong orchestral
programs with successful faculty who have the knowledge and professional
to train and place their students in good jobs when they graduate. These
schools perform a great service for the American orchestra, and students
love is orchestral music should be directed toward these schools. But
going out on a limb here to suggest that the majority of young drummers in
the United States probably aren’t going to wind up in
the Chicago Symphony, even though there is an opening once
decade or so.
General percussion syllabuses look great on paper. Johnny’s going to
play snare drum, timpani, marimba, xylophone, vibraphone, multiple percussion,
drumset, and congas when he graduates! But how well? The truth is that he’s
been trained to teach college because that’s how his teacher was trained.
If that’s what he really wants then he needs to ask himself how many
good college jobs are there and how tough is the competition to land one. We
need good college teachers, but few graduates are going to land a tenure-track
job. So call me a subversive, but I believe that if Johnny’s going to
make a living with his hands he’s got to play the crap
out of at least one instrument. That requires specialization.
As long as I’m on my soap box here,
let me put in a plea for college administrators and faculty to take
the lack of orchestral positions and
the changing nature of American music into consideration when
programs. There is a definite place for the general percussion
curriculum, but the relative lack of more contemporary alternatives does
a disservice to the quality of American music, and to the kids who put their
futures, in our hands. I believe that many of our brightest
young players rise to the top inspite of their education, not because of it.
Please understand that I’m not trying to discourage people from careers
teaching high-school, college, or in orchestral percussion, I’m
just bringing some different considerations to the discussion.
A freelance playing
career, which often involves some teaching in various institutions
and orchestra jobs, is also a hard way to make a living and
out all the time,
so choose the approach that best fits your skills and temperament
Specialization is the key for most young
drummers, so we'll take a look at some other educational options
in Part Two.
To read Part Two, click here
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