Choosing the Right Percussion Program: Part One

by Don Skoog

     It’s 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.
     The 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 talented but 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 flamenco dancer, but in reality 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 succeed, you have 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 network for 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 sentence in English, 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 with a double-major in comparative religion and history. He’s working as a cook. What was he thinking? I know another whose college teaching career is being hampered by his inability to do basic research or express himself in writing. Both still have serious work ahead of them. Finding the right balance is an individual process 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. I believe it’s 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 kids 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 have a 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 it’s 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 towards 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.      Whether the 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 focus of 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 emphasizes orchestral-tradition 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 by European 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 programs today.
     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. The simple fact is that there are virtually no professional concert bands in the United States.) For percussionists, what started as a sectional rehearsal for 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 or audience 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 the same 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 connections to train and place their students in good jobs when they graduate. These schools perform a great service for the American orchestra, and students whose deepest love is orchestral music should be directed toward these schools. But I’m 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 every 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 structuring their 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 trust, and 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 drummers wash 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.

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