Choosing a Percussion Program: Part 2
by Don Skoog
go to school at all? If all you want to do is play drums, why not
hire a teacher, practice your butt off, and promote your band?
The answer is: you could.
But even though there are spectacular examples of successful self-taught musicians,
allowing a student to design his own course of study is like letting a five-year
old pick his own dinner menu. He’s probably going to reach for the
bright colors and sugar, and skip the more substantial, if less tasty, food
needs. I know several talented musicians who took the easy road and now feel
themselves artistically and professionally limited by their lack of foresight.
If you knew what you needed to learn, you’d
already know it. By going to school you place yourself in the hands of people
more knowledgeable than you,
and the experience should be both artistically expanding and personally uncomfortable.
The classes everyone hates -- theory, sight-singing, and history -- give
you the technical and intellectual framework to understand where everything fits.
You may be able to do this for yourself, eventually, but it takes longer
there is a time limit. Music is a rough business for the unprepared, so students
who deliberately set extra obstacles in their own path are unknowingly planning
But having said that, it is important that you
have some idea of where you are going, and to take responsibility for getting
yourself there. You need to find
the people who can help you achieve your goals. So the trick is to find the
school that works for you.
In Part One we profiled the prospective percussion major (and his parents), performance
vs. education degrees, and the nature and history of General Percussion programs.
GP programs have an important place in the school system and are perfect for
some students, but they are not for everyone so let’s consider some
Type of School
students have three types of schools to choose from. Finding
the right one for you depends on your goals, academic background, and finances.
colleges, conservatories, and universities offer four-year
Bachelors degrees, as well as Masters and Doctoral degrees,
history, theory, musicology, and other specialized disciplines. Most
students opt for a four-year college because a degree from
an accredited school opens
the door to postgraduate programs and professional teaching jobs later
on. The academic classes required for most degrees also help
students learn to
write like adults, and widen their intellectual horizons. And, while
the degree itself won’t help you get a playing gig (no one
will ever ask to see your diploma at a band audition), the
training you get
in college can give
professional skills to make a living as a musician -- if you pick the
Junior Colleges generally offer a two-year program resulting in an Associate
degree. They are not the first choice for most students. Nevertheless, junior
colleges have an important role in higher education, serving as stepping stones
for students who come from poor high schools or have bad academic records.
Let’s face it, students need to have a reason to do schoolwork, and some
just don’t have the vision to connect their high school studies to their
college plans. Since most have only the burned-hand strategy for dealing with
new situations, high school seniors with low grade point averages wake up to
find their college options very limited. I’ve had several intelligent,
talented students who couldn’t muster the 2.5 GPA generously
set by the Berklee School of Music. Junior college is the place to
going on to a four-year school. It is also an inexpensive place to
pick up the academic credits needed to complete degrees at other
schools offer vocational training without the academics or degree.
They provide intensive, focused instruction on a variety of instruments, but
are especially good for drummers who just want to concentrate on drumset. While
program lengths vary, they generally average about two years, although some schools
offer a number of shorter, more specialized courses from which students can choose
their own curriculum.
Certificate schools are a great option for some
students. If you are older, or already have a degree, or if you are a lateral
fit well in an academic environment, this may be your niche. The
advantage is that you can focus just on your instrument. The disadvantage is
that certificate school credits are not normally transferable to a four-year
your options if you want to continue formal study at another school.
However, there are exceptions. For instance, Berklee
offers certificate, diploma, and degree tracks. If a student chooses to switch
from the certificate
the more involved degree track, Berklee will transfer any credits already
earned there. Musictech also has a certificate track, as well as a degree
with Augsburg College, and they plan to offer a BA of their own in the
future. In these schools, students have the option of switching into
a degree track,
so even if you start with a shorter course of study, with a little planning
you can leave the door open to other possibilities later on. However,
true for every school so check ahead. And certificate schools can be
expensive so do some research to make sure you’re in the right
place before signing up.
Besides Berklee and Musictech, the Los Angeles
Music Academy, the Percussion Institute of Technology (part of the Musicians
Institute), and the Drummers
Collective offer excellent, and different, certificate courses. If
a four-year school just
doesn't seem right, you should explore all of them to find the
best place for you.
Type of Program
While considering which kind of school
fits your needs, you must also decide what type of program will help
your goals. Different
lead to different results and there are a range of program structures
category. To make things even more complicated, some schools may
offer more than one type of program so it may be possible
to pick and choose
majors. We’ve already looked at General Percussion and
Education programs, so here are some other options:
Jazz/Commercial Studies Programs focus
on your major instrument within a Jazz-band context. Students generally receive
theory and history
classes, as well as combo and big-band ensembles devoted to various
styles of American music. While the range of ensemble opportunities
can be less varied
in Jazz studies than in a World Music program, the course of study,
with its emphasis on one tradition, is more comprehensive. Also,
in recent years some
schools have expanded their Jazz Studies curriculum to include Rock,
Latin, Hip Hop, Reggae, and other style alternatives. But their real
strength is in offering
focused, in-depth training on how to play drums in a Jazz band, and
the lessons learned there can be applied to many other playing situations
The University of Miami, University of North Texas, Eastman School
of Music, Northern Illinois University, Manhattan School of Music,
and many others, offer both general percussion and Jazz programs.
Some offer a Jazz education degree and World Music classes as well.
listed these schools in one category, each has a different focus
and philosophy, so check out the options for each school. And
remember that some Jazz programs
require mallet proficiency so examine the audition guidelines,
prepare accordingly before applying to any school.
An Instrument-Specific Program is
where you can declare your instrument as your major (“I’m a drumset major”) or concentrate on the instrument
itself rather than on a musical tradition. Colleges as a whole don’t seem
to have a category for programs like these so “instrument-specific” is
the term I use when referring to them. While related, they have a different emphasis
from Jazz Studies programs. By focusing on one instrument’s
place in many styles of music, ISPs allow you to concentrate
on playing in
variety of musical traditions.
ISPs are a good option for Latin percussionists,
and for drumset players whose main interests go beyond Jazz. While marimbists,
and orchestral players
can usually find a program that will let them specialize, especially
at the graduate level, ISPs are one of the few choices for a
kid who wants to focus on congas,
or for drumset players who seek to be well-rounded rather than
ISPs vary widely in structure and content, and are offered by both
degree-granting institutions and certificate schools. If you think
an ISP would be right
for you, check out the following programs: The Berklee School of
Music, Los Angeles
Music Academy, Percussion Institute of Technology, Musictech, and
Collective. But don’t stop with these, keep looking. There are probably
others out there I don’t know about.
Nontraditional or Interdisciplinary
Programs emphasize diversity. Nontraditional programs tend to stay within
the music department but are generally structured
around various World Music traditions. For instance, a percussion
major at Northern Illinois University not only studies the standard
instruments -- orchestral percussion,
drumset, marimba, vibes, etc. -- but can also explore West African
drumming, East African xylophone, Caribbean and Latin percussion,
Steel Band, Tabla, Gamelon,
and Peking Opera percussion. The California Institute of the Arts
has a similar program called Multi-Focus Percussion, and also offers
a World Music Major as
Interdisciplinary programs allow the student to create his own course
of study, choosing from options both within and outside the Music
department. Check out
CalArts’ Musical Arts Program and NIU’s Master of
Music Program for more information. CalArts also offers a Master
Integrated Media Program for graduate students whose interests
extend beyond the music department into video, computer programming,
the Internet, and other technology driven disciplines.
The emphasis in these types of programs is very different from a
Jazz Studies or Instrument-Specific Program. While a student in an
mastering one instrument, the student in a Nontraditional or Interdisciplinary
program is exposed to many instruments and traditions. These types
of programs are perfect for students who wish to explore their options,
and for lateral
learners who prefer to have more control over their course of study.
important to point out that what they gain in variety they lose
in depth. No one can master
the tabla, alone, in four years, so the student comes away with
exposure to many traditions but a less in-depth education in
any one particular
with that knowledge, he can choose which to continue studying
and which to leave behind.
Remember, one type of program isn’t
intrinsically better than another. A percussionist who is known for playing many
may be just
as in demand as one who is known for his virtuosity on one instrument.
path works for you. Once you have decided the type of school
that interests you, there are still questions to be asked about
each school on your
1) How good is the faculty?
Picking a percussion teacher is the single most important choice
you will make (and a bad match can become a living hell for both
job is to facilitate the student’s transition into the professional world.
It’s a tough assignment because no matter how hard they
try not every student is going to survive in the music business.
The college teacher’s responsibility
is to separate the musical wheat from the tone-deaf chaff, setting
standards for both performance and attendance then
demanding that the student meet them. I remember showing up for a
lesson under-prepared and ten minutes late. Ten minutes later
my lesson was over. Before
throwing me out, my teacher told me that my reputation, the only
thing a musician really has, would be based on my ability and my reliability.
In the music business
there were no excuses for being unprepared, he said, and even being
ready to play wouldn’t matter if I wasn’t there on time.
At my next lesson I was twenty minutes early with my assignment mastered.
That ten-minute lesson
was probably the most important I ever took, and one I’ve
A teacher is a mentor whose influence affects the course of his students’ careers
long after they graduate. Unfortunately, some teachers take no responsibility
for their students’ futures. This can result in programs that have little
real-world value because the faculty doesn’t focus their effort on teaching
students to make a living with their hands. Educators can only teach what they
know, and some would be working on a loading dock if they hadn’t stumbled
into a college job. I know a percussion instructor whose day-gig is selling real
estate. Is he the guy you’d trust to launch your career?
Each school has a different faculty structure.
Smaller schools often have only one percussion teacher but if he’s
good he may be exactly what you need. Larger schools generally
have a department head and
have their own specialties. This exposes you to different disciplines
and artistic philosophies. But remember that one approach is
not better than
just different. Choose the one that works for you.
Better-known schools often have famous, if not legendary, musicians
on faculty. While some are dedicated educators, others are Trophy
Teachers, on staff
to attract new students but rarely available to actually give lessons.
important to check with students at the school to find out if
the hotshots are really invested
in the program.
Also, just because a guy is famous doesn’t mean he knows how to teach.
It takes a caring, committed person, and a lot of experience, to learn to share
knowledge in a logical progression, and it’s a lot of work to produce teaching
materials that reflect your approach to the instrument. So a musician’s
reputation as a player may be different than his reputation as
a teacher. Be sure to ask around before signing up.
Having said that, there are some well-known drummers who are also
great teachers. Here are a few: Paul Wertico at Roosevelt University,
Riley at The Manhattan
School of Music, Ed Soph at the University of North Texas, and Johnny
Vidacovich at both University of New Orleans and Loyola. And I’m sure there are many
others who I’m not aware of, so explore your options before
making a choice.
2) How close is it to the fire?
Even if a school has great faculty, if it’s located in the mountains of
Utah it’s probably not on the fast track to the New York
music scene. Every year hundreds of percussion majors graduate
with less chance of having a successful playing career because
they are a million miles from the show. Can you play gigs in
it the same
as playing in Nashville?
There are professional musicians in every small city in the U.S.
They survive by touring regionally, and by doggedly creating opportunities
While I would never second guess another drummer’s career
choices I would suggest that a young player, without debts or
aim as high as possible, why not? Seek out a school that has
good connections into the business, and is situated close to
Larger cities have more clubs and restaurants,
more touring shows, more conventions, more recording studios, more booking
more clients to hire your band.
But above all, there are more musicians -- both allies and competition
-- who will challenge you to be your best, everyday.
So, just as there are different kinds of schools,
there are different kinds of students. Look for a school that matches your
personality. For instance,
an accomplished, experienced student may thrive in the competitive
atmosphere of a larger school, while a talented but less advanced
kid might need the shelter
and attention of a smaller program to gain the experience and
confidence necessary to compete later.
It’s important to be realistic about both
your playing and confidence levels. An honest assessment of your abilities
will help you identify
the right school
for you. Too close to the fire may get you burned but too far
away will leave you cold.
3) What about study abroad?
The idea of sending their kid overseas has occurred to most parents
at least once but, with one exception, it’s generally not the best option. The United
States has the finest college-level education system for contemporary music.
Jazz, Blues, and Rock were born here, and the innovators, the cutting edge, are
teaching in our schools. Simply put, it’s better to study
Jazz in New York than in Paris. The teachers can offer a true
link to the
scene is better, and there are more good musicians to play with.
Also, college is a great place to make professional connections,
so if you
want to play
in the U.S. you should probably go to school here.
The exception is for students with a special interest.
If your passion is Cuban percussion, the Instituto Superior de Arte in
Havana might be an option
it is possible). If your field is African percussion check out
the University of Ghana in Accra. You get the idea -- Brazil, China,
India, and other
countries have good schools that train students in their traditional
musics. Just as
staying in The States is a better choice for a Jazz major, going
to the source country
is often the best option for a student who loves the culture
of another place. Remember that there are issues of language, politics, and
health to deal
with, but don’t let those stop you. Studying overseas can
be just experience you need.
However, for most students close-to-home
is good -- but not too close. I have what I call The One State
Rule. That is: the student should
go to school
least one state away from home. If he is far enough, his parents
will have to call
first, so he’ll have enough time to hide his girlfriend’s
stuff before they show up. But they’ll be close enough to get
there in an emergency (like, he’s run out of money . . . again).
After all, part of the college experience is learning to fend for
yourself. This is hard to do when Mom’s still cooking dinner
still giving you gas money every week.
4) Are there careers for women?
I get this question a lot from worried
parents. Historically, drumset has been a boy’s club. Over the
course of my career, I’ve seen many women
players gravitate into mallets or orchestral percussion because they
given the support they needed to pioneer their way onto the drum
throne. This is really changing. High-profile virtuosos like Sheila
Blackman, Terri Lyne Carrington, and Hillary Jones are successful
role models for
the young women
who are following them. And there are many more now working their
way up through
But any discussion of gender inevitably brings up the question of
discrimination. If you ask me if there is any residual discrimination
I will say yes. But if you ask me if that will ruin your chances
I will say
no. Emphatically no, but only if you don’t let it. Remember, everyone faces
obstacles. It’s how you deal with them that counts.
My advice to women is the same as for African-Americans, Latinos,
and gays (and you may fall into more than one category here). Don’t
ever take no for
an answer. One of my teachers told me that you’re not beaten till you quit.
And I would add to that, don’t ever use discrimination as an excuse for
not getting ahead (even if it’s true). Not only does it make you look like
a whining weakling, but more importantly, by telling yourself that someone else
can stop you, you’re giving them control over you. You
are, in effect, standing in your own way by putting up a barrier
and if you
do that, they really will have won.
Women are opening new doors for themselves everyday and any roadblocks
one may encounter now will soon be an historical footnote. I’ve
helped a number of young women get into college in the past few
years and several
now, well-trained, well-connected, and off to a great start.
If they can do it so can you.
5) Can I really have a career, or will I be living in
my parents’ basement
when I’m forty?
That depends on you. Just surviving in the music business is an achievement,
and those who accel do so because they are inwardly driven and deeply
dedicated to their art. You don’t have to feel this commitment going into school
but you’d better find it while you’re there or you’ll
be working behind the bar rather than on the stage at your local
There are many options for someone looking to make a career in music,
but whether you play or teach, do music therapy, copyright law, or
a cup on a street
corner (every mother’s dream), you’ll do better if you prepare yourself
to succeed. The key to success is ongoing self-education. Remember, every artist
is still a student and the world’s most famous musicians
still pull out their horns everyday to learn a new tune.
Successful musicians are disciplined, inspired, and above all, open
to new ideas. There are many examples: Eighty-year-old vibraphonist,
Corea tunes when he was so deaf the band just followed him; Jazz
sax legend, Anthony Braxton still studying Bach on the piano; Miles
After Time” to the horror of small-minded fans; The Bad Plus deconstructing
Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”; Bela Fleck
and Gary Burton, whose mid-career excursions into the classical
the music to
new instruments, and new audiences.
Open-mindedness leads to inspiration and an endless journey of discovery.
Inspiration leads to discipline because it takes discipline to continue
the journey. And
you’ll travel faster if you allow others to show the way. A teacher is
someone who is farther down the road than you are, and he or she can guide your
steps, but only as far as they’ve gone themselves. So in the end you’ll
find yourself on your own path. For the unprepared it will be a dead end, but
for those who are too stubborn to take no for an answer I guarantee an interesting
journey and a surprise ending. You don’t know where you’ll wind up,
because you haven’t created it yet.
One last word of advice. Don’t apply to twenty-five schools. Pick five
and approach each one with a siege campaign. Go to each school. Take a lesson
with each teacher. If Berklee interests you, buy all of John Ramsay’s and
Ed Uribe’s books. If CalArts is your goal, buy all of John Bergamo’s
published pieces, videos, and CDs. If UNO is your destination, get Johnny Vidacovich’s
book, CDs, and video. Both PIT and the Drummer’s Collective have a method
book series. Check them out ahead of time to see what you’re
Prepare for each audition. If there are mallet requirements, make
ready for them. Practice sight-reading every day. Schools have a hard time finding
a place for students who can’t read music. In short, prove to the teacher
that you’re right for his program. Make him think that he’ll
be better off with you than without you. Talent and discipline
are the cornerstones of
artistic achievement. They are what a teacher looks for in a
student. Be sure
he can see them in you.
Obviously, there are lots of percussion programs
so the ones listed here are just a sampling. To see the web sites for the institutions
article, go to the Links page and scroll down to Schools.
Also, I’m always looking
for new places to send my students so if you think I overlooked a good school,
please E-mail me here and I’ll check into it.
Back to Part One, click here