Choosing a Percussion Program: Part 2

by Don Skoog

     Why 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 he really 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 and 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 to fail.
     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 other options.

Type of School

     College-bound students have three types of schools to choose from. Finding the right one for you depends on your goals, academic background, and finances.

     Degree-granting colleges, conservatories, and universities offer four-year Bachelors degrees, as well as Masters and Doctoral degrees, in performance, education, 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 read and 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 you the professional skills to make a living as a musician -- if you pick the right school.

     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 repair the damage before 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.

     Certificate 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 learner who just doesn't 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 college, which limits 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 into the more involved degree track, Berklee will transfer any credits already earned there. Musictech also has a certificate track, as well as a degree track in conjunction 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, this isn't 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 you achieve your goals. Different programs lead to different results and there are a range of program structures within each 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 classes from different 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 private lessons, 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, Roosevelt University, and many others, offer both general percussion and Jazz programs. Some offer a Jazz education degree and World Music classes as well. But even though I’ve 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, and 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 a wider variety of musical traditions.
     ISPs are a good option for Latin percussionists, and for drumset players whose main interests go beyond Jazz. While marimbists, vibists, 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 specialists.
     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 the Drummer’s 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 well.
     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 of Fine Arts degree called an Integrated Media Program for graduate students whose interests extend beyond the music department into video, computer programming, robotics, gaming, 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 ISP focuses on comprehensively 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. But it’s 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 instrument. Armed 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 instruments may be just as in demand as one who is known for his virtuosity on one instrument. You must decide which path works for you. Once you have decided the type of school and program that interests you, there are still questions to be asked about each school on your short list.

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 of you). The college teacher’s 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 never forgotten.
     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 various teachers who each have their own specialties. This exposes you to different disciplines and artistic philosophies. But remember that one approach is not better than another -- 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. So it’s 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, John 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 in Oklahoma, South Carolina, or Alberta with less chance of having a successful playing career because they are a million miles from the show. Can you play gigs in New Mexico? Sure, but is 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 for themselves. While I would never second guess another drummer’s career choices I would suggest that a young player, without debts or family responsibilities, should aim as high as possible, why not? Seek out a school that has good connections into the business, and is situated close to a major city.
     Larger cities have more clubs and restaurants, more touring shows, more conventions, more recording studios, more booking agents, and 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 needs and 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 living tradition, 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 (yes, 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 at 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 and Dad’s 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 weren’t given the support they needed to pioneer their way onto the drum throne. This is really changing. High-profile virtuosos like Sheila E., Cindy 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 the ranks.
     But any discussion of gender inevitably brings up the question of discrimination. If you ask me if there is any residual discrimination against women I will say yes. But if you ask me if that will ruin your chances for a career 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 in your mind, 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 are finishing 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 Jazz club.
     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 put out 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, Red Norvo playing Chick Corea tunes when he was so deaf the band just followed him; Jazz sax legend, Anthony Braxton still studying Bach on the piano; Miles Davis playing Cyndi Lauper’s “Time 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 repertoire bring 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 getting into.
     Prepare for each audition. If there are mallet requirements, make sure you’re 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 mentioned in the 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