Teaching Musicality to Percussionists

Teaching Musicality to Percussionists

Am I the only one who doesn’t understand why young percussionists are not being taught musicality? Why is this and how can we fix it? My wife is a flute teacher and she teaches musicality to kids in 6 grade. So why is that percussionists get to college and don’t know the basics about shaping a line? Here are some of my beliefs as to why students don’t get taught about musicality:

1) Percussionists don’t learn a mallet instrument until high school.
2) High school percussionists don’t study mallet instruments with a private teachers.
3) Marimbas are expensive and not readily available for students to have at home.
4) There are too many instruments to learn and develop technique that musicality is usually the last thing to be addressed.

And the list could go on and on. I know these are excuses, but we need to address the problem and try and find a solution and the best way to do that is to identify the problem.

So, the problem has been identified. Now, how do we fix it?

There are many ways to teach musicality, but in this post, I am going to offer up a couple of basic concepts for the young percussionist in hopes that we will begin to think about being musical. As you are developing your musicianship and musicality, remember that the more you learn about music (theory, ear training and analysis) in combination with listening will make you a better musician. Something you play today will (hopefully) be very different if you were to play the same piece in 5 years because of the knowledge and experiences you encounter as a musician.

Rule #1: Do Something

Just playing the notes and dynamics is not enough. You have to “do something with the notes.” If you sound like the playback of a midi file, you are not doing anything. The only way you are going to know if you are “doing something” is to record yourself. (Check out Adam’s post Say Cheese for great tips on recording). You don’t need a great recorder. Use your smartphone and record yourself once you can play through the piece. Try doing 2-3 performances and see what you like.

Musicality is very subjective. But, you have to make informed decisions. (See the paragraph above about learning theory, analysis, etc.)

Rule #2: Follow the Shape of the Line

One of the basic rules of musicality is to follow the shape of the line. One concept I teach is to remove all of the stems and flags from the music. All you are left with are the note heads. You can visualize this or input the notes into Finale if you really want to see the final outcome.

DG Example #1

Now, take a pencil and connect all of the note heads:

DG Exmaple 2

OK, it is time to play this line. As the line goes up, get a little louder and as the line goes down, get a little softer. Now come the subjective part. How loud or soft should you get? That is a good question. I am not talking about getting a full dynamic louder. A listener should be able to hear that you are getting louder or softer. A dynamic is not a finite value. There is “room” within a dynamic to add shape. Record yourself as see if you are actually shaping the line.

Rule #3: Practice this a lot!

As with anything we do, repetition is key to improving your musicality. I can’t stress how important it is to record your sessions and listen back.


This is not the only approach to shaping and musicality. As I said earlier, you will continue to build a more informed decision about musicality as you gain more knowledge about music theory, music history and your instrument. If you don’t believe me, go and listen to the recording of JS Bach’s Goldberg Variations as performed by Glenn Gould. He recorded them in 1955 and again before his death in 1982. The musicality is absolutely breathtaking in both recordings, but you can hear how the musical influences of almost 30 years changed the more recent recording.

Some final thoughts: DO NOT COPY someone else’s musicality. It is easy to go on YouTube or iTunes and play a piece exactly the same way someone else plays a piece. This does not help you develop your musicality! Record yourself and practice playing sections of your piece with different musical approaches. If you don’t hear a difference, post the video on YouTube and email me or ask your teacher. DO NOT GO OVERBOARD with your phrasing when you are learning how to shape a phrase. Do not play a piece that was written in the Baroque like you would play it as if it were written in the Romantic era. If you don’t know the difference, go and listen to some examples. Do not be afraid to ask questions and get feedback from your peers, mentors and teachers. As with anything, there is a learning curve.

Lastly, I realize that this just scratches the surface of teaching musicality. It is my hope that this article will get you thinking about shaping a line and making some musical decisions. I will be demonstrating some of these concepts in my upcoming video series. Stay tuned. If you have any thoughts or comments, please leave them below. I would love to hear how other people teach musicality.


Originally posted on DrumChattr.com on August 10, 2013.

The photo in this post is used under the Creative Commons License: Attribution – NonCommercial – No Derivs 2.0 by Sean Dreilinger on Flickr.com.