Blog

Let’s talk about percussion, drums and teaching!

The market for specialized training courses for percussionists

Percussion courses

With every passing year, more and more specialized training courses for percussion instruments are fortunately created. (Hurray!!!)

Even here in Italy, the market for this type of courses have been steadily growing for the past several years. (Hurray!!!)

BUT – there is a negative aspect to this trend.  Some of these specialized training courses are absolute junk. (Noooooo!)

Actually, that is what the free market is all about. It doesn’t matter what is being sold, whether it is oranges, smartphones, or specialized training courses for percussionists. The market is meant for selling. Therefore if you are not careful to who is selling you what, it doesn’t really matter whether the greatest percussionist in the world is there waiting for you… you might end up with a lemon. And here is why.

 

WHAT IS A SPECIALIZED TRAINING COURSE FOR PERCUSSIONISTS?

Let’s be clear. What is a  specialized training course in percussion instruments and  how does it differ from a masterclass or a university course?

Well, first of all there are no official definitions. TO ME, a  training course consists of a series of lessons – usually about ten – held by one or more teachers in the course of a certain period of time, usually no more than a year. These lessons deal with specific aspects of percussion instruments.

For example, typical specialized training courses could be:

  • courses to help you practice specific excerpts needed for orchestral auditions;
  • courses on jazz improvisation technique on vibraphone;
  • courses on the best technique to play the Indian tabla.

In other words, everything and anything.

How are they different from a masterclass? Usually a masterclass is held in a single meeting and is directed to multiple students at once. On the other hand, a professional training course is held in several meetings and can ALSO include “one-on-one” sessions.

Furthermore, unlike a university course, a specialized training course does not usually provide academic credits or awards/diplomas upon completion.

The one thing specialized training courses and masterclasses have in common is the fact that in both cases the lessons are directed to intermediate or advanced percussionists. Often in fact, the requirement to register for these courses is a degree in percussion instruments.

 

WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?

The problem is that you don’t necessarily need to be a great percussionist to teach training courses in percussion instruments. Instead, even if rarely, you can find training courses taught by a Mr. Nobody who self-declares “the greatest expert in the world on advanced bowing technique on vibraphone”. This is just one example… To stay clear of these types of courses, just read the resume of the instructors teaching them. This is if they are not too embarrassed to publish it.

More often however, the problem is that some training courses are taught by great percussionists who are not teaching-oriented.

Let’s analyze some factual examples inspired by true events I experienced myself or have been told by some of my colleagues.

 

“CHANGE YOUR TECHNIQUE COMPLETELY”

Let’s pretend you have been  studying percussion instruments a certain way for years and years. You sign up for a specialized training course and the teacher reveals to you (wait for it…) that your technique stinks, your sound stinks, your previous teacher stinks. By that point you feel like you stink.

You therefore decide to change the method you have been using and start from zero because “if he said it, it must be true”.

By the time that ordeal is finally over, you feel terrible… clearly you know you have a long road ahead of you before you can call yourself a “professional” percussionist. So you end up signing up for another specialized training course with a different teacher.

As soon as this new teacher meets you, he starts cursing you, your hands, your sound, and obviously the previous teacher. You also  start questioning your previous instructor, even though you are fully aware that the answer is inside of you and here it is: besides completely stinking at playing music, you are also dumb and have not understood anything of what was taught to you in the previous training course. Or you just have not studied enough.

Well, you then start studying more and in the meantime, even though you don’t even have enough money for the train ticket to return home from the last lesson of the last course, you sign up for a third specialized training course. This time, besides having to pay tuition, you also have to audition. After all, great Maestros can’t be bothered with people who can’t play.

The course has 8 available slots, and 4 people other than yourself show up. After the audition, all five are accepted in and you think, “Wow! What a honor!”, even though as you ride on the train back home, you do start wondering, “If there were 8 slots and only 5 of us, all already experienced musicians with music degrees, why auditioning?”.

It doesn’t matter. Once again your skills and techniques are considered worthless and you have to change everything all over again.

 

STOP. QUESTION.

Mexican man saying alt

What the heck do you want to do with your life? This question always makes me smile as I  have been asked exactly that by more than one person.

Seriously though, I am asking you to really think about it: why do you relentlessly sign up for more and more specialized training courses to then be hearing that the way you play is wrong and that you have to change everything about it?

Why don’t you just try to work on what you already know and like to do? Are you sure you need 3-4 different people to tell you how to play a thumb roll on tambourine (example of a technique that was explained to me 3 different ways by 3 different teachers…)? Or are you even sure that so much philosophical analysis is required in order to simply decide what type of sound you want to create with your crash cymbals during that passage from Romeo and Juliet?

 

CLEARLY DEFINE YOUR OBJECTIVE

Before registering and paying for yet another specialized training course in percussion instruments, ask yourself this: what am I really hoping to gain from this course?

You need to have one specific objective in mind, such as for example:

  • I want a few advices on how to play certain excerpts for future orchestral auditions;
  • I want to study certain marimba pieces in greater depth;
  • I want to spend some time studying with one of my favorite artists.

If you don’t know exactly why you want to attend a specialized training course, don’t sign up.

 

PERCUSSIONISTS FROM THE PAST

Were all past percussionists completely incompetent because they did not attend enough specialized training courses?

Obviously a few incompetent percussionists who play in orchestras or teach at music conservatories do exist and we’ll unfortunately have to deal with them until their retirement. C’est la vie.

That being said, what about the many true artists of the past? How many specialized training courses do you think they attended?

And how much instead did they invest on themselves and their musical talent?

 

CONCLUSION – AND DAVID SEARCY

During my career I attended countless masterclasses but I paid for very few specialized training courses.

Among these, I distinctly remember the specialized training course for timpani held in Soncino some years ago by David Searcy, the great timpanist who played in the orchestra of Teatro alla Scala in Milan since 1972. I already talked about him in a couple of previous articles: “Timpani: exceptional intruments” and “Timpani: a contribution by Alberto “Mac” Macchini“.

The course that was supposed to last several months, ended up being condensed into one single lesson due to the Maestro’s health problems. That one lesson was enough to change the way I played the timpani forever and my only regret is not having had the chance to attend more lessons with David.

I realize that not all specialized training courses in percussion instruments are taught by amazing artists and teachers like David Searcy. But why not at least trying to find them?

 

Question: would you like to share your positive and/or negative experiences with the specialized training courses you attended? Leave a comment.

 

Did you enjoy this article?
Download this FREE Report
Enter your email to join my newsletter and dowload the FREE report "9 Essential Tips for Percussionists", a short collection of advices for your career as professional percussionist