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5 Questions to ask yourself when planning a concert-lesson for percussion instruments

Concert - lesson - percussion

All percussionists will have the chance, sooner or later, to participate in a concert-lesson for percussion instruments either as players or as host. Our instruments are captivating, beautiful, they are so many and sometimes they are still quite unknown. In other words, they are appealing.

Consequently, succeeding in boring an audience of kids during a concert-lesson requires indeed great effort. And yet, believe me, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe…”

Concert lessons can’t be improvised; they have to be carefully planned ahead of time. Here are a few tips on how to do just that.

 

WHY HOSTING A CONCERT-LESSON

First of all, why is hosting a concert-lesson such a good and right thing? It is a good thing because:

  • organizing a concert-lesson can be part of the job description for freelance percussionists or for percussion ensembles (entry to be added to my last article “What realistic career paths do percussionists have available“). Although not all concert-lessons I participated in were paid (the reason to participate can be different from a pure economic one – see below), these events can entail some sort of payment. Here is an example on how to go about it:
    • in elementary or middle schools that have a large auditorium/theatre/gym, which can fit around a hundred seats, you can organize two one-hour long concert-lessons in one morning, so that at least 200 kids can participate;
    • ask each kid for a 2-3 $ contribution, which the school may decide to cover for them. This would mean an average of 500 $ for each concert-lesson. “Can your really do that?!? Yes, you can. Parolini did that.”
  • Concert-lessons are a great way to entice kids to sign up for percussion instrument courses in your school or in your private studio.

It is the right thing because:

  • not too many people know the difference between a vibraphone and a marimba. Only a few know that you can produce very specific sounds with percussion instruments. Even fewer realize that there is indeed a technique to play the triangle… In other words, percussion instruments are a world which is as fascinating as still quite unknown to the large majority of people. If in Japan everyone knows the sound of a marimba and here in my Country, Conservatory teachers call the vibraphone a “xylophone”… well, there must be a reason. And remember that…

…every time a vibraphone gets mistaken with a xylophone, somewhere in the world, a percussionist dies.

 

HOST VS. MUSICIAN AND HOW MUCH INTERACTION WITH THE AUDIENCE

It is preferable to host a concert-lesson with more than one person for at least two reasons:

  • music is fun when played with others and we do want to relate the message that playing percussion instruments is fun, right?
  • It would be preferable for the roles of presenter/host and musicians/interpreter to remain well defined, so that the kids have a clear idea of who the main speaker is during the lesson. Ideally, the role of host should be well defined and should not change so to create a physical separation between the explanation/interaction portion of the lesson and the actual musical performance. I know, unfortunately this is not always feasible.
Sleeping sea lions

Two Sea lions taking part in a boring concert lesson on the history of the snare drum

In any case, how much should the audience be allowed to actively participate in the lesson? The obvious answer would be: “There should be as much interaction as possible”, but it is not always the case. It depends on many different factors, especially:

  • the average age of the audience: the younger the kids, the more useful interacting would be to maintain a good attention level and to stimulate interest;
  • the number of participants – the less they are the easier is to interact;
  • the choice of music and instruments – the structure of the lesson determines how many moments of true interaction there can be with the audience.

That being said, there is no doubt that in each concert-lesson there should be at least one occasion – usually at the end – to answer questions from the audience.

 

HOW LONG IT SHOULD LAST

The time available for a concert-lesson also determines the type of music that will be played and the topics that will be covered. One thing to keep in mind: human beings have limited attention span, which is determined by age. And although it might seem hard to believe, yes, even our instruments can appear boring.

(Now try to recover from these news and take a deep breath. It’s all over.)

  • If you are hosting the lesson for a preschool class or for a lower grade elementary class, make it no longer than 45 minutes total. Children that age can’t sit on a chair for longer than that.
  • If you are teaching in front of the higher elementary grades or of middle school classes, you can go up to maybe a tad over 60 minutes.
  • Finally, if your audience are teenageres, ages 15 to 18, anxious to learn to bang those drums, or even adults, you can indulge in a one and a half hour concert-lesson. But only if you think that all that time is absolutely necessary; otherwise stay within the 60 minutes range.

 

WHICH INSTRUMENTS TO INTRODUCE AND WHICH PIECES TO PLAY

What instruments should you introduce? And what pieces should you play? Let’s be practical and ask a different question. What instruments can fit in your car and in your colleagues’ car? Now, this makes more sense.

That being said, through the years, I tried to create a sort of concert-lesson “model” and usually for a good 70-80% of my concert-lessons, I try to proceed in the following manner:

  1. I begin with a piece for snare drum and/or orchestral untuned pecussion, such as for example, a rudimental march, without saying anything before playing. The sound impact of these instruments captures the attention of the audience.
  2. From the snare drum (or from the bass drum, cymbals, etc.) I move on to the drum-set, an instrument that all kids are familiar with, and I explain how drums are just a set-up version of the “classical” instruments that they have just heard. With my drums I can play a solo, a few rhythms, or even better, I can play a piece together with a few keyboard percussion instruments, which I will then introduce.
  3. Marimba and/or vibraphone. By now, they should have already heard the sound, so I can say a couple of words about them (A COUPLE of words), about the way they are made and about their differences. I can then have them listen to a solo or duet using these two types of keyboard. Which piece should you select… well, think about a ten-minute long piece by Stockhausen and then chose the completely opposite.
  4. Time for questions/interaction.
  5. Encores playing a piece with no instruments and/or with “recycled” instruments.

If your concert-lesson was well planned, with the right mix of playing time and interactive time, and if you have chosen the “right” pieces, about 40 to 50 minutes should have by now passed. During the remaining time, if you deem it useful, you can add other pieces or more interaction time with the audience.

 

USING A THEME?

Tin Cans for John Cage's Third Contruction

I know you don’t see JUST tin cans…

Finally, one more tip that could give a specific “direction” to your concert-lesson and that could also be useful, in many different ways, for the planning of non music-related subjects (hurray for inter-disciplinarity): chose a theme for your concert-lesson.

For example: a trip through the world of percussion instruments. North America – drums and jazz vibraphone; Central and South America – Latin-American Percussion instruments; Japan – marimba (Yes I know marimba doesn’t come from Japan!!!); Africa – various types of ethnic drums. And so on. How many different things could you say/play on the subject? Very many.

Another example, taking advantage of Stomps’ great popularity, could be: recycled percussion instruments. A fun program including pieces such as “Stinkin’ Garbage” by Ed Argenziano and similar. With this theme, a multiple-session lab could be hosted to teach kids to build a few instruments themselves. Ok, I have never done such a lab, but once it was actually proposed to me directly by a school, so… it – could – work! A useful resource to plan/piece/guide to plan this activity is “Hittin Junk Percussions” by Kevin Tuck.

 

Question: do you have other tips to give someone who wants to organize a concert-lesson for percussion instruments? Did you have direct experience with a concert-lesson which went either very well or… very bad? Leave a comment.