Alternate Ways of Teaching Young Percussionists

Alternate Ways of Teaching Young Percussionists by Diane

In working with kids aged 7-12 for over 25 years now, I have found that through the use of mnemonics, listening, movement, and singing, young children can learn to play complicated rhythms, improvise and create original pieces without written music.

I certainly recognize that music reading is essential for musicians, but when working with very young children in a general classroom setting, my first goal is to hook them into wanting to experience music.  Starting them with the methods we use with the Leopards is just plain fun, and it develops a love for music that motivates them to want to learn more.  So I’d like to encourage teachers to “loosen up” and focus on developing students’ creativity, confidence, and auditory development first, creating a solid foundation for a greater focus on technical development, music reading, and theoretical knowledge later.


When learning a new tune, we start with our ears.  Before we start to learn a song, we listen to a recording of it.  This might not sound like a new idea to many, but throughout all my years in high school and college band, I don’t ever remember listening to a recording of a piece before trying to play it.  This way, the kids have an idea of what we’re trying to accomplish.  We listen and get the songs inside us.  If the tunes have words, we sing along; if not, we sometimes make up our own.  We listen and try to isolate the individual parts (melody, bass, and comp).  After hearing and feeling the music, we’re ready to start learning parts.

We let the kids have a say in which part they want to play.  We give them an idea of what the part will be like whether it will be easy or more difficult.  In letting them pick the part they want to play, they immediately have input, creating a feeling of ownership in the group.

L&KAfter choosing parts, we begin sectional work.  We start by teaching the children in each section who catch on the quickest.  After teaching those students, we usually move to the ones who tend to struggle the most.  Meanwhile, the first students we taught become instructors themselves, teaching their parts to the rest of their sections.  By the time we’ve finished working with the ones who are struggling, all the other students have learned their parts from each other.  Having the children teach each other deepens their learning and helps develop self-discipline, tolerance, and confidence.

We try to keep things as visual as possible.  We teach the kids the shape of the parts when the music goes up or down.  We have them trace the path of their notes on the keyboard, comparing them to zig-zags, triangles, V’s, L’s, W’s, etc.  It’s easy for the kids to remember where they’re going if they have something visual to remind them.


Since we don’t rely on printed music to learn parts, we have to come up with alternative methods to teach our songs. We rely heavily on word phrases, instead of traditional counts to learn parts.  We sing about underwear, stinky roaches, angry elephants, cheese, alligators, meatballs, bananas, dirty dogs, and apple pie.  Using word phrases instead of written music allows the kids to concentrate more on the feel of the music.

Instead of explaining the concept of syncopation to a bunch of 7-year-olds, we just sing about rabbits and pineapples and they all get the rhythms pretty often on the first try.  In time, they learn the correct terms for what they are doing, but when you’re 7, singing about orange underwear and dirty dogs is a lot more interesting than “1e&a 2e&a.”  Usually, a very simple word phrase will allow them to understand complex rhythms.

Some question the idea of not reading music at the very beginning, as if the child is missing a huge foundation of music education – something that will be hard to overcome.  I have found however, in following the kids’ progress, that this style of early learning isn’t a detriment to them when continuing in music.  It has actually enhanced their music understanding, giving them a different foundation – one of hearing and feeling the music.


After graduating from the Leopards at the end of sixth grade, most of the kids join middle school band (often on instruments other than percussion) or choir.  Their directors often report that they love having former Leopards in their groups because they can hear, feel, and fit into what the group is playing or singing.  The only missing piece is music reading, but that comes pretty easily to them.  Having already learned to play and feel music, when they do start learning to read, they are better able to concentrate on the written music without also having to figure out the technique, how to feel the tempo, and how to fit into the group.  The kids are often surprised that reading music is not as difficult as they had anticipated.

DaniFormer Leopard Danielle Markham, a graduate of the University of Miami as a student of Ney Rosauro, said, “I believe my best feel for music stems from my training with the Leopards as an elementary student.  Diane would describe complicated patterns with simple word phrases, and everything would click.  Now, as a professional musician, I still find myself conquering complicated rhythmic ideas with this same method. My ears are at a complete advantage.”


Another former Leopard, Chicago-based professional drummer Hannah Ford, said, “As my musicianship continues to mature, I realize the importance of my ear, and the ability to listen is crucial.  In all the years I was involved with the Leopards, we learned tunes solely by using our ears to pick apart each section of the song.  Now as an educator, clinician, and performer, I explain to my students that your ears are your best friend and to use them for what they are here for: listening.  Diane’s method of teaching is genius and it has never failed me in my 12 years of playing.”


All members of the group are of equal value.  We try to realize that the kids, although maybe not as experienced as adults, can contribute real ideas to an ensemble.  After playing a tune, we ask them what they think. “How did it sound?” “What went wrong?” “How can we fix it?” Instead of  us telling them all the time, we try to let them tell the group what they heard and what they think would make it sound better.  They “get it” a lot more than you would imagine.

Naturally, it takes some kids longer to “click” than others.  We make sure that everyone can play something.  We create our own parts to fit our group, instead of making our group fit the parts.  Everyone has a place in the group.  Even the shaker players are important.

No one in the group is a star.  We rotate kids around so that they experience different parts and different instruments.   Sometimes it’s good to see the top kids take a back seat while weaker players learn to become stronger.  We sometimes have a strong player be a coach to the weaker player, with lots of positive reinforcement and friendly help.  The tune might not sound as good as it would with a stronger player on the part, but the personal accomplishment that both kids are experiencing is priceless – the weaker player accomplishing a goal and the stronger player contributing to someone else’s success.

TWhen it’s time to play a solo, we let them play their own solos.  When kids to create their own solos,they will have a much greater feeling of accomplishment, even if it doesn’t sound that great.  We don’t focus on the notes they played but on the fact that they performed a solo on their own, either one they wrote or an improvised one.

Usually, it’s the same kids who want to play a solo.  I’ll ask the kids who haven’t had a solo yet if they’re ready.  One time I got a very reluctant “yes” from a quiet girl who always liked to blend in.  She was finally ready to attempt a solo – a very big step for her.  To get it over with faster, she chose to be the first of three solos on a blues tune.  When her time came, she played a very simple solo, not one that anyone would think was outstanding, but it was outstanding to her.  Just the fact that she did a solo on her own and it didn’t totally fall apart was all she needed.  When it was over, she let go with a huge sigh of relief, looked up, and just beamed.  The audience roared with applause, not because it was a great solo, but because they saw on her face what had

just happened inside of her little 8-year-old head.  This was a great personal triumph for her, one she accomplished on her own time when she was ready.  When that happens, you know you’ve done your job.

I don’t just want to teach the kids how to play music, but to be musicians.  It’s not just about how great you sound or how technically perfect your group performs.Sometimes it’s about the individual accomplishments that are occurring within the group, within the children.  Make it about them.  Let go, back up, and let them shine.  Believe in your students.  If you believe they can do it, and expect them to do it, they probably will.  When given the opportunity, they will amaze you.