Dr. Scott Harris

Return to Tips for Percussion

FAQs About College Music / Percussion

by Dr. Scott Harris
Assistant Professor of Music
SFA School of Music
[email protected]


Over the years I have auditioned and interviewed many incoming college music students/percussionists and many of the same questions come up with each meeting. The following are my typical answers to these questions as the percussion professor at Stephen F. Austin State University and they are based on studies at the undergraduate level. Since every school, and every student, is different it is essential that any incoming college freshman look closely at the requirements and curriculum for each school they are interested in (many of the answers below might change slightly depending on the specific requirements of different schools and their programs). It is also highly recommended that a personal visit/audition be included in the process. The college is looking at you as a potential student but more importantly you are auditioning each college to see what is best for YOU. Take your time, do your research, meet the instructors, and make sure you answer every possible question before signing on the dotted line.

I love music and playing in band but I’m not sure I want to major in music?

This is a question many high school musicians struggle with every year. My advice is that even if music is only a small option in your career interests to go ahead and give it a shot. Generally speaking most college music programs begin in the first year and continue in full force throughout the length of the degree. If, within that first year, you find that music isn’t right for you it’s easy to switch to another major. Most majors, outside of music, don’t begin their full curriculum until the sophomore or junior year. However, if you begin in another major and decide to switch to music you will have to start the music degree from scratch, essentially starting over as a first semester freshmen regardless of how long you’ve already been in college.

Should I major in music education or performance?

At the undergraduate level the two music concentrations most students consider are music performance and music education. There are other options, like composition or music business, but these are not as popular and sometimes not offered. I always, and strongly, recommend music education at the undergraduate level. The issue here is simple. Will you be able to get a job upon graduation? With the music education degree comes a state teaching certificate which allows you to teach in the public schools. The reality of life is that you don’t know where you’ll be in 4-5 years and what kind of responsibilities you’ll have. You want the option of employment to be available to you.

But I really want to perform. Do I lose performance opportunities as an education major?

NO! At SFA, and I believe at many schools, the performing difference in the education vs. performance curriculum is only a required junior recital. The ensemble requirements are the same and you always, regardless of concentration, have the opportunity to perform in as many ensembles (or give as many recitals) as you and your teacher are comfortable with. There are minor coursework differences (education classes vs. more theory and/or music history and literature) but much of the academic work is also the same.

How long does the degree take to complete?

You should plan on 4.5 to 5 years to complete the degree. The degree can be completed in four years but that will require larger course loads during the year and regular summer school work.

Which percussion instruments will I study as a music major in college?

At SFA I teach a total percussion curriculum, which means that as an undergraduate student, you will study ALL major areas of percussion performance, pedagogy and literature. My philosophy is that students must graduate with a fundamental and working knowledge of all the major percussion instruments, techniques and genres. This includes: snare drum (rudimental and concert), keyboards (two and four mallets, classical and jazz), timpani, orchestral percussion (basic excerpts and accessories – tambourine, cymbals, bass drum, etc.), drumset, large and chamber ensemble techniques, and world percussion as time allows (Latin, African, Eastern, etc.).

I believe that at the undergraduate level you want to learn as much about every area of percussion as possible. This will benefit you in two major ways. First, you will graduate knowing you can work and perform in any situation that presents itself (orchestra jobs, solo recitals, musicals, jazz ensembles, church gigs, etc.). Second, if you find one instrument or area (marimba, drumset, orchestral studies, etc.) that you specifically want to focus on in graduate school, or professionally, you can make an educated decision about that and STILL be able to perform/work on the other instruments.

What should I play for an audition?

First, plan to audition as early as possible during the year before you enter college. A live audition is strongly recommended since it allows both you and your future teacher to get to know each other on a personal level. Remember, you are going to be working together DAILY for the next 4-5 years! Video taped auditions are usually allowed but again, the live audition is strongly recommended!

For the audition you want to present yourself at your BEST. This not only means that you play well but that you are prepared and take care of all the little details. For instance: be on time, dress nicely, have all your music, mallets and sticks, speak clearly, ask questions and be upfront about your abilities (academic grades and as a percussionist). Your personal presentation is just as important, and sometimes more so, than the audition itself.

Each school will have different audition requirements and you want to contact any school you audition at ahead of time so you know EXACTLY what’s required and expected. At a bare minimum you want to demonstrate your abilities on snare drum and mallets during that first audition. Prepare a concert and/or rudimental etude or solo on snare drum (i.e.: Cirone or Firth) and a two mallet or four mallet marimba solo (i.e.: Goldenberg, Peters or Gomez). You should also be prepared to sight-read on either instrument and possibly perform rudiments or scales. Timpani, multiple percussion and/or drumset are nice additions to the audition IF you feel comfortable on those instruments. However, if the teacher does ask you to demonstrate something on an instrument you’re not familiar with or prepared on, DO IT. The instructor is trying to get a sense of your abilities and potential. Don’t make excuses, just play - it may not be very good but the instructor will have gained some insight into your natural abilities AND your willingness to try something new and/or uncomfortable.

It’s also a good idea to call ahead and find out what kind of instruments you will be playing on, this is especially important with regard to marimba range and height, and timpani pedals.

I don’t read mallet music very well. Are there ways I can work on this before coming to college?

This is VERY important, especially for percussionists! We are at a slight disadvantage since much of our music is for non-pitched instruments (snare and bass drum etc.). This is a common problem and the best way to work on it is simply to play A LOT. Do a lot of reading; not so much solo work and memorization, but simple reading. You can obviously use mallet books but other good resources include flute, clarinet and trumpet books. Honestly, any written music you have access to is readable on the marimba. Read! Read! Read!!!

What kind of coursework can I expect in my first year?

The music degree begins on the first day of the first semester with courses in music theory (analyzing written music), aural skills (sight-singing, hearing and reading), piano, general education (math, English, etc.), performance ensembles and applied studies (lessons). There might also be a recital attendance requirement, where you are required to attend a specified number of concerts/recitals during the semester (at SFA 10 recitals are required each semester).

What, if anything, can I do to prepare for those music classes?

I strongly recommend being as familiar as possible with basic music theory BEFORE coming to college. Again, as percussionists we are at a slight disadvantage in this area but that doesn’t change the fact that your freshman theory class will assume you already have a basic knowledge of music theory. This includes, but is not limited to: note reading in treble and bass clef, the major scales and their key signatures (minors are good too), knowledge of dynamic and tempo markings (f, mf, p, allegro, largo, etc.) and possibly intervals and chord/triad structure.

If possible, I recommend studying music theory with a teacher, taking piano lessons, and doing some singing. I know there are many percussionists reading this and crying out “I CAN’T SING!” but in college you will have to sing – in class, and in front of other people.
The benefits of singing, and piano playing, are enormous. Not only will you develop an internal sense of pitch and intervalic relationships, which is vital to timpani playing, but your overall musicianship, on ALL instruments, will be greatly improved.

Will I have time for other activities outside the music major like sports, fraternities or a job?

It’s possible, but I don’t recommend outside activities while being a full-time music student. The music curriculum is very time intensive with coursework, ensemble rehearsals/concerts and personal practice/homework. It demands an enormous amount of physical, mental and emotional commitment and dedication. This doesn’t mean you can’t do other things, but it is very difficult. If a job is needed, or if you want to participate in other organizations, be prepared to take a smaller course load and possibly extend the total length of your college career. The most important thing is to always do well in your classes and major requirements. Be open about your interests with your teacher/advisor and they can help you get everything you want out of your college experience, hopefully without sacrificing your grades and performance standards.

If I don’t major in music can I still take lessons and play in the band?

Most performance ensembles are open to ALL students, regardless of major, based on an entrance audition and/or permission from the director. In fact the athletic bands and world music ensembles (steel bands, African ensembles) are usually made up of more non-music students than music majors. Private lessons are usually reserved for music majors/minors but many times there are other options available (percussion classes or lessons with older students). Be sure to ask the percussion teacher about lessons since these options may not be published in the course catalog.

If you have any other questions about college, percussion, music or SFA, please feel free to contact me at any time.


The Texas School Music Project is a source for ideas and information concerning pedagogical practices in the music classroom or rehearsal hall.
The TSMP is a service provided to all music specialists by the faculty of the School of Music at Stephen F. Austin State University.

For questions about this site contact [email protected].

Copyright © 2002-2019, The School of Music at Stephen F. Austin State University