Dr. Scott Harris

Return to Tips for Percussion

Tips on Managing Your Percussion

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


The percussion section is arguably the largest and most difficult section of the band/orchestra to understand and to teach.  It is my hope and intention that this page be used to help answer the thousands of unanswered questions that directors and conductors have on a day-to-day basis regarding the percussion area.  This page includes my general approach to performance and sound, links to separate instruments (this will continue to grow and I encourage you to check back regularly for new information) and some useful links to other percussion web pages.  Please feel free to contact me at any time with any specific or immediate questions that you might have.

As a desk reference I recommend Gary Cook's Teaching Percussion, 2nd edition.  This is a very thorough text including all the fundamentals, major and accessory instruments, drumset and marching percussion.  I require this text in my methods classes and also refer to it on a regular basis in my own teaching and performing. 

General Performance Tips:

Quality of Sound is the single most important issue for percussionists/musicians today.  With so many variables in percussion performance (instruments, sticks, mallets, tuning, technique) we must have, and teach, a firm idea of what kind of sound we want to produce based on the context of the music.  Once that concept is in place (again based on the music at hand) the other choices will fall into place. 

Playing area on the instrument:
In very general terms most percussion instruments work on the principle of a dry fundamental in the center of the head/bar and more resonance/harmonics as you move towards the edge (or node where the rope is on keyboards).  In most cases we talk about playing a little off center because here we can get mostly fundamental pitch/tone but with a little bit of color/resonance through the added harmonics (the edge of the bar on keyboards produces the same sound characteristic as playing off center).  Remember that this is only a general approach and the context of the music may dictate playing on other areas of the head/bar.  However it is very important to always be CONSISTENT in where you are hitting the drum/bar and if that means adjusting your technique THAT'S OK!

Playing area on the stick:
Along with playing area on the head/bar I believe we also need to address playing spot on the mallet/stick.  This is generally overlooked and not discussed on a regular basis but certainly needs to be.  The stick itself also has many sound characteristics and we have to sure we are playing on the right spot.  To my knowledge sticks and mallets are generally designed so that the appropriate mallet or bead spot hits the bar when the stick is parallel to the instrument.  This has to do with hand position and generally keeping your hands/wrists low and close to the instrument.  A good exercise for this is to play up and down a mallet instrument on just the accidentals, hitting the edge of the bars.  Your hands should be so close to the natural keys that you can feel/sense the keys beneath you (without actually resting/touching the bars).

Listen to what you and the instrument sound like.  NOT while you are playing and NOT standing right next to the instrument but out in the audience or on a tape recording.  Is that the sound you wanted?  Is it appropriate to the music?  How can the sound be adjusted?  Start training your ears now to recognize different sounds and sound qualities.  Then you can develop the skills needed to reproduce those sounds in your own playing.  This is arguably the most important aspect of being a great percussionist and musician!

Useful Percussion Links (with many links of their own):


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.

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