Although I had a strong rudimental drumming experience from marching band in high school, until my junior year I was never asked to pick up marimba mallets. I decided to do so because I realized that if I wanted to pursue a professional music career, I would have to commit my life to learning every part of my instrument group, not because any music teacher that I had advised me to do so. Even if some percussion students do not show interest in music as a career, music educators must give them chances to learn every instrument. It will not only help with classroom management, but it will also allow them to explore new sounds while also learning to read music in many different settings. Show them that mallet changes affect sound and that even though some of the instruments are not pitched, there is room for expression of musical lines. Percussionists who think musically from learning to read notes will begin to apply it to their other instruments as well. Some of the best drumset players that I know are also fantastic marimba players and vice versa!
Being a total percussionist means that you are a competent player on at least the "main" instruments in the percussion family: keyboard percussion, snare drum, and timpani. However, my experiences so far as a professional musician lead me to believe that there is more to it than that. Not only do you need to be able to play those instruments listed prior, but also bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tambourine, drumset, and a variety of world instruments. You must also know how each instrument responds to variation in stroke, beating area, and mallet changes. One of my professors once said "Everything is Everything". In other words, anything that you play on one instrument directly affects the other instruments. However, I have since taken it a step further in believing that the instruments, historical knowledge, music you learn, styles you encounter, musicians you play with, music that you compose, improvisation efforts, and so on also directly affect one another and only you can figure out a way to "connect the dots" in a meaningful way. Again, you are in charge. Only practicing, listening, studying, taking lessons, reading, and simply submerging your entire being in music is the only way to do this.
Back to school...I believe that it all comes down to the music educators in schools because not everyone can afford private teachers right away, if at all. If students begin their journey as percussionists playing on a drum pad and never learn to play the instrument itself (or any of the other percussion instruments), they will be lost when the time comes to play musically if they even stick with the instrument. Imagine as a fourth grade clarinet student, you only get a reed. Then in fifth grade, you get the mouthpiece and barrel. Then in middle school, you get the upper joint (only half of the keys), and so on. By the time you learn how to play the complete instrument, you would be in high school and would still need to learn to read music. Yet, young percussionists are often forced into a similar routine in our schools. Not only have I had students who were not being trained to be total musicians in general, but I've had seniors in high school that have come to me without any knowledge of reading in treble or bass clef and can barely play with a metronome. I know that marching programs are sometimes criticized for the amount of drummers who can't read due to rote teaching and crazy amounts of repetition, but you can use many skills learned from this activity. Discipline for one, but also learning to play together and blend with others is a skill that I use on every gig. However, if you can only play music in that style, on a particular drum, you may never reach your full potential. And of course, if you want to work as a professional percussionist you must learn to play everything very well.
I know that I am far from the first person to say all of that, but due to the fact that I am a young percussionist involved in the chamber music scene in New York City, I see the importance of this every day. Contemporary percussion music is littered with many different instrument sounds, including those that are "unconventional" classical percussion instruments. You need to be a problem solver in order to create set-ups around the music and your overall sonic vision. To be able to play the music is knowing your choreography between instruments and mallets. Without knowing all of these instruments individually, how could you form a cohesive musical idea with them all together? The total percussionist is the only person for this job.
You must also be able to get past any technical issues so that expressing the music can be the first thing on your mind. Before practicing specific musical excerpts, take apart all of the physical aspects of playing those specific things. For example, if a passage contains chromatic lines, go play some chromatic scales. The more physically prepared you are, the less you have to keep your head buried in the music. Don't forget that you most likely won't have a conductor, so cueing and staying connected to the other musicians is essential.
Having your own gear, being personable, showing up early, and being well prepared are also important. Let's face it, no one wants to work with someone who is a "drag". Due to crazy schedules, even the hardest music is put together in small amounts of time. If you spend a rehearsal arguing over whose interpretations are better, those insecurities and tensions will eventually come out in the music. Making good music with the people you are working with is much easier when egos are not in the way (I know that everyone has a bit of ego, but try your best). If someone calls you out for a wrong note or rhythm, go with the flow. As long as you leave room for everyone to make suggestions and they are constructive, the musicians know they are free to express themselves and the music. You can imagine the kind of tension that can be built among professionals who are all capable of making appropriate musical decisions. Negative comments lead to unsuccessful and uninspired performances. Although there is a large piece of professional musicianship that leans on precision and reliability, you also must be able to go into rehearsals with an open mind, imagination to explore sounds, and fearlessness about taking musical risks.
From the first day of any musical journey, remember that you are in charge of your own path. If you think your ears need work because tuning timpani is difficult, go to musictheory.net and practice. If you have trouble playing with a metronome, play with one every time you practice. If you can't read while playing a piece on xylophone, practice sight-reading. You must be your own teacher when not in a lesson. You must step out of your comfort zone during practice sessions. You must stay motivated and know that your hard work will pay off. There are no shortcuts to becoming a total percussionist and well-rounded musician, but it is worth striving for!
Anthony Di Bartolo is a New Jersey-based percussionist, composer, and educator.