Starting a drum ensemble, the first steps.

As I mentioned in the first blog post, I was approached by saxophonist Greg Thompkins in August of last year with the opportunity to start a percussion ensemble class at Winston Middle School in Baltimore, MD. In this post, I will detail my thought process and explain some of the decisions that I needed to make before the first day of class last September.  

The first thing I needed to learn more about was the population of students that the ensemble would serve. I knew that I’d be working with 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students who currently had no musical offerings at their middle school. A few years prior, there had been a band program that was well thought of. But, after the band director retired, he was not replaced and the instrument room/band hall had become a storage closet for various items including cleaning supplies, filing cabinets, and broken musical instruments.  

As far as percussion resources that the school already owned, the selection was slim. In total I found; two drum set bass drums (both with broken heads/no spurs, two drum set 12″ toms (broken heads, not the matching toms for the bass drums), one snare drum shell completely coated in thick blue paint with no heads/snares/hardware, and one floor tom with no legs. There were no stands of any kind that worked, and no cymbals.  

I was certainly starting at square one. My strengths would certainly be the quality of the students. Winston Middle, while being labeled an under-performing school and currently on the Baltimore School Boards chopping block for the 2011 school year, is also known for a long history of excellence and great students/teachers. The school can be proud of an award-winning debate team, as well as a highly professional step team (whose performances electrify school assemblies.) I knew I’d feel at home there and was ready to start my planning.  

My own background with running percussion groups is varied. In college, as a Graduate Assistant, I ran a classical percussion ensemble for younger students and non-percussion majors. This group included highly talented instrumentalists who were non-percussionists but wanted to increase their musical ability and rhythmic awareness. The group focused on challenging, written out pieces, where a high level of music reading skill was mandatory. More recently, I’ve taught percussion in group settings to adults in continuing education classes, children with special needs (through in-school assemblies), and, in the summer, I’ve run my own children’s marching samba school for the past three years. My continuing-ed drum circle approach (which has now expanded via the classes I teach through the Lagniappe Project at Sheppard Pratt Hospital and Baltimore Library for the Blind) is modelled on the wonderful methods taught by Christine Stevens, Arthur Hull, and Kalani. I then expanded these approaches in my own classes to suit my personal style that appreciates ambient soundscapes, and a love of traditional patterns. Personally, I’d also recently started a Gahu drumming ensemble with other professional players from the area along with my friend/teacher/mentor Jon Seligman. This group was a monthly meet up of area drummers interested in really digging deep into David Locke’s thesis and book on Gahu. I also have a long history playing in and teaching drum lines of all ages and abilities, including participating shortly in drum corp while in high school. I knew that I’d somehow have to combine my knowledge from all of these outlets and create something uniquely appropriate for Winston.  

I started looking around the internet for successful percussion programs being run in other schools and was amazed at the breadth of what I found. There are djun djun ensembles in Chicago, Samba Schools in England, Taiko Classes in Arizona, and much more. I knew I’d want to offer the most diverse musical experience possible to the students. Since I already own a set of Brasilian samba drums, an almost complete marching drumline set (snares, 4 basses, tenors), and enough stand parts and drums to complete the broken drum sets…I was leaning towards African drums for anything new that I’d purchase. The traditional djembe/djun djun/bell/axatse/gankogui ensemble is easy to start, can involve lots of kids, and can easily (and properly) back up vocals/instruments/and anything from classical to pop if orchestrated correctly. Step one of my plan was done, I’d be pulling inspiration and ideas from traditional north African percussion, Brasilian Samba tradition, drum set opportunities, with possibly some drum line and New Orleans traditional marching thrown in.

Winston Middle School Drums

First drum purchase for Winston Middle School

In the next post I’ll detail choosing the types/sizes/and styles of instruments that I purchased for the ensemble. I’ll also talk about cost, getting the most for your money, care of the instruments, and why to always choose quality over quantity.

Winston Accessories

Winston Accessories

Thank you very much for reading and I would love to read any comments you might have.

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