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By Tim Carman

The drums provide an exciting outlet for many young students to have fun while making music. Nevertheless, learning to play drums can be extremely frustrating and discouraging for many reasons. Unlike most instruments, the drum set:

  • is intimidating with its large size and number of different drum and cymbal names;
  • contains an entirely unique and challenging music notation method;
  • necessitates the ability to control all four limbs, often playing different patterns at the same time; and
  • lacks the ability to sound out an immediately recognizable melody, which makes it challenging to play a song.

Amplifying these four issues is the fact that today’s children learn to play drums at a much younger age, often as early as three or four years old. Consequently, as a teacher it’s necessary to think outside the box to accommodate less-developed or less-motivated students.

Creative Ways to Simplify the Learning Process

  1. How can you simplify this large, multi-faceted instrument? Rather than introducing the entire drum kit, it can be beneficial to first familiarize a new student with a portion of the kit including hi-hat, bass drum, and snare drum, on which many of the most important and basic drum beats can be played. Games such as “Simon Says” are a fun way to have your student memorize the name and location of the three drums.
  2. How can you simplify the process of reading drum notation? As blasphemous as it sounds, you don’t need to use standard drum notation to teach young students how to play drums. I remember my jazz band director preaching, “Music isn’t the ink on the page, it’s the sound that’s created by your instrument.” So why not alter the ink on the page? Replacing standard drum notation with symbols that are immediately recognizable to even the youngest of students is one solution.  For instance, shapes can be used in place of drum notation. The creative alternatives are endless, and teachers should feel confident in their use of such methods.

Standard Drum Notation:

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Alternative Method Using Shapes:

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  1. How can you simplify the difficult process of learning to play two, three, or four drums at once? This answer may seem obvious, but starting the student with one drum at a time is incredibly effective. As instructors we often forget the difficulties of learning early coordination exercises. By encouraging students to play each drum individually, they can practice getting a good, even sound out of the instrument. Utilizing your alternative drum notation makes this process even easier for young students.

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Once this becomes easy for the student, they can try simple patterns that still require no simultaneous playing of different drums. For example, a great reggae/disco beat can be achieved by the following pattern:ex 4.png

Once they feel comfortable with playing one drum at a time, you can introduce playing two limbs at the same time.

Note: for two shapes on top of each other, play the drums at the same time.

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  1. How can you get a drum student to play along, in time, with a song in the first lesson? Now that you’ve reduced the physical drum set into the main three drums, simplified the drum notation, and allowed the student to become comfortable playing each drum individually, students can quickly learn to play along with simple songs such as “We Will Rock You” by Queen:ex 6.png

Or the following pattern, which works with many songs including ”Back In Black” by AC/DC:

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Playing in time with a song is extremely challenging for young students and, as teachers, we need to be patient!  A great technique for developing a student’s ability to play in time and internalize a steady pulse is to have them vocalize while playing. For example, students can say the shape names or count out loud as they play.

“We Will Rock You” while saying shape names out loud:

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“Back In Black” while counting “1,2,3,4” out loud:

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Summary: By simplifying the entire learning process, you’ll find that your students can play along with songs at a much earlier stage in their journey. This will boost their confidence, keep them engaged, and motivate them to learn new patterns in order to play along with new songs. Once they’ve accomplished this concrete goal, they are much more likely to fall in love with the instrument! What more can we ask for as teachers?


  • Simplify the drum kit: focus on hi-hat, snare drum, and bass drum.
  • Simplify the notation: utilize alternative methods such as shapes.
  • Simplify coordination: have the student play one drum at a time.
  • Simplify the song: have students vocalize as they play with simple songs.
  • Have fun!

Tim-Carman.pngTim Carman is an international touring musician, session drummer, published author, and educator. With degrees from Hamilton College and Berklee College of Music, Tim has worked extensively in the Boston and L.A. areas, and is currently touring with the Boston-based soul singer Julie Rhodes. A dedicated educator for over ten years, Tim published his first book, Shape Beats For Kids, in 2017. Learn more at

Shape Beats for Kids was created in order to simplify the learning process and ease the frustrations that young students encounter on the instrument. Shape Beats shrinks the drum set down into just three components: hi-hat, bass drum, and snare drum, on which many of the most important and basic drum beats can be played. It uses a triangle, square, and circle to represent the hi-hat, snare drum, and bass drum, respectively, remedying the complications that can arise from reading modern drum notation. By teaching students to first play each of the three drums individually, Shape Beats eases challenges that arise with coordinating multiple limbs. Each chapter contains play-along examples so the student can use their new beats to play along with the songs.