By Dave Black and Chris Bernotas

Do you ever struggle to keep your percussion students involved throughout the entire rehearsal? What do you do with them for pieces that don’t include many percussion parts? Are you ever concerned that they’re not getting enough meaningful instruction during rehearsal because you’re so focused on the rest of the ensemble or because they are usually all the way in the back of the room? Here are a few ideas you can try that we’ve found to be helpful in addressing these issues, as well as some other thoughts. Planning and thoughtful consideration can help ensure your percussion section is not just “kept busy,” but are an integral part of every ensemble.

1. Select the Right Repertoire

Finding music that fits your entire ensemble is an incredible challenge. When selecting repertoire, it’s important that you consider the number of students in the percussion section and try to select music with that in mind (as you would for any other section of the band). This can be challenging when trying to select music that will help develop all players, but a little thought in the selection of your pieces can ensure that all players are engaged. However, don’t be tempted to program a piece solely because it has a lot of percussion parts. Try to find music that truly requires critical thinking, appropriate challenges, and musical expression.

2. Got Toys? Or, Check Your Stock

When choosing music, make sure you have the percussion instruments to cover that particular piece. Many programs have the basic instruments such as a snare drum, a set of bells, etc. but don’t have all of the necessary accessory percussion instruments, etc. required to perform the piece.

3. Double Parts—The More the Merrier

When appropriate, consider doubling the percussion parts (mallets, snare, etc.), especially if you have an overstocked percussion section. Remember that it’s an educational experience first, and an artistic one second. When it comes to the actual performance, you can always scale down the parts to the originally-desired orchestration if you wish.

4. Keep Them Playing

In rehearsal, try to keep the percussion section playing as much as possible. For example, if you want to hear a particular section (flutes, clarinets, etc.), ask for flutes and percussion or clarinets and percussion. This not only keeps the percussion section engaged, but lends rhythmic support to the other instruments as well.

5. Double Up, Again!

Remember that mallets frequently double the winds, and timpani the low brass, so this is a quick and easy way to involve the player. You may also find it useful to have accessory percussion instruments (tambourine, woodblock, castanets, etc.) double difficult rhythms to help other players in the ensemble become more confident rhythmically. Thorough score study will help to ensure these parts will not get overlooked. We strive to teach all of our students to be fully-functioning members of the ensemble, both as technically proficient and musically expressive performers. If you are concerned about doubling hindering the balance of the ensemble, remember, you can always scale the parts back for the performance. Professional percussionists not only need to be proficient, but also excellent multi-taskers. Having them double other parts in addition to their actual parts is a great start.

6. Have them Ghost Other Parts

If a percussionist is not playing a written part, consider having them ghost (silently play) the rhythm of another section. This not only gives them something to do, but encourages them to listen to what’s being played around them so they can solve rhythmic challenges in the melodic parts.

7. Notate Other Parts During Long Rests

When a player has a long section of rests, consider having them chart/write on their music the entry of each section by using the lead instrument and/or rhythmic figure as a guide. This will encourage them to listen to what the rest of the ensemble is doing.

8. Challenge Yourself to Be the Authority

It’s safe to say that many band directors are not percussionists, and percussionists have a lot of different instruments and techniques to master. You don’t have to be a master player, but if you can play a good five-stroke roll or achieve a good thumb roll on tambourine, your students will most definitely benefit from your modeling. If you need help remembering specifics, check out the comprehensive DVDs that are integrated into Sound Innovations for Concert Band, Books 1 & 2. These are great for not only assigning video lessons to your students, but for reminding yourself of various techniques. If you have any well-known percussionists in the area, bring them in occasionally for Master Classes to provide inspiration to your back-row students.

We hope the suggestions above will not only keep your percussionists engaged, but will give you a renewed sense of confidence in helping them become well-rounded percussionists.


The most comprehensive method available, Sound Innovations for Concert Band now has five volumes, allowing you to teach young band through advanced ensembles with the same approach. Each level is designed to keep your percussionists fully engaged, not “busy,” in each rehearsal. Now with SI Online, adjust the pacing and focus of your teaching any time during the semester to address differentiation and the unique needs within your classroom. Also, explore the wealth of additional repertoire available online. Learn more at

Black_DaveAs one of the biggest selling percussion authors in the world, Dave Black is the author and/or co-author of over 30 books, including Sound Innovations for Concert Band, Books 1 & 2 and Alfred’s Drum Method. His books and music are used and performed by young people all over the world, with combined sales now totaling two million units. Currently he is the Editor-in-Chief, School Methods Strategy, for Alfred Music.

bernotasAn active composer and arranger of concert band music, Chris Bernotas’ music has been performed at the Midwest Clinic and has appeared on J.W. Pepper’s Editor’s Choice list and numerous state lists. Chris is co-author of Alfred Music’s Sound Innovations: Ensemble Development series. He has been teaching more than 25 years and is in demand as a conductor, clinician, and adjudicator.