Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic Announcement!!

I am very excited to announce (through the blog at least) that I will be attending and presenting at the 2015 Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic in Chicago. This will be my first time attending and I can’t wait! I have heard about this convention for man many years and work has always kept me at home, but this year the stars have aligned and I will be able to make it.


Through some encouragement from some key people (Garwood Whaley and Dr. Mallory Thompson specifically) I have applied and been accepted to give a clinic at this year’s convention. I have wanted to present some of my ideas to our nation’s music educators and I cant wait to in a few weeks. I have some much respect for the teachers and directors who teach beginners the fundamentals of music and plant that seed of the love of music. I thought long and hard about my topic and I settled on “Sound Production on Percussion Instruments”. There are soooo many difficult things we have to do on percussion instruments that we often lose focus on how the instrument actually sounds! Some of the solutions I have to creating a good sound are relatively easy to implement and some are a little more difficult. In the class we will discuss sound on 5 instruments: Xylophone, Glockenspiel, Tambourine, Snare Drum, and Cymbals. With each instrument I will discuss:

The Physical ways you can make a better sound. (drum tuning, mallet choice)

The ways in which you can Listen. (learning self-correcting and exercises to improve the ear)

Directions and Questions directors can ask their students. (to get better results)

As a preview I have included my handout that I will be distributing at the clinic. I have designed it to be useful for those who are not able to attend, so hopefully all band and orchestra directors can find it helpful.

Midwest Clinic 2015 – Sound Production on Percussion Instruments

My clinic is on Thursday, December 17th, at 10:30 am in room W179 in the McCormick Place in downtown Chicago. Afterwards I will be signing copies of my book, The Modern Concert Snare Drum Roll at the JW Pepper Music Booth.

I also want to thank Malletech Instruments for supporting this class and making their first visit to the Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic!!! Be sure to check out their booth!

I can’t wait to drive up to Chicago and check out the other clinics, the exhibition hall, and meeting lots of new people. Hope to see you there!


PASIC 2015 Recap!

Wow what a week in San Antonio! I always have a blast at PASIC and this year was no different. Sadly I was not able to clone myself and did not attend every event and class I wanted. It can get quite overwhelming at times and of course I wanted to check out the exhibition floor and catch up with some many friends I don’t get to see often.

Here is a quick recap of some of the highlights for me.

The Symphonic Committee is working on some new ideas for the Mock Audition and Symphonic Labs so keep your eyes peeled for those in the coming year.

Brian Del Signore – Preparation for Snare Drum Perfection

In a brief introduction Brian touched on a lot of really important topics to play snare drum at the highest level including focusing on playing soft, improving your weak hand, importance of recording yourself, and unique ways of using the metronome. All good things for any aspiring percussionist to work on.


First I want to thank Michael Metz, Sam Crowley, and Aaron Covey for playing! They all played very well in a very intimidating environment! I think the concept of working on preparing an audition solo for an audition was received very well and all three left with some good new ideas! I also have to thank Malletech for providing such a great instrument and Leigh Stevens for teching the instrument beforehand! Couldn’t imagine having a better marimba tech than that!!

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Symphonic Panel Discussion

There were a whole lot of Symphonic activities on Thursday! This was sandwiched right in between the Mock Audition and Rob’s class. The panel was moderated by Phil O’banion and included Brian Del Signore (Houston Symphony), Richard Kvistad (San Francisco Opera), Sam Bacco (Nashville Symphony), Richard Weiner (Cleveland Orchestra), and myself. There was some great discussion on the differences between how we lead our sections, which I very much enjoyed. However, we all agreed on a lot of aspects of our job that are paramount. Mostly that we need to put players in the best position to play well and that doesn’t always mean that we (the principal) plays the typical principal part. It was also nice to hear others say that it is our job to stand up for and have our section’s back when tension between conductor and section escalates. Not that that every happens….

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Rob Knopper

Rob gave a great class on how to self record and learn from this recording process. It wasn’t just about gear, it was more about the process of how to analyze the recording and how to improve from it. He made some good points about eliminating multi-tasking so that you can focus on one part of the process at a time. Normally we are playing and listening and analyzing all at the same time. That’s very inefficient! A great point he made was that in traditional practice you are only fixing the first problem you notice. When you self record, you can see and hear the most important problem first rather than just the one you happen to notice first.

Then he brought myself as well as Sarah Gartin, and Jean-Baptiste Leclere on stage. We separated the recording process into 3 aspects. I was the player. Sarah was the analyzer. And JB came up with the solutions to fix the issues. This was quite fun, especially since Rob decided to surprise me with some rep I wasn’t expecting to have to play…

PASIC All-Star Percussion Ensemble

I must say I am pretty out of the loop when it comes to percussion ensemble rep right now as I just don’t get a chance to play it or hear it very often. This concert programmed by my old teacher Michael Burritt was a real breath of fresh air. It was programmed extremely well and the college students played at an extremely high level. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

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Jean-Baptiste Leclere

I was immediately impressed with JB’s tambourine playing ability. He started with some brief history of the riq and demonstrated some pretty impressive technique and how it relates to the tambourine. He spoke briefly about how to use the head on the tambourine to your advantage. We have a tendency to forget the tambourine has a drumhead attached to it. I always try to think about how much head sound I want in my tambourine sound and JB had an interesting way to think about it. Since you are using your hand and not a stick you can think about the tambourine head like a conga head and use the same or altered techniques like a conga. Very cool idea.

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Jerry Noble

Jerry focused on commonly played repertoire that uses accessories. We have a tendency to forget about how prominent these “toy” instruments are in some standard repertoire. He also spoke about how these are typically the instruments you play when subbing for the first time with a professional orchestra. He had some great comments for the students who played and really got them to play with a lot more confidence.

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UNCG Percussion Ensemble

Eric Willie has done a great job of promoting and raising this studio to a high level. I have given several masterclasses there in recent years and the bar keeps getting raised. I was a little late for the start of this concert but really enjoyed the last 3/4 of it. The students and Eric not only played well but were extremely well rehearsed in the logistics of the stage changes. I particularly enjoyed the new mallet quartet by Michael Burritt.

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Zildjian Testing Room

This was new this year and I think will be a regular event as it was a huge success! Zildjian rented out a few conference rooms in the Hyatt hotel and had a TON of cymbals available to try and out and buy. The Zildjian Staff as well as Rob Knopper, JB Leclere, and myself were there to help potential buys pair up some cymbals. You can really get something unique when you buy cymbals this way because you can swap out a top or bottom cymbal that you don’t like and create a perfect pair. It was fun to help people find the perfect top and perfect bottom cymbal. When we found those perfect matches, people’s eyes lit up! Let’s hope Zildjian does it again next year!


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While I boarded the plane completely exhausted from the early mornings and late nights of socializing, I left San Antonio full of inspiration. I have a lot of playing coming up and the tank is on full for the practice sessions needed. I hope those that attended had a great time and a big thanks to those who came up to me and had nice things to say about my book that was released last year. It was a little overwhelming actually and meant a great deal. Thank you!

Looking forward to next year!


My PASIC picks!

I could not be more pumped to attend PASIC this year in San Antonio! There are a ton of great clinics, masterclasses, and performances to look forward to. Not mention a great city to host it! The only problem I think I’m going to have is how to replicate myself so I can attend everything I want as well as eat, sleep, and hit the exhibition hall! Let’s get to it, here are my PASIC picks!

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8:00 am – Symphonic Committee Meeting

While I am not necessarily looking forward to the hour this is being held, it is always great to see everyone and discuss ideas for next year at PASIC and ideas for PAS in general.

11:00 am – Brian Del Signore – Symphonic Lab – Snare Drum

Brian is the Principal Percussionist and Associate Principal Timpanist in the Houston Symphony Orchestra. I’ve met Brian many times at PASIC and have been impressed with his playing and general symphonic knowledge. A great guy as well! I’m looking forward to watching him coach the students.

11:00 am – Northwestern University Percussion Ensemble

There is a soft spot in my heart for my alma mater and will definitely make it over to see them play!

1:00 pm – ME!!!! William James – Symphonic Lab – Mallets!!!!!!

Do the exclamation points make you want to attend?? I am very excited for the 4 students who are going to play in this lab. I am taking a slightly different approach this year to the Lab and focusing on playing a solo at the audition rather than simply the excerpts. If you want a preview read my blog post from a couple months ago.

1:00 pm – Cory Hills

Even though I will obviously not be attending his performance, for those uninterested in what I have to say, you should check Cory out! He is great!

2:00 pm – Orchestral Mock Audition

I will probably miss a lot of this as I will be answering questions and talking about my book (The Modern Concert Snare Drum Roll) at the Meredith Music Booth, but a really important part of PASIC. Seeing the audition from both sides of the screen is something you can rarely do. And here you get to see some of the best students around play as well as some of the best pros give their thoughts on the playing. A can’t miss!

3:00 pm – Casey Cangelosi

Casey has broken out in the last few years as a premiere percussion performer, educator and composer. All I have to say is visit his YouTube page and website and you will be hooked.

4:00 pm – Symphonic Committee Panel Discussion – Principal Percussion Duties

I have been asked to sit on this panel to discuss the duties of a principal percussionist and how they differ in different orchestras and how they are similar. Plenty of time will also be spent on how students should distribute parts and act as a principal percussionist in their student ensemble. If you are interested in this topic you can download my Step By Step Guide and Checklist for Part Assignments in a recent blog post. Phil O’Banion will moderate and there will be plenty of time for questions from the audience. A great topic!

5:00 pm – Rob Knopper

Rob is presenting a class on how to record yourself. This is a topic literally every musician can benefit from. Recording yourself is the most valuable learning tool you can use outside of a lesson. You are essentially giving yourself a lesson every time you record! If you don’t know who Rob is, just check out his website and pet project Audition Hacker and you will be sold. One of the can’t miss clinics at PASIC.

6:00 pm – Zildjian Testing Room!!!!!!!!!

This is so freakin cool and I think will become a mainstay at future PASIC’s. Zildjian is renting out several rooms at the Hyatt Hotel (Specifically “Travis ABCD”) for anyone to come test and potentially purchase cymbals. The convention center floor is so loud that it is hard to hear what you are playing and it is very rare you get a chance to test out multiple options of the same cymbal. Every cymbal is unique in it’s own way and you can pair your own perfect pair right there! Myself as well as Rob Knopper, JB Leclere, and Keith Aleo will be there to help you pair your perfect pair or help you find that perfect cymbal!


9:00 am – Glenn Paulson – Cymbals Lab

After a lot of cymbals the day before at the Zildjian testing room this will be a great class on HOW to play them! Looking forward to hearing what Glenn has to say!

11:00 am – James W. Doyle – FUNdamentals – Snare Drum

James has spent a ton of time isolated how to make the most efficient stroke on snare drum. Which of course can be applied to any other instrument as well. While most of the concepts aren’t brand new, this should be a great new approach to the age old question of how to hit a drum.

11:00 am – Col Legno Showcase Concert

I have known Scott Pollard for a long time going back to my days growing up in North Carolina. His duo with his wife Amy Pollard (bassoon) is presenting this showcase concert of bassoon and percussion duo repertoire. This should be a very unique concert!

12:00 – Chris Lamb

Chris is a seasoned pro and always has such intellectual things to say about what we do in the orchestra. His class “A Model to Return to Often” should be applicable to seasoned professionals or a student just beginning to grasp the symphonic repertoire.

1:00 pm – Michael Oberaigner

Since I am an average timpanist at best, I’m very much looking forward to hearing how Michael approaches the drums and how his style differs from that of Americans. I’ve always been fascinated by how differently people can approach the same instrument and sound so good! I will be taking notes in this one.

2:00 pm – PASIC International All-Star Percussion Ensemble, direct by Michael Burritt

Michael Burritt is the premiere collegiate percussion ensemble director and it will be fascinating to see how he works with these players and what he programs. This is the first year PAS has formed this elite group and I expect a very high level concert with some adventurous programming. I know it was difficult to audition and get into this group so I imagine the concert will be fantastic.

3:00 pm – Peter Flamm – Timpani Lab

Again, since I struggle with timpani playing, I’m looking forward to hearing what Peter has to say about the roll. I’ve spent plenty of time working on my snare drum roll, but looking forward to hearing Peter school me on my timpani roll.

4:00 pm – Laurel S. Black

Laurel’s clinic is focused on health and wellness. Specifically the shoulder. I am a big fan of trying to understand how our body works, so I will be interested in hearing the research she is done and how we can be healthier musicians.

5:00 pm – JB Leclere

JB’s clinic “Accessories, Color in the Service of Dramatic Art” is one all symphonic percussionists should attend this year. We always tend to focus on snare drum and xylophone but one you start working, most of what you play are the toys.

8:30 pm – Joe Locke, Warren Wolf, Tony Miceli, and Stefon Harris

These are 4 of the best vibraphone players in the world. All on one stage. Yes there will be a lot of notes flying around up there but I can’t wait to hear how lyrical they can play. That’s the sign of a great vibe player to me. Should be a memorable concert.


9:00 am – Jerry Noble – Accessories Lab

Jerry has become a friend over the years at PASIC and I’m really looking forward to his class on accessories. He is planning on discussing some of the most commonly performed rep using the major accessory instruments. It is surprising how much rep there is for these instruments that aren’t necessarily the standard excerpts. While this may be early in the morning on Saturday, I will definitely be attending!

10:00 am – Symphonic Emeritus Section

Lead by Alan Abel, this ridiculous line up of retired legends in the symphonic world will play through some of the standard repertoire as a section. Scheduled to play are : Arnie Lang, Bill Platt, Ron Barnett, Bill Cahn, Tony Cirone, Thomas Akins, John H. Beck, Peter Kogan, Richard Weiner, Gerald Unger, and Stanley Leonard. I that pretty much sells itself…

12:00 pm – Thomas Burritt

This concert and clinic should be over the top. If you haven’t seen Tom’s new recordings of the Bach C minor Cello Suite, then you need to check it out right now. Tom has become a leading educator, especially in Texas, and I’m sure there will be a huge crowd for this!

1:00 pm – Matthew Geiger

Matthew’s Clinic is entitled: “Passing the Pre-Screening”. Can I interest any one in that topic???? This should be required attendance for all HS and college age students looking to apply to their next school!

1:00 pm – University Committee Panel Discussion – Graduate Auditions – What Every Student Should Know

Again, is this a topic I could interest anyone in? A great idea lead by Benjamin Fraley with a heavy hitting lineup of Megan Arns, Michael Burritt, and Scott Herring as panelists. They know what they are talking about for sure and I imagine there will be a lot of college juniors and seniors in the audience!!

2:00 pm – Santa Clara Vanguard Percussion Section

While my marching days are well behind me, it is always fun to see what is new and how ridiculous these kid’s chops are. I don’t miss sleeping on gym floors, but I do miss the playing! Should be an awesome performance.

3:00 pm – Anika Nilles

If you have been on social media in the last 6 months you have seen how much she has exploded and how tight her grooves are. This is the perfect environment for a showcase concert for her. Us drum geeks will eat it up.

4:00 pm – Nexus

I never grow tired of seeing Nexus. They are THE chamber group in percussion and the model for the rest of us. They are also, insanely good. I hope I sound half as good as they do at their age!


There it is! All of my picks! I can’t wait to head down to TX and see everyone, check out the exhibition hall, and have my ears pleased by awesome music. See you there!


To Plug or not to Plug…

To wear earplugs or not wear earplugs… that is a question I have been hearing a lot recently. There was an interesting thread of comments in the Orchestral Percussion Talk Facebook Forum last week about whether percussionists should wear earplugs when they are performing. The thread of comments were all over the map and ranged in their opinions. I chimed in briefly in support of wearing earplugs but thought I would dive deeper into the subject on the blog.


I feel very passionate about hearing protection. It is near impossible to perform and interact with other musicians with hearing loss. Yes earplugs alter the sound you are hearing but luckily for us (percussionists) they don’t actually alter our sound. Some brass and woodwind players have trouble playing with earplugs because their head will literally vibrate and the earplugs can be incredibly uncomfortable. As percussionists we are luckily because a cymbals crash or a bass drum hit will sound exactly the same in the audience whether we are wearing earplugs or not. The only difference to us is how WE hear it.

Ironically I had scheduled a hearing test last Monday (the same week the question was asked) and I found all of this discussion incredibly relevant. Thankfully my hearing test came back very positive and I have lost virtually no hearing since my last test in 2009. I have tried to get my hearing tested about every 5 years to make sure I have a good baseline in case I notice some loss. That way is I do notice some loss I can be even more aggressive with protecting my hearing.

The chart below is my hearing in 2009. Circles are right hear; X’s are left ear. Normal hearing is being able to hear all frequencies between a 0 and 20 dB level. You will see I have lost a small amount of hearing in the 6,000 Hz range in my left ear. This means I can still hear a 6,000 hz sound at a 30 dB level. 6,000 is the high end of normal, everyday sounds.


The next chart is my hearing last week (2015). You can see my hearing is remarkably consistent since 6 years ago. Which I am taking as a good thing!!!! Any noticeable loss would mean I would need to be more aggressive about protecting myself.


One of the interesting things they tested for this time (which I had never been tested before) is my acoustic reflex. This is my ear’s ability to shrink the ear canal and thus protect my hearing. I was pretty fascinated. I had always thought that if I was causing a loud sound (and thus knowing exactly when it would happen) it did not feel as painful as when someone else was causing a loud sound. Sure some of that is the emotional surprise but turns out your ear is actually helping protect your hearing by contracting. Thankfully my reflexes were in the 90th percentile…

I only share my results because I think it is incredibly important for all musicians to have regular hearing tests to know where they stand. Small changes over a long period of time won’t be noticed unless you have regular tests.


Yes there are times when the orchestra must play extremely loud, but that doesn’t mean I have to do that at the expense of my long term hearing. This brings up a very important point and that is your perception of sound and volume. The argument that you want to hear how you sound as natural as possible is bogus. If you wanted to hear how you sounded with the orchestra you would have to somehow sit in the audience and play within the orchestra at the same time. You are adjusting your perception based on experience and knowing that the volume level where you are will be different out in the audience.

Our audio engineer mixed a performance of a concert for a trumpet player from the point of view of where he was sitting. Guess what was loudest in the mix??? Trumpet… A lot of trombone and some horn as well. Guess what the total mix of the orchestra sounded like??? Bad… But yet, that trumpet player plays in this position every day and has no problem blending with the orchestra, because he is instinctively adjusting his sound and volume with how he knows it will ultimately sound in the audience. Everyone in the orchestra does this from their own perspective every single day.

As percussionists we do the same thing. A cymbal crash will sound much louder where we are than out in the house. But yet through experience we have a pretty good idea of how loud to play. To my point earlier, we are lucky in that the earplugs don’t actually change our sound. The xylophone is going to ultimately sound exactly the same whether we are wearing earplugs or not. Knowing your instrument and trusting the sounds you have made over and over will allow you to trust the sounds you are making with earplugs in.

All of this goes to the overall point that it is not as difficult to adjust to playing with earplugs than some people make it out to be. Your hearing is WAY more important than any temporary frustration in having to adjust.

I also can’t emphasize enough that this is a safety matter as well. There are multiple free apps you can download that will monitor the dB level wherever you are. Because the microphone on an iPhone isn’t the most sophisticated in the world it usually tops out at 100 dB. You are going to be SHOCKED at how many situations you find yourself in where the volume level is constantly at 100. Try it out the next time you go to a crowded bar. Keep in mind anything over 85 dB for an extended period of time can cause minor loss. An orchestra tuning and warming up can be that loud!


Foam earplugs are incredibly cheap and most orchestras actually provide them. They will do a good job of protecting your hearing but they are difficult to get in and out and the sound quality is fairly poor. There are custom musician earplugs that you can order through most audiologists. They make a mold of your ear and make a pair of plastic plugs custom fit to your ear. They also have removable filters at various dB levels so you can control how much sound is reduced. I typically use 15 dB rated filters with the orchestra and 25 dB rated filters for amplified shows. So a 110 dB orchestra is reduced to 95 dB. A big difference! The nice thing about custom plugs is you can take them in and out relatively easily for soft passages. For those who attend our concerts regularly, you will see me take mine in and out multiple times a night based on the volume level. They are also incredibly comfortable compared to the foam plugs. These custom plugs are expensive, but are a one time expense. The molds and a set of filters should cost around $200. A second set of filters will cost you another $100 or so.

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I don’t mean to rant in this post and scare anyone. I also don’t claim to be an expert or a professional audiologist. I am just trying to educate and help! As musicians our hearing is vitally important to our future in being able to perform for years to come.

Sorry I have been negligent in updates recently. Lots going on here in St Louis! Updates will be more regular from here on out. Probably every other week. Thanks to the loyal readers for staying patient!!


A Step by Step Guide and Checklist for Part Assignments

Principal Percussionists have one of the most unique jobs in the orchestra (or wind ensemble).  Our parts don’t come already laid out all nice and neat like the rest of the orchestra. The horns have it easy: Horn 1, 2, 3, and 4… Most of our repertoire isn’t incredibly complicated to figure out how to divide up parts. Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony is pretty easy as it is just Bass Drum, Cymbals, and Triangle. Three people – three parts. However (and that’s a giant however), some of the repertoire out there is much more complicated to lay out. Plus we have the issue of equipment to worry about. With big shows it can look like a yard sale on stage. How does the principal percussion figure out where to put all that stuff? When laying out parts there are a lot of factors to think about:

How many players will you need?

Do you need to rent instruments?

Do you want to keep one player only playing mallets?

What instruments need to be near other instruments for quick switches back and forth?

How much room do you typically have onstage and do you need more than that for a specific concert?


Needless to say there is a lot to think about! To help keep small details from falling through the cracks I have come up with this Step by Step Guide and Checklist for Part Assignments over my 8 year of experience here in St Louis. For those who have never distributed parts or held a principal percussion position, this resource will be invaluable as you navigate your first concert. Being prepared for that first rehearsal is critical and you want everyone to know what their responsibilities are. After all, you can’t do everything, you have to rely on your section and you need to put them in the best possible scenario to succeed. This Guide and Checklist will help you whether you are in a profession orchestra or college wind ensemble.


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How to practice when you are “Stuck”

Have you felt “stuck” in your practice sessions? Can’t seem to figure out what the next step is? Raise your hand if you have felt like you are banging your head against the wall when in your practice room. (My hand is raised) Unfortunately we all have felt stuck and unsure of what to do or what to fix. This sickness can have various symptoms. Here are some symptoms I have felt:

bang head here

I’m just totally unsure what to fix

I know what is wrong but don’t know how to fix it.

I don’t know what the next step in the process is.

My brain is fried and I simply don’t know what I am listening to anymore.

My hands simply won’t do what I am asking them to do.


This is beyond frustrating because of the helplessness one feels. If you know exactly what to do, it’s just a matter of doing it, but if you are lost…. Well it can seem impossible to find a solution.

IMAG0135(I can not confirm nor deny if I was involved in this incident…)

Believe it or not there are a number of ways to dig your way back out of the hole. The most important thing to remember when you find yourself stuck is that now of all times is when you must practice smart! It may seem like you are wasting time but the first thing you have to do is step back and really analyze the situation. In lessons when I see a student growing progressively frustrated with something they are trying to accomplish; the first thing I do is ask them to step away from the instrument. They usually give me a half laugh knowing they are frustrated. I tell them to take a deep breath and then try again. Being smart, slow, and methodical is the only way to make progress when you are stuck. To help pinpoint what you are struggling with here are some questions you should ask yourself. Be very honest with your answer…


Is it a technical issue?

Is it a musical issue?

Is it a consistency issue?

Is it a mental focus issue?

Is it a time issue?

Are you just simply so tired that you aren’t capable of practicing well?

Are there multiple interpretations and you are having trouble committing to one?

Could what you are playing actually be sounding great and you are looking for something wrong when there is nothing to be found?


One of the main reasons I see players “stuck” is when they get into a routine and don’t know when or how to move out of it. Routines are great, but we evolve as musicians and sometimes we need to move to new exercises and routines to fix new problems. If your view of your playing is through a very small window, it’s hard to see the solutions that might be lying just outside your focus. Sometimes it’s easy to get a little too comfortable with that you are working on and not realize that it is time to move on. Then, when it really is time to move on, the change is even more uncomfortable. I liken this feeling to beginning practice after some time off. Getting back into a new groove can be tough.


I also see students commonly get stuck when learning a solo. They feel they are making good progress on learning the notes and working it up to tempo but once they get about %80 of the way there, they get stuck. The solo refuses to get better. There are a variety of reasons this can happen. Sometimes it is a technical deficiency in ones playing that isn’t allowing the player to play the piece the way they want. Sometimes it has taken a student so long to get to the %80 mark that they are simply burned out on the piece and can’t finish the job. The most common reason this can happen is because critical steps were skipped early on in the learning process and they are coming back to haunt the player. These steps are both musical and technical. If the larger musical picture isn’t studied early on, the piece will come together very disjointed and not flow musically. It will take more work in the later stages to get the piece performance ready. It is also very easy to ignore technical issues when the work is slow and new. Students often don’t solve technical issues at the slow tempo and so they arise at the faster tempo. The typical solution to this is just to repeat, repeat, repeat, hoping that it will get better but in reality a larger problem must be solved. Being able to see that you need to take 2 steps back in order to take 4 steps forward is important to mature as a player.


Because it is very easy to get stuck looking at every single “tree” while practicing it is easy to miss the “forest”. For this reason recording yourself and listening back is the best way of analyzing in the practice room. You can pinpoint right where your playing can improve. It can be tough to analyze your playing while actually playing. Listening to a recording immediately after allows your brain to focus solely on listening. It is a way of giving yourself a lesson when it isn’t possible to play for someone else. It is also instant feedback right there in the practice room.


Playing for other people and seeking advice is key to making progress as a musician. Especially when you are stuck! Seeking out teachers, colleagues and other students for advice can be the only way out when your brain refuses to work. Teachers and professionals have years of experience you can draw on. They usually can spot your issue much quicker than you can. However, sometimes your fellow students can be the most helpful because chances are they are going through the same issue you are. They can work through it with you and commiserate through the process.


Occasionally I have seen students stuck in the practice room and the reason is because nothing is actually wrong. What you say?!?! As students and musicians we are trained to constantly be looking for what is wrong and what can be better. That is generally why the world’s best musicians are as good as they are. However, sometimes… Nothing is wrong. I vividly remember playing the Lt. Kije excerpt for Michael Burritt in a lesson once and he said “Play it just like that. That’s pretty good.” I was confused and almost shocked. You mean to tell me something I played didn’t need fixing? Once I got over my shock, I found it very empowering and my confidence grew. The best teachers in the world know when to say “Play it just like that!” rather than continuing to mess with the performance and possibly make it worse. You may find that after a lot of analysis, your performance may be pretty good after all!


Getting stuck in the practice room can be the worst, but this is the time more so than ever to take a step back, be methodical, and practice smart!


Top 10 Non-Musical Things You Can Do To Increase Success at Auditions

We spend thousands of hours practicing for that one big moment. You would hate for your performance to suffer because of something completely unrelated to music or your preparation. Here are some of my most important non-musical suggestions for how to put yourself in the best possible position to play well!


  1. Take care of your body

Plenty of people scoff at the idea that an audition is similar to training for the Olympics but I believe it is incredibly similar. We are asking our bodies to perform at insanely high levels. The last thing you would want is to play poorly because you didn’t get a good night’s sleep.

  1. Eat well but don’t change your diet

Along the same lines of taking care of your body, make sure you are eating good foods. Everyone’s body is different so I won’t try to tell you what you need for your body, but make sure it is good quality foods and you have eaten enough. Your body is going to need that fuel to help you rock out! Having said that though, don’t drastically change your diet a few days before the audition. Your body will react and wonder what the heck is going on? I would even bring food with me because I know the hotel would not have good options for me. I don’t eat a lot of carbs and ALL hotel breakfasts are mostly carbs. So, I would just bring food with me that I was used to and warm it up in a microwave.

  1. Don’t skimp on the hotel room

You have spent thousands of dollars on instruments, gear, lessons, and who knows what else. Penny pinching for a $75 room that is 8 miles away and has a crappy mattress just doesn’t make sense to me. Really? Right now is when you are going to try to save $75? Spend the $150 a night to sleep in a place you know will have a nice room, mattress, and will help you relax.

  1. Fly in the day before

Similar to not penny pinching on the hotel room. Don’t risk not being there in time by flying in on a 5:00 am flight. Your body will be tired (See #1) and you risk missing your time.

  1. Get to know your brain and what it needs to put yourself in a position to play well

Do you need to get amped up to focus and play well? Or do you need to stay calm and relaxed? If you need to get amped up, then don’t sit around all day. Be active and go for a walk or do a light workout. If you need to stay calm, then listen to relaxing music or read a book (that has nothing to do with music). If you find that you are worn out by the end of the day then make sure you pace yourself and find ways to rest.

  1. Wake up at the same time you will at the audition the week before

If you live on the West Coast and are flying to the East Coast, go ahead and make the time change a week early. You would rather be groggy for a few days the week before than the day of. Again, take care of your body.

  1. When traveling make sure all bags have wheels

Don’t carry anything. I mean anything! I don’t care how in shape you are, the airport takes it out of you and you want all your muscles to be in top form. If you have tons of gear to bring, make sure you have a cart or something you can wheel it around in so you aren’t carrying a 30 lbs bag across 2 terminals.

  1. Have warm-ups timed out

What is your plan if all of the sudden they say “Ok, you are playing in 15 minutes.” You better have a 15 minute warm up ready. Sure you probably want more time, but have a 10, 15, 20, and 30 minute warm up routine ready to go in case you have less time than you wish you did.

  1. Have soft hands

Studies have shown that in pressure situations your perception of how much your are gripping something (a stick, a bow, etc…) changes. What may feel to you like a 5 out of 10, may be more like a 7. Trust that your hands will hold on to the stick and relax. Know that what you are feeling is probably more tense than you think it is.

  1. Ask yourself positive questions

This is a huge one!!! This does 2 things. It keeps your brain focused on positive thoughts. Negative thoughts do not help at the audition. By asking a question, it also stimulates your brain to come up with a positive response, which in turn keeps you focused on what is important! Something like “What is the main musical element I am trying to convey to the committee?” is a very constructive, positive question.


PASIC 2015 Preview!!!!

I am very happy to officially announce that I will be conducting the Mallet Percussion Lab at PASIC 2015 in San Antonio, TX. The Lab will be presented at 1:00 pm in room 006 on Thursday November, 12th. I have been wanting to announce this for quite some time but I had to wait until all ducks were officially in a row and the date and time had been set.

If you are interested in participating please email Dan Ainspan at intern@pas.org to put your name on the list. Space is very limited but there is a wait list as it is quite common to have cancellations.


Rather than do a typical mallet lab where we listen to Porgy and Bess for the 23,426,899th time I thought it might be interesting to do something different. Plenty of time is spent discussing excerpts and honing our skills on xylophone, glock, and vibes as far as excerpts are concerned. But not a lot of time is spent on the solos we are asked to play in these audition environments. Yes, I know that tons of time is spent on marimba solos in our field, but not in the context of an audition. Specifically an orchestra audition or a summer festival audition. In these environments you don’t have the time to play the heavier repertoire that many prepare for recitals and college auditions. In an orchestra audition, the focus is on your orchestra playing. The solo is just a nice dessert. So how should it be treated and prepared differently? THAT is what we will discuss in the Mallet Lab this year at PASIC!

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If the committee wants you to choose your own solo then they want to get a good sense of your musical personality. Just the choice of a solo tells a lot about you. Is it aggressive? Is it soft and sweet? Is it ironic and humorous? This will help them get to know your solo voice. Since it is a solo of choice, they are not looking to compare you to others, so much as to get to know you.

So what sort of musical content should this solo have? Well the committee is leaving it up to you so they are obviously looking to be impressed with some personality and expression. Since you have the committee’s attention at this point I think it is important to grab it right away. A long, slow opening can take too long to develop in this situation. The committee is used to listening to excerpts that are over in 30 seconds. A solo that takes 60 to really get going will lose them before you really began.

Chops are important to have but I think are largely overrated in this scenario. If you have made it to the finals, they know you have chops, now they want to see if you have a voice. So the difficulty level doesn’t have to be a 10 out of 10. I think there are several advantages to playing a moderate solo as opposed to a difficult one. First, the chances of success are much higher with something you know you can pull off 99 times out of 100. Second, a truly difficult piece could be lost on the committee. There might be some that are really “wowed” but chances are a good portion won’t know what they are listening for and could be more perplexed by the difficult repertoire than impressed. Giving them something very approachable and easy to grasp, yet still impressive, is the balance you should try and strike. The last point I’d like to make about the difficulty level is one most don’t consider. Preparation. This is an orchestra job. Not a soloist job. If you spend 40% of your time working on a really difficult solo, then your excerpts (what really matter) will probably suffer. Pick a solo that you are comfortable with and won’t take too much time away from your excerpt preparation.

When a committee asks for a specified solo, they are still looking for all of the personality I discussed above, but they are also looking to more easily compare your playing to others. It is much easier to compare 5 candidates when they all play the same solo, than 5 different ones. If this is the case then you should still think about ways of showing your own personality but perhaps in a conservative way. You want to stand out in a good way. I have heard many players trying to do too much and end up standing out in a bad way. The committee is listening to the same solo over and over again so a lot of it is going to sound exactly the same. When they do hear something different you want the committee to say “Oh that was very clever, I like what they did there.” Rather than, “Well…. that was different.”

Bach is often asked on auditions as well. Sometimes as a Bach solo of choice but also as a specified Bach solo. Either way Bach is a great way to hear solo playing in a familiar style so all on the committee. However, anyone who has played Bach in front of a group of people knows that it is very difficult to please everyone with Bach. There is no shortage of opinions on how one should interpret Bach, especially when it is played on an instrument the work was not written for. With this in mind, I usually suggest a conservative interpretation of Bach. You do want to show expression and musicality for sure! But you also don’t want to run the risk of offending anyone. This is a great moment to remember that you are being judged mainly on your orchestral skills. The Bach solo probably will not win you the job, but could potentially lose you the job. A conservative approach is probably the safest bet.

The students playing in the Lab will all be asked to prepare the Minuet No. 1 from the E major Partita for Violin by Bach. This will let everyone prepare the same solo as well as a work by Bach. After they have performed the Minuet, they will also be asked to perform a solo of choice with the instruction that we are simulating the audition environment. This will give the students the opportunity to both choose a solo for this situation, as well as prepare and perform that solo.

Finally I would like your help. I would like to compile a list of good audition solos to distribute at the class at PASIC. It will also be available on my website. Because I have still not conquered the task of knowing every piece in the repertoire, I would like your suggestions for good audition solo pieces. They don’t necessarily have to be for marimba either, but you should consult the general guidelines below. Post a comment below with some of your suggestions and I look forward to seeing you at PASIC 2015!!!

Will James’ Solo Rep List and Guidelines for Auditions



Shaun Tilburg – The Regimen

There is something very human about a daily routine. While it can be fun to break routine just to make life interesting, our bodies and minds really do function better when we have consistent behavior. Some of these strange routines can even be seen as quirky to others, but they can put you in the right mental or physical state to perform well. Over the years I have collected many books and routines that make up my daily practice sessions outside of learning new music. I wrote a series of blogs about my warm up routines this winter. While my routine was built from multiple resources, assembled together over many years, there is a new resource where you can get a lot of that in one. My old buddy Shaun Tilberg, has written The Regimen for snare drum that is designed to be your “one stop shop” for your daily snare drum needs.

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The book is obviously influenced by a lot of the standard resources the percussion community has used for years. Shaun has blended those together into his own take on many of the standard technical issues we face on snare drum. Some of the more obvious influences to me were Stone’s Stick Control and Accents and Rebounds, Moeller’s The Art of Snare Drumming, Morello’s Master Studies for Snare Drum, and Wilcoxon’s Modern Rudimental Swing Solos for the Advanced Drummer. Shaun obviously has deep roots in rudimental playing. The beginning of his book sets up much like my first snare drum lessons with focus on rudiments and stick control. I believe, no matter what path you take in percussion, a solid rudimental foundation will pay off on any instrument.

After an introduction explaining his philosophy and goals for the book, Shaun starts with single stroke control and accents to establish basic stick movement. Shaun discusses in detail how the arm, wrist, and fingers all have roles and how to use them appropriately when playing these single strokes. A vital concept to understand at the start of one’s technique. Then multiple strokes are added, combining accents and single stroke combinations. He discusses the Moeller stroke and when to use it in these scenarios. Shaun clearly thought about the flow of the book, because it has a logical progression. When you start making permutations of all these elements the options are endless, but this book has a nice sequence.

There is a nice section on flams and variations on how you can practice earlier exercises by adding flams. While Shaun presents a lot of great options (including some new to me!) I wish there was a section on flam placement. I spend a lot of time talking to students about how wide or how closed flams should be, depending on the style. Most of what Shaun is presenting is influenced by rudimental playing, which suggests a more open flam. This is the best place to start in my mind as it is significantly easier to tighten up a flam than to open it up. Beginner students tend to play very flat, or tight flams, and I think this should be pointed out to those approaching flams for the first time.

Shaun touches on basic open and closed roll techniques and then dives right into some exercises. Thanks for the shout out to my book Shaun! Most of the exercises are more advanced exercises for finger and roll control. The types of exercises that don’t work on your roll specifically, but focus on skills that will ultimately make your roll better. After rolls, he has some great exercises on playing soft. The caption at the top of the soft section is “Everyone eventually finds a way to fake it loud, but it’s almost impossible to fake it soft.” I don’t know who said that, but it’s true!!! Once I am warmed up, I would say the majority of my practice time is on my soft playing and on my roll. The two most difficult things to do on snare drum.

The book concludes with two etudes written by the author to encapsulate the various topics covered in the book. The first, Off-beat Kicker, is a very approachable etude with lots of dynamic contrasts. Those dynamic contrasts make the grace notes and rolls rather difficult to control. The next etude, The Stuttering Scott, is much more difficult and will take more than a few hours to perfect. The more complicated rhythms, syncopated rhythms, and metric modulation make this etude really cool. The etude is clearly rudimental but also has influences from the French style and is very similar to the work of Joe Tompkins.

If the book wasn’t enough to help establish a daily routine, Shaun’s website is a great supplemental resource for the book. There are a bunch of explanation videos as well as lot of demonstration videos that will clear up any questions you might have. It is always good to have a visual with technical exercises and Shaun’s website provides that. It is great to see how relaxed his playing is. When people say “Gee, he makes that look easy.” what they should be saying is “Gee, he makes that look efficient.” The music is still hard! But with practice and efficient use of strokes, one can make it appear to look easy. Shaun is definitely doing that!

The biggest point I think all students should take away from Shaun’s book is that technical facility will help your performance. No one practices most of these exercises because they are “fun” or “exciting”. The repertoire and etudes are way more engaging! But, playing grids and repetitive exercises will isolate and fix technical difficulties that will make the repertoire and etudes significantly easier. While I am sure I will still go back to my standard Stick Control, Accents and Rebounds, and other standard method books, The Regimen will be a welcome addition to my music stand.


How to Change a Tambourine Head

One of the most common questions I see online in percussion forums are questions related to fixing or replacing a tambourine head. Granted it’s not nearly as easy as replacing a snare drum head, but it’s also not as hard as most think. With a good kit and some common household tools, you can replace your tambourine head in less than an hour.

Things you will need to replace a tambourine head:

  1. A replacement calf head. Grover Pro Percussion sells a kit that includes a new calf head. You can also use an old timpani head and cut out your own
  2. Tub of water to soak the head in
  3. Razor blade or exacto knife
  4. Sandpaper
  5. Glue
  6. Rubber band, zip ties, or a large hose clamp for securing the tambourine
  7. Needle nose pliers
  8. About an hour (after the head has soaked)

I needed to replace a head on one of my oldest tambourines, so I made a step-by-step video of how I did it. Rather than read how to do it…. watch it!

Let me know if there are any other “How to” videos you would like to see below.