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!


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 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



Shaking Off the Cobwebs of Summer

I’m back! Is the summer really flying by this fast? Thanks to my regular readers for being patient while I took July off. I was quite busy but took a much needed break from the musical world. Possibly the longest I’ve taken since high school! Now I am back and energized to practice, get ready for the season, tackle new projects, get better and write some blogs! The focus of today’s blog will center around exactly that. How to get back in gear after a much needed break. I encourage all of my students to take a week or two off in the summer as all the hard work done during the year can be exhausting and eventually wear on you. See my blog on when not to practice. Today I will focus not only on practice techniques to get back in shape but also on ways to get organized and set goals so this coming year can be your best!


I know this isn’t a picture of “shaking off cobwebs”, but thought it was much cuter…

I love music, but it sure can be nice to get away from it for a while. Sometimes when I come back however, I feel a little lost. My routine is gone and the whole process feels foreign. My hands feel terrible and I start to worry how long it will take me to get back in shape. I’m sure many of you have experienced similar feelings. While you may be motivated to get better and conquer the world, sometimes it’s tough to know where to start. Everyone is different but here is how I shake the cobwebs off and set myself up for a great year.

First I establish goals. This may seem very high school councilor of me, but it works. It makes it tough to improve if you don’t know what you are trying to do. I encourage young students to do this especially. It may seem that you should just follow what your teacher tells you to do, but you should be involved in your own education. Communicate with your teacher and discuss options and your own thoughts on what you want to do. There may be times where your teacher strongly pushes you in a direction because they feel it’s what is best for you. They are probably right for doing that. However, they should also listen to what YOU want out of lessons and music study. After you have talked to your teacher and spent some time yourself thinking; write down some goals. They could be areas you want to improve. Pieces you want to learn. Styles of music you want to dive into. A new instrument you have never spent significant time on. An aspect of your playing that you feel really could use improvement.

Once you have these goals you should give them a timeline. When you want them done by. A lot of this timeline is probably predetermined based on your school or professional schedule. Say you know you have a recital in November. A lot of your Fall goals are going to be focused on getting ready for your recital. Then, maybe you have some auditions in February. Most of your winter goals will focus around getting ready for those auditions. Maybe there is a pocket of time where you feel you don’t have anything immediately pressing. That is my favorite!! Take advantage of a 2 week or even month long span of time to dive in and improve something very specifically. It’s really hard to dissect a skill and take a few steps back to fix something when you have a recital, audition, or big performance coming up. Try to find periods of time in your year where this can happen.

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I set up a very loose calendar of the year with the big events on it and start filling in the gaps. I will work backwards from an event. This helps me place markers of when I want the repertoire to be at certain stages. I can’t stress enough how important this is. I am planning on writing a longer blog on this later, but this sort of preparation is key to being ready to perform when you need to be ready. It also helps to see visually how much time you have to prepare. And don’t forget the little stuff. Make sure you put that percussion ensemble piece that you need to learn. Sure it may only take 5-6 hours to prepare but you can plan for that once it is on your schedule.

Every year I look at one aspect of my playing that I want to make a concerted effort to get better. (maybe I should look at multiple things…) It can be something really small or it can be large. Some examples have been:

large interval shifting on marimba

soft snare drum control (specifically doubles and rebound control)

snare drum roll control

cymbal crashes and consistent angle of attack

bass drum and bass drum with cymbals attached (yes you actually have to spend time doing these things!)

vibraphone pedal control

This year for me it’s my tambourine roll. I’ve never been happy with it. I know I am using an inefficient method for producing my roll, and while it has worked, I know it could be better. Well, it’s going to get better!

Now that you have this giant calendar for the year it might seem a little overwhelming! Well, take a deep breath and relax. Because, luckily you have the entire year to accomplish all of these goals. You don’t have to get started on every single item right now. By doing all of this preliminary work, you will have a much better idea of how to plan a practice schedule for the first few weeks going forward. This will help you decide, “OK, what am I working on today.” I would look at the next month or two and let that dictate where my general focus is for these individual practice goals. I wrote a series of blogs about warm ups and technique improvement routines last year that should be helpful for whatever area you need to focus on right now. I set short term goals, so these long term goals we have made, can happen.

Something I am doing this year, and have done in the past is to look WAY ahead and start preparing early. If you make this sort of long term calendar you can see potential conflicts before they happen. My January this year is going to be pretty nuts. I have 2 major performances of extremely difficult repertoire; Messiaen’s From the Canyons to the Stars and Bob Becker’s Girlfriend’s Medley with orchestra. I also have some pretty major events in November and December, so I know my practice time is going to be limited in the winter. I have played the Becker but not the Messiaen. With all of this in mind I’m planning on learning the notes to the unfamiliar Messiaen this fall. I’ll then put it away, probably around October, so I can focus on other things and bring it back in late November. I just simply don’t have the time to learn it from scratch right before the performance, so I’m starting now. You might find similar situations in your schedule, where you need to do some preliminary work on a future project.

Everyone practices and prepares differently but I believe getting yourself organized and having a plan is a huge key to success. Establishing goals, making a timeline, focusing on weaknesses, and writing out a practice schedule are four great ways to improve your playing. Before you even play a note!


How to Travel to an Audition: What to bring and how to get it there

For percussionists, traveling to auditions can be more challenging than playing the audition. We have to get ourselves, as well as a shopping cart full of gear to the audition, that could be halfway around the world. We are not the only ones that have this issue. I have helped tuba players and bass players get to the airport with their over-sized cargo in my truck. We may have it bad but at least our equipment can break down into small pieces. They have to beg and bribe their way onto airplanes!

To start with let’s ask ourselves what we need to take to the audition. I always start with this because first and foremost I want to sound my best. If that means overcoming some logistical issues, that’s fine, but I can’t sound great if I don’t have the right stuff. I go instrument to instrument and make my decisions based on the rep I must prepare.

What to bring

Snare Drum

Let’s start with snare drum as it is one of the largest instruments we might bring. I own about 10 snare drums and use 5 with the orchestra on a regular basis. So obviously this is not possible at an audition. But is also isn’t necessary. In the audition you aren’t competing with 100 other musicians. So your sound needs are different. I typically bring 2 drums to an audition. Those 2 drums may vary based on the repertoire. I either bring a piccolo drum like my Grover KeeGee drum and a 4″ Symphonic drum or I bring that same 4″ Symphonic drum and a 5″ Symphonic drum. I always bring that 4″ because it is what I use for most of the repertoire at an audition. It covers a wide dynamic range and is great for etudes. If the list has a lot of extremely soft passages, I will also bring the piccolo drum. If the list is really heavy on the loud repertoire, I will bring the 5″. Now for a lot of you, your first drum was a 6.5″. Mine was! Don’t fret, this drum is extremely useful! But it might be a little bit much in the volume department for an audition. When you are by yourself, you can make a 5″ drum sound plenty loud. If I am in the finals and the screen is down I might bring the 6.5″ as a third drum to show a wider palette, but probably not before then. I also bring my own stands for my snare drums. I use very light weight stands so they travel easy and I don’t have to rely on someone else providing them.


The next large instrument we must cover are cymbals. This is a tough one. They are heavy and to play all of the repertoire it’s not unreasonable to think you might have to bring 4 pairs with you. My recommendation on cymbals is to only bring cymbals if you are uncomfortable with what you think they are providing. This is for various reasons. If the group you are auditioning for has a long history then they are used to the sound of the cymbals they have used for 20 + years. Even if your cymbals are awesome and you play awesome, they will still sound different from what the committee is used to and might be judged as not as good. In that one instant you have to impress them, you will be doing yourself a favor if you use the instruments they are used to hearing. If you are auditioning for a school, chances are their cymbals are great and once again they are used to hearing them. Do yourself a favor and use the cymbals provided. The only scenario I would bring cymbals to now is if cymbals aren’t provided (duh…) or I am really uncomfortable with what they are providing. If you do bring cymbals I recommend a bag with wheels so you aren’t carrying so much weight. Zildjian make a great one.


I absolutely would bring your own tambourines. I think tambourines are the most personalized instruments especially when it comes to thumb rolls. I have tried to pick up someone else’s tambourines and I can’t play a thumb roll to save my life, yet they have no problem! You know how you like your instrument so just bring all of them you need. They don’t take up that much room anyway.


Triangles are similar to cymbals in that a group can be used to a certain sound. If an orchestra is providing triangles, I might use their recommendation because again, it is what they are used to hearing. They know their hall much better than you do. I would bring my own clip and beaters so the implements I am holding at least feel the same. If the group is not providing triangles or you really love what you are using, then of course, bring your own.

Sticks and Mallets

For sticks and mallets it goes without saying, but bring them all! These give us our sound and are vital. They don’t take up a lot of room and you really can’t play the audition without them!

Other accessories

There are a lot of little accessories that you need to bring depending on the repertoire and how much you really need them. For bass drum, make sure you have whatever mutes you need. If you need towels for tambourine bring those. If you like putting a towel over the lower end of a marimba (below the A), bring that. If you are incredibly tall and find it difficult to play marimba solos on a low instrument, bring some blocks. I would try not to use them for time reasons but if you are 6’6”, then you probably need some blocks. You know yourself and you know your playing so make a list of these little toys and make sure you bring them.


How to get all this stuff there!

This can become an annoying game of Tetris when it comes time to pack for the audition so do a trial run a week before the audition. Make sure you have a plan and it works. Here are a few rules I would follow that I have learned from trial and error.

  1. Every bag is on wheels or can be put on wheels

You can work out before and after the audition, but the days surrounding the audition is not the time to be sore. All suitcases and gear bags need to be on wheels. Don’t plan to carry anything heavier than a backpack.

  1. Make sure sticks and mallets and anything you literally can no live without is in the carry-on.

Sure you want your favorite snare drum there, but if you don’t have any xylophone, glock, or vibes sticks, it’s going to be pretty hard to play the audition. Prioritize and make sure the stuff you literally can’t live without goes in carry-on.

  1. This is not the time to penny pinch.

If all the stuff you need means you need 4 bags, then bring 4 bags! Yes it will cost you extra to check bags. Yes you will have to pay for a luggage cart at baggage claim. Yes it means you will need a cab instead of the subway. However, we are talking about maybe $200 in extra expenses. Seriously? Don’t waste the thousands of hours in the practice room because you are trying to save at the most $200.

  1. Label all bags multiple times.

Do I need to explain this one?

  1. Use hard shell luggage.

Let’s be honest, clothes are about 5% of what we are bringing to the audition. The rest if gear! Make sure the outside is hard so nothing can poke and damage an instrument. Most hard case suitcases can fit 1 snare drum in a soft bag as well as some toys, a stand, and some clothes. I have even seen people rip out the lining of a hard suitcase and glue their own foam lining in to make sure it protects the instruments.


How to move around

Only in the percussion world do we ask ourselves questions like this. How do I even get from one place to the next with all this stuff? Because I have never taken exactly the same stuff to multiple auditions I don’t have a tried and true method. I have to replan and repack for every audition. There are some similarities though. I typically have a hard-shell suitcase with a drum in it, a rolling duffle bag with hardware and odds and ends, a backpack or stick bag, with most of my sticks, and a hardcase snare drum. The snare drum can strap on to the duffle bag and boom, I’ve got a suitcase rolling in each hand and a backpack. I look like I’m packed for a month, when I’m only gone for 2 days, but I can manage to navigate the airport.

Once I arrive at the audition I repack. I get everything ready to walk onstage or in the teacher’s studio. I ALWAYS ask the proctor to carry my drums and anything else I can get them to take. Again, I want to be as relaxed as possible. Carrying 40 pounds of equipment onstage will not help that. I have a cart that I roll onto the stage that has everything I need other than snare drums and cymbals. Before there were “P-bags” I would take a Stevens bag and fold it backwards so there were mallets on each side and hang it from the top of the cart. Easy access to all my sticks and mallets. All of my tambourines, triangles and toys were in a small bag on the bottom. I would normally put a picture here of what I use but my cart broke at this past year’s PASIC. Guess it is time to order a new one.


I want to thank Joe Bricker for the email that inspired this post. I have been waaaaay behind of where I like to normally be on these posts and his email Saturday night inspired today’s post. Hope this helps Joe!


How to Make the Correct Mistake


Contrary to popular belief, professionals make mistakes. Lots of them. It is rare that I play a concert and don’t have notes I wish I could do over. Most of my colleagues would echo these same sentiments. I know that they are going to happen so my goal is to make sure my mind and focus is in the right place so at least I am making the best mistake. Today we are going to look at some scenarios of when and why mistakes happen and try to eliminate them or at least make sure our priorities are in line so we make the best mistake.


In my mind there are two mistakes that can happen.

  1. Mistakes that you have control over: you theoretically could have prevented them.
  2. Mistakes that you have no control over: the situation was totally out of your control and there was nothing you could have done.


We can work on number 1 but the second scenario is tough to swallow. But it does happen. The ensemble moves unexpectedly. The conductor did something different and you weren’t able to adjust. There was something wrong with the instrument that you didn’t notice before the performance. The harpist moved and now you can’t see the conductor. Should I keep going? I think you get the point. We try to eliminate all variables that could prevent a good performance but sometimes the planets don’t line up and mistakes happen. I’m not going to spend a lot of time obsessing over those types of mistakes here because I have a feeling we all obsess over them an unhealthy amount already!


We can’t prevent all mistakes but how can we minimize or at least make the correct mistake? So what exactly is a correct mistake? Good question! I describe a correct mistake as a mistake that was made with the correct priorities in mind. The easiest example is a situation we have all been in. Sadly…. So, you get lost and don’t know when your next cymbal crash is. You guess, and play a loud crash, but in the wrong place. (Cue cartoon noise Wah, Wah…) Obviously we never want to be lost, but it happens. The “correct” mistake in this scenario is to either rely on cues you wrote in your part as you were preparing or simply don’t play if you are truly lost. Not playing the crash is a mistake for sure. But wouldn’t you rather miss the crash than play it two bars to soon? More examples of “correct” mistakes later.


A lot of mistakes happen due to lack of preparation. As I talked about in my post on learning how to focus, preparation is our biggest asset. The first step is learning the notes. This is obvious but should be stated as you will have little to no success not knowing your part. The next step in ensemble playing that is often over looked is knowing how your part fits into the ensemble. You can play all the right notes but if they don’t fit with everyone else, it doesn’t matter. The more you know your part and how it fits with others the better you will be at preventing mistakes.


Some mistakes can happen because of non-musical situations. The pedal on the chimes could be stuck and you not notice until you have to play. A quick check before the concert and you are good to go. A situation that happened to me recently was right at the beginning of an opera my mallets were hovering over the first notes but the conductor took more time than usual waiting for the stage before starting. I got a little nervous about making sure I was above the right notes so I looked down to double check. When I looked back up, the orchestra had started. Whoops! I jumped back on but not exactly the start you want! So the next performance I rested my mallets right on top of the first notes so I could literally watch the conductor forever and be ready to go. Lesson learned. The more experience I gain the more I try to anticipate non-musical situations like this to be prepared for. It’s a different kind of preparation but one you can develop an eye for.


Unfortunately a lot of mistakes happen because of mental fatigue or a lack of focus. You can be as ready as you can possibly be but you might be tired or just zoned out. If it is a lack of focus that is creating the mistakes then you need to work on your focusing. This is a skill that can be practiced and improved. If you are simply tired or exhausted, then you need to be aware of what you limit is and make sure you have adequate rest before a performance.


Now to the most important part of avoiding mistakes. Making sure your priorities are correct and in line. Remember a correct mistake is a mistake that was made with the correct priorities in mind. I’ll give you an example before I list some of what I think are the right priorities to have.


In the same opera I missed the opening of (doh!) I had this passage to play on glock.


The passage is obviously syncopated and is with the woodwinds. In one of the first rehearsals (luckily) I was really focused on the conductor and the winds so we would be lined up and I played the following.


Sure I missed some notes at the end but the notes I played showed I had the correct priorities in mind. I was still playing within G minor. I played the same syncopated rhythms the winds had. I played the same shape or line they had. While of course I realized immediately I had a made a mistake, it was one I could live with. In fact I would rather play what I did, together with the ensemble, than be glued to my part, play the right notes but not with the ensemble.


So what are some other priorities we should keep in mind to make sure we are making the correct mistake?


The time of the orchestra and my placement

Who I am playing with in the orchestra

The key signature

The “scale” my passage is in

The cues right before I play

The relative dynamic of the orchestra

Where the big moments are

What big beats need to line up

My role in the orchestra


Of course the goal is to play perfectly all the time. If we are honest with ourselves we know this is not possible. After I make a mistake, of course I’m upset and wish I could go back and fix it, but guess what? Not possible! That’s live music baby!! With this approach though I am able to minimize my mistakes or at least make correct ones. The better your prepare, stay focused, and have your priorities in line, the better your performances will become.



How to Choose a Mallet

We all have our favorite mallets for each instrument, but how do we choose the best mallet for the part? No matter which instrument, whether it’s marimba, vibes, xylo, or glock, we can use the same philosophy for all of them. Today I’m going to outline the process I go through mentally when I choose a mallet. The hope is that this process will make your playing having a little more color. Just as a painter uses multiple colors in a painting we can use multiple sound colors. The mallets we have are our pallet. Of course having all the mallets in the world doesn’t mean much if you don’t know the right place to use them. Here is how to find the right mallet for every situation. 


I always start my mallet choice decision with articulation. As percussionists the start of the note is what we have the most control over. For most of the instruments we play we don’t have much control over the sound after the note has started. With that logic, the articulation is pretty darn important. I have started thinking more and more about my mallet playing like a wind player. “How would a wind player attack this note?” I love the word attack. It’s a great adjective to think about articulation. It doesn’t necessarily have to mean aggressive but it definitely doesn’t imply anything passive. A wind player might use words like these to describe their attack and sound:









This more sophisticated approach is getting us a little further away from the typical mallet description of soft and hard. That is a very two dimensional way of looking at mallets choices.

Another “dimension” we can use to think about articulation is weight. I don’t mean how much a stick weighs or how hard we are playing the note. I mean how much weight is behind the mallet head. Weight has a lot to do with how much presence a note has. You can start with two identical mallets but if there is a brass insert inside one of them it will have a little more presence. Adding brass inserts has become really popular to keep the articulation desired but give the mallet more weight and presence. The size of the ball has a lot to do with this as well. A ¾ inch and 1 ¼ inch ball made of the same material will have very similar articulations but very different overall sounds because of the difference in size and weight. Along with more weight, the bigger mallet is making more contact with the bar because of the increased surface area. I find that when I prepare the same work for both an ensemble situation as well as an audition (solo) situation the weight is the biggest variable I change. When playing alone, I don’t need as much presence as when I play in the orchestra. I will probably want very similar articulations but a heavier weight when having to cut through other players.

Another variable that controls the sound of the mallet is the shaft. This is fairly minimal but it does have an effect. I have no scientific research that proves what I believe but my experience tells me that the shaft effects both how you play the instrument and how the head responds off the instrument, and thus the sound. A stiff shaft, like a birch shaft, will usually produce a heavier sound. The head of the mallet will stay on the bar longer and the stroke is usually more emphatic. Because of this most xylophone and glock sticks do not use birch. Birch is great for four mallet marimba because that stiffness allows you to control the mallets more precisely. Rattan is the middle ground. There are thicker, stiffer rattan shafts as well as very thin, flexible rattan. This will have an impact on how you strike the instrument as well as how long the head of the mallet stays on the instrument. In the last 15 years or so there have been specialty glock mallets that are on a very thin fiberglass shaft. The reason (I believe) these sound so great is because of the way they respond off the instrument. The extremely flexible fiberglass allows the mallet to pop right of the bar and thus allowing the bar to vibrate with less interruptions.

The last variable I use are my dynamics and thus stick height. Essentially I am picking the best mallet for the entire passage and then using the stick height necessary to produce the dynamic warranted. Because a passage could require all sorts of sounds and dynamics I pick the best mallet possible because dynamics are the only thing I can adjust within the passage. Marimba players are used to this issue of picking the best four mallets to play a 15 minute solo. Luckily in the symphonic repertoire we can change mallets with greater frequency. Another reason dynamics are one of the last variables I consider when choosing a mallet is because I don’t want the dynamic to influence the articulation too much. It is very easy to fall back on p = soft articulation and f = hard articulation. You will be surprised how many times you want a crisp, sharp articulation in the soft dynamic. We can manipulate volume rather easily with the intensity of the stroke, but we can’t change the articulation.

A lot of you may be wondering why I don’t have “mallet sound” at the top of the list. Well although I haven’t listed sound specifically, everything we have talked about thus far effects the end result or sound. The only aspect of sound we haven’t discussed is sustain and the mallet doesn’t have a lot to do with sustain!

A lot of this logic can be used for other instruments such as bass drum and timpani, however for those instruments the stroke can influence the sound much more than on the mallet instruments.

So to recap:

1. Articulation – How do you want the start of the note to sound?

2. Weight – How present do you want the note to be?

3. Shaft – Which shaft type will compliment your musical choices?

4. Dynamics – How can you use dynamics to get the most out of the mallet you have chosen?


 Having a very wide palette of options can make mallet playing a lot of fun. Especially when you are playing a seemingly easy part of single notes. Finding the right color and sound for every situation will really help your playing stand out from the rest.

Learning How to be a Performer: Focusing in the Moment


A performance is really a continuous series of moments in which one’s sole focus is on executing their contribution to that performance. That’s a heavy statement right there… Learning how to focus in those moments is a life’s work. I believe everyone has this skill, even those who claim to have severe performance anxiety. The difference between all of us is where our performing skills shine. Some of us have the ability to focus when performing music, some have the ability to focus while cooking. I couldn’t possibly stay calm and focused during surgery, but to a surgeon it’s just another day at the office. However, that surgeon might be petrified to play a single triangle note onstage. We all have our areas we are more apt to succeed in. Today we will discuss how to focus onstage.

Earlier I said “one’s sole focus is on executing their contribution to that performance.” This is the crux of performing. If I am playing bass drum on Stars and Stripes, fitting those quarter notes in the right spot is 100% where my mind is. I am listening to the basses and the low brass to make sure my placement is perfect. If they move ahead a smidge, I want to be right there with them. Earlier in the concert I could have been playing the tambourine part to Carnival Overture and in that moment it would be focusing on leading the ensemble. The reason Bolero is so difficult is not because of its technical difficulties. The challenge lies in the ability to focus and keep the group together for the entire 15 minutes of the piece. Having big ears and adjusting and moving the group into some semblance of the same tempo throughout the piece takes a lot of mental energy. This is the perfect example of a piece that demands focus and being in the moment. Learning how to sharpen our focus will be the goal of today’s post.

The first time I really worked on this was at Northwestern’s summer music camp the summer of my junior year in high school. I must admit, it was not a fully conscious effort. The players I was playing with were the best I had ever been around and I certainly didn’t want to be the weak link in the group. It was a wakeup call. I thought to myself, “Hey, you better dial it in here to fit in with these other kids.” That motivation caused me to focus more during rehearsals and especially in concerts. It wasn’t so much that I was afraid to mess up as I wanted to play on the same level as these other fantastic young musicians. I realized that I was learning how to be in the moment and concentrate solely on the task at hand; playing music. That “zen” state I was in was one that I have been working on perfecting ever since.

So how can one get better at this? Learning to focus in the moment is incredibly difficult. And there is nothing less helpful when trying to focus than someone saying…… FOCUS!!! Even those that are great at it still have wandering minds. (I find myself distracted by the backyard that needs mowing as I type this…) I find a lot of the tactics to deal with a wandering mind to be a little too “hocus pocus” for me. I know they work for some people, but I never found them helpful. The drill I have found to be the most helpful is to ask myself the question “What is my goal?”. A very simply question, but one that gets right to the point. What I find is that my mind immediately goes to what I am trying to accomplish. If I am playing the Third Movement of Scheherazade and I ask myself “What is my goal?” my brain immediately goes to:

project a light, lilting style

very steady and supportive

sensitive, round dynamics

energy in the rhythms

Ask yourself the same question about Porgy and Bess. Take 30 seconds to make a list of your goals.

What you will notice is you came up with some very concrete musical goals to accomplish. What you will also notice after the fact, is what you weren’t thinking about! You weren’t thinking about your shaky hands. You weren’t thinking about how you always miss the A natural in that one spot. You weren’t thinking about how out of control the grass is in the backyard either. This is a great way to focus in a performance or audition and essentially distract yourself by asking the right question. That question might be different for you but asking yourself some version of “What is my goal?” shifts your brain to what is important. This is a topic discussed at length in the book I mentioned last week Fearless Golf, with obviously much more of a golf focus.

So why a question and not a statement? A question is a better way to refocus because it causes you to focus on what YOU think is the answer. A statement is merely a list of facts you believe in, but a question engages the brain in a much deeper way. It almost starts a conversation in your brain. For example which thought do you think is going to be more helpful?

“What is the style of this work?”

“Don’t rush.”

Asking yourself about the style is significantly more helpful! It conjures up multiple adjectives and thoughts that are going to help your performance. Telling yourself not to rush may prevent you from rushing but will not be helpful in any musical way and may even cause you to drag!

Obviously this is incredibly easier said than done, but it is an exercise that I really believe works. Just like music, being able to focus is a lifelong pursuit. Even when life is great it is easy to be distracted, let alone when things aren’t great. For anyone who has stood onstage in a performance and felt really involved in the performance and been tuned in knows what a rush that is. That is exactly the goal! Good luck with your own pursuit of being a performer; now I’ve got to go mow the lawn!


Technique Improvement and Maintenance: My Warm Up Routines – Cymbals


Cymbals are one of my favorite instruments to play in the orchestra. They can define a huge climax or color a soft, delicate passage. The color palette is extremely wide and the opportunities for experimentation are just as many. We sit in the back of the orchestra for so long, waiting for a chance to play, that it is nice to be creative when given the chance. I also think that cymbals can be one of the most intimidating instruments to play; especially for younger students. Just like your soft snare drum roll, if you don’t spend dedicated time to practicing it, chances are it isn’t going to be very good. Scheduling regular practice time on cymbals in vital to having a good, consistent crash.

So how should we practice cymbals? Learning a good basic crash should be the first item on the to do list. This should cover the mf and above dynamic. The first thing we are all taught is that the cymbals need to come together with a flam. You can have the top hit first or the bottom hit first. Either way will work. This will prevent the air in-between the cymbals from ever being totally trapped and compressed, which causes an “air pocket”. All percussionists are more familiar with the air pocket than they would care to admit…

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I also practice the cymbals coming together in super slow motion to find the best angle in which they like to come together. I’m not worried about the sound so much right now as I am finding a comfortable flam between the two cymbals.

Once we find a nice comfortable angle at which the cymbals can come together, the cymbals have to come apart. This is an often forgotten part of the crash and can lead to the dreaded air pocket. When choosing which end of the cymbal should hit first in my flam I prefer the bottom hitting first because the natural weight of the cymbals and gravity cause the cymbals to come back apart. The video below shows how gravity can help the cymbals come apart. When the top hits first (my personally feeling is) the hands and arms have to do more work to get the cymbals apart.

Now that we have a basic crash, we need to be able to repeat it. Consistency is a huge part of cymbal playing. You should be able to play 10 crashes in a row and they all sound the same. Not an easy task! So this is how I start my practice routine. I play a series of crashes at no particular tempo with the goal of them all sounding the same. My focus is on sound and my hands executing the same motion every time for a consistent crash.

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Keith Aleo‘s book Complementary Percussion, is a fantastic resource for exercises and etudes to work on all complementary instruments. Once I have consistent crashes I work through his exercises on page 33 & 34 to start controlling the cymbals with a specific tempo on the metronome. I do all of this at a mf or louder dynamic.

Just like with snare drum, I spend specific time practicing soft. The soft crash is slightly different than a mf crash or louder because all of the movements are minimized. The crash still needs a flam but the angle is smaller, the softer you get. I also slowly shift where the cymbals are in my preparation so that the cymbals are more vertical the softer I get. I find that at the soft dynamic, my eyes need to be more involved in checking the angle of attack. At the louder dynamic I can do this by feel, but at the softer dynamic, I need my eyes to do it. The pictures below show the progression of how I prepare from mf to ppp.

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To get used to this concept I will play Keith’s exercise A but with a long crescendo and then a long diminuendo.

So we can play a crash, but now we need to stop it… Muffling the cymbals is just as important as the crash itself. A lot of times the composer doesn’t give us a lot of information on how long the note should be. So we have to make that decision ourselves. We also have to determine if the end of the note is quick or if we want to slowly damp the cymbals so the end of the note is less apparent. All of these options should be practiced so they are comfortable when in a performance situation. From a purely technical standpoint, I muffle the cymbals with my stomach. This keeps these large metal objects away from my ribs so I won’t have to worry about injury.

To round out the rest of my crash cymbal practice session, I will work on one of Keith’s etudes a day. Once I get to 10, I’ll go back to 1.

There are some extended techniques that can work great in specific circumstances. Occasionally I will leave the cymbals together a little bit longer than necessary on a soft crash and let them sizzle. This happens right as they come apart. I will leave the top edges still touching and lets the cymbals vibrate against one another for a nice effect. I will also occasionally scrape one cymbals against the other for a long note. This can also be done on suspended cymbal but the effect of two cymbals is different and can be very nice in the right situation.

Crash cymbals are only one part of the demands on the cymbal player. Suspended cymbal playing is a huge part of the symphonic repertoire. Granted it isn’t the most technically demanding aspect of percussion playing but it might be one of the most creative! Just like mallet, bass drum, or timpani playing; I have a lot of sticks that create different sounds on the cymbals. Think of these sticks like different articulation options for the cymbals. You can scrape the cymbals with a file to create a long sound. You can strike it with a stick for a quick sound. You can tap it with a triangle beater for a ping sound. You can softly strike it with a soft mallet for a warm sound. Experiment with different options so your spectrum of available colors if wider. The picture below is of all my suspended cymbal sticks. I also use a variety of triangle beaters for scrapes and such but they wouldn’t fit on the table!

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There are some great resources out there for continuing to work on your cymbals playing. Zildjian has a great online Education Guidebook that is perfect for beginning players and teachers. They also have some great resources for how to pick out your first pair of cymbals. The Art of Bass Drum and Cymbals Playing by Tony Cirone and Garwood Whaley is another great resource.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for the next post about more accessories featuring triangle and tambourine. As always leave comments below if you have something unique that you like to practice on cymbals.







Learning the Snare Drum Roll in 3 Minutes

I am taking a week break from my Technique Improvement Series to debut this new video. Next week it will return with tips for four mallet playing.

I have received many questions from percussionists about their roll and I have tried to answer a lot of them. I hope to answer more in this blog post but also in this new video.

I have received questions from students having trouble seeing learning the roll as a process. When you look at an individual chapter in my book it can be tough to understand how it fits into the entire process. You may have noticed I have used the word process a lot. That’s because that’s exactly what learning the roll is. A process. My hope with the video it to give you a very quick, overarching look at how you can build your roll from start to finish. Each step can take a while, and it should. Learning a new technique takes time to train your body. My hope with the book is to understand WHY you are doing something. It is so much easier to trust a process if you understand WHY you are doing something instead of “just because”. This new video is a nice summary of the first third of the book and how to slowly build your new technique into a roll you can start perfecting.

The biggest difference between my method of instruction of some of those historically taught is that my method teaches the roll as a NEW technique. Rather than start with a single stroke technique and change it and modify it until we arrive at a roll, I start with the roll as a completely separate entity. This can be frustrating a first because trying anything for the first time can be daunting. However, I have found time and time again, that ultimately this is a quicker path to success. Disclaimer: it may actually take longer than 3 minutes…

If you have more questions, be sure to leave them in the comment section and I will get back to you. Good luck!