Snare Drum: the bedrock of a percussion’s education

When a beginner begins to take lessons with me, I always find it interesting to ask what musical interests or influences they have. What inspired them to ask their parents for percussion lessons, who are their role models and what other music do they enjoy listening to?

Recently, I’ve had an increase in teaching enquiries from pupils looking for percussion lessons, as opposed to drum kit. It may be that they’ve heard one of the older pupils at school play a marimba piece or because there’s a timpani vacancy in the school orchestra. Interest in the marimba received a huge boost when Ed Sheeran released Shape of You and earlier when Faithless released Insomnia in 1995 – the riff from that was belted out from, seemingly, every practice room. Regardless of the reason, it’s great to see an increased awareness of percussion over drum kit.

The snare drum gives a fantastic technical foundation for all of the three main subjects on ABRSM’s new Percussion Syllabus. Sticking creates phrasing for percussionists and we use rudiments as a way for pupils to work on these while actually creating grooves. This gives us a significant advantage when promoting them to the student, as opposed to sending them away with some scales and arpeggios to learn. It’s always satisfying when pupils take it upon themselves to use rudiments as a way to get around a particularly tricky passage or to achieve a stronger sense of phrasing and direction.

Looking at the ABRSM syllabus pathway, a groove-based piece is a good place to start. Kevin Hathway’s Tandem (Snare Drum: Grade 1) not only has some written rudiments but also some passages that help you introduce drags, and the opportunity to stick phrases in doubles, paradiddles, five-stroke rolls or obviously just as single-stroke rolls. I particularly enjoy this piece because it has an accompaniment that I can play on a low tom and a wide range of dynamics.

Another piece I particularly like is Smoothly Does It by Jan Bradley (Snare Drum: Grade 2). It’s a nice mixture of swing and contemporary classical music, so as a learning tool it serves a dual purpose. The feel from the snare drum has to be very relaxed and laidback but the harmonies in the piano part are quite crunchy and dissonant. It serves as a good warm up for Rachel Gledhill’s Jazz Waltz for Two at Grade 3.

During the period between Grade 2 and 3, I would usually introduce pupils to tuned percussion instruments they could learn, if they hadn’t already shown an interest. Some of the basic techniques of tuned percussion playing can be quite difficult, harder than on the snare drum, although the basic bounce, giving the stick room to move in your hand, remains the same. Tightrope Tricks by Lizzie Davis (Tuned Percussion: Grade 1) works as a really good way to introduce the xylophone, while using some of the snare drum techniques already learned. You can either play it hand to hand the whole way through or there are sections which can be played using RRLL, RRL or LLR should you wish to do so.

One of the best things about the new ABRSM Percussion syllabus is that it’s very much a multi-percussion syllabus, the further you venture through it. The addition to the Snare Drum lists of pieces for drum kit (Fireworks, Grade 6), timbales (Batercada, Grade 7) and small multi-percussion set-up (On-Off-On, Grade 5) introduces the future possibilities of these types of pieces, in terms of groove, colour and expression, and makes for an excellent broad introduction to a variety of genres.

By the time students are playing Grade 5 pieces, there’s a strong chance that they may be playing in ensembles that require these skills all of the time. It’s great that so many of the accompaniment parts for the Timpani and Tuned Percussion lists are played on either single drums or small multi-percussion set-ups, such as Spicy Sauce by David Hext (Tuned Percussion: Grade 3). I have found that concentrating on multi-percussion has really suited some of my pupils who would rather do that than play solo snare pieces.

By the time we reach the highest grades of the new syllabus, the crossover between each percussion subject is incredibly useful for teachers and extremely well-conceived. A Grade 8 Combined Percussion exam consisting of Greeting from Ney Rosauro‘s Marimba Concerto No.1 (Tuned Percussion), Jan Bradley’s Dance for Five Drums (Snare Drum) , and Beguine and Samba (Timpani) by George Frock would not only be an enormously challenging set of pieces but there are obvious musical links and technical similarities between each piece. The foundations built to be able to take on such challenging repertoire come from the very first lessons where we spend all of that time practising the perfect paradiddle.

The importance of the snare drum as the bedrock of the percussionist’s education should not be overstated and although each student tends to veer off in their own musical direction, it usually boils down to: Can they do a decent double-stroke roll?

Snare drum teacher Rob Farrer

View our Percussion syllabus

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