Teachers often ask me about how to outfit their music classroom with drums and percussion instruments. Which types of drums and how many? Which brands and models should I buy? Which drums are best for which types of music? In this post, I will answer all these questions to the best of my ability and I’ll provide some general guidelines for using drums in the classroom and beyond.
Before we get into the specifics of drum types, we first need to acknowlegde that there are many types of music that use drums as either the primary instrument, or in a foundational and essential role. Drumming cultures tend to be those that play music outside as opposed to inside, and that emphasize community dancing and singing as part of an overall musical celebration. This isn’t to suggest that other cultures that do not rely as heavily on drums do not emphasize dance. They certainly do–only that drumming cultures almost always do.
In most ‘drum-oriented’ musical genres, the role of ‘drummer’ falls to a few select individuals who specialize in the art form. Most everyone sings and dances and the drummers and other musicians provide the musical foundations. Drumming, as an art form, generally takes years of practice and study to master and is as technically challenging as any other instrumental category. Were it not, many people would be drumming at professional levels. Most drums and percussion instruments are accessible at the most basic of levels (making a sound), but quickly require study and practice to move beyond the most elemental of music making. This is one reason that there are usually only a few people in a community that do the drumming for the community.
Most drumming ensembles (and I’m going to generalize here) consist of four to six musicians. Some play drums, usually three to four people, and others play hand percussion (bells, shakers, etc.). This “rhythm section” often supports melodic instruments of various types (xylophones, wind instruments, horns, voices, etc.). Given that most drumming groups consist of from four to eight musicians, I recommend purchasing instruments to reflect this size ensemble.
For example, in the Caribbean, a typical drumming ensemble might consist of two or three conga players, a bongo player, a timbale player, someone playing claves, another person on shekere, and some singers (and dancers). In a West African ensemble, we might find three to four djembe players, someone playing a set of three dundun (or three players, each with one drum), someone playing a rattle, someone on balafone (xylophone), and singers (and dancers). In Brazil, we might see an ensemble with someone on surdo, someone on shaker, someone on panderio, someone playing triangle, and people singing (and dancing).
Where it gets confusing
Many of the large drum companies don’t really want to sell just a few drums and some small percussion instruments. They would much rather that you buy 20 drums and four or five small instruments. Just look in the catalogs you get in the mail or at conferences and you will see ‘instrument sets’ that consist of 12, 15, and even 20 drums! Not only that, but most of those drums are the same basic type of drum, which means that the sound is basically the same. This means that when you play music from different cultures (and genres) it’s all going to sound pretty much the same–at least with regards to the drumming. Where did the idea that we should purchase 20 of the same drum come from? It came from the drum companies. The thing that teachers have to figure out is “What do I do with all these drums?”
Along comes the drum circle
The idea that you can play virtually unlimited quantities of drums has been promoted in recent years (also by the drum companies) as a way to use all those drums that you purchased! The only problems are: 1) they get so loud you can’t really use any other instruments – because you can’t here them over the drumming!; and 2) There’s no cultural connections to be made through drum circles (because they are essentially jam sessions and have no codified or historical musical foundations on which to build). So if your goal is to teach culturally-specific music, a drum circle is not an appropriate tool to use (although if your goal is to have fun and make some improvised music–a drum circle is fine). Drum circles are entry-level musical experiences that can be a way to experiment with sounds, practice improvisation, learn how to listen, try new things, and generally have fun, but they won’t teach you or you students how to play traditional music or develop specific pieces of music to be performed. To do that, we turn to traditional drumming ensembles and the music teacher. (If you’re thinking to yourself “But I don’t know how to play drums and create all that different music!” Don’t worry. That’s why I’m here – to help you!)
Here’s the Answer
Rather than buying 20 of the same drum, purchase 3-4 drums from each of the cultures you wish to represent. These can include; congas, bongos, clave, shekere, and cowbells from the Caribbean; djembes, dundun, and bells from West Africa; surdo, shakers, agogo, and triangle from Brazil; darbuka (doumbek), zils (finger cymbals), frame drums, and tambourines from the Arab Nations. This way, when you want to represent the music from a particular region, you can. And when you want to have a drum circle (jam session with everyone playing a drum or percussion instrument) you can do that too–and you will have greater diversity that with all the same type of drum.
When you put together your ensembles, keep in mind that there is usually one drummer per part and only a few drums in the ensemble. You can double up parts, which reenforces learning for some students and provides more opportunities for students to get hands-on experience. You can also rotate students through the drumming ensemble and have those who are not playing drums dance and sing. Remember that only a few people typically play drums and most people dance and sing. Most people learn to play drums by listening first, then dancing, then singing, then playing small percussion, and gradually moving up the ladder – getting to drum (once they know the music). Finally, one may arrive at the master drummer seat (if they really work hard!). To accomplish this, they have to know what everyone is doing and be able to play all the other parts in their sleep!
Keep in mind that most drumming music is played outside and that using large quantities of drum inside can produce unhealthful volume levels. Protect everyone’s ears and drum responsibly! If you can, take your drumming ensemble outside. Sit under a tree or in some shade and drum away! Maybe you can get some pedestrians to dance!
As a drummer, I know how exciting it is to get to play, but I also know that it takes many hours of focused practice to master the instruments that make up the category we call drums and percussion. Using Achievment-Based Community Drumming (ABCD) models helps to develop music skills while honoring traditions. It helps connect students to world music and raises the standards for all music makers–no matter where they are along their journey.
Still need help?
Leave your questions and comments below. I love to hear from you- What you’re doing and how you’re helping your students learn and grow.