A Creative Approach to Building Percussion Ensembles

A Creative Approach to Building Percussion Ensembles

By Cara Calabrese

As an instrumental music teacher in a large, urban district, I have recently had the opportunity to develop instrumental programs in three schools deemed “failing”. What adjectives come to mind when the label “lowest performing” or “failing” is attached to a school or students? How about engaged, creative, cooperative, disciplined, focused, teamwork, diligent, and inspiring? These words, not the usual barrage of negatives, have been used to describe my music students.

How to Develop Musicianship

With few traditional band instruments available to me, I have created an alternative path to music-making: percussion ensembles. From djembes to xylophones, boom whackers, egg shakers, guiros, woodblocks, and more, I have utilized every instrument I could find. My students range from grades 5-8 and are a balanced mix of boys and girls. My largest percussion ensemble has twenty students, and the smallest has six. I meet with my groups once every six days for forty-five minutes.

Rather than beginning with traditional note-reading, I have created a systematic way of developing my percussion ensembles based solely on improvisation. Listening, creating, teamwork, and performance are the four tenets that define my approach to building and developing my students’ musicianship.


Thomas Northcut/DigitalVision/Thinkstock
Thomas Northcut/DigitalVision/Thinkstock

My students are incredible improvisers who are not afraid to take risks. They have ownership of both the process and the product as it has been based entirely on their musical ideas and initiative. The most advanced student can play side-by-side with a less skilled player. Through this process there is a place for all levels of ability.

Here is a simple and condensed overview of how to get started:

  • Create: Have your students improvise body percussion rhythmic patterns to a steady beat.
  • Listen: What is your neighbor’s pattern? Can you copy it? Close your eyes and play. Listen with your “mind’s ear”. Exchange patterns with someone near you. Eventually transfer this exercise to simple percussion instruments.
  • Teamwork: Discuss whether or not the patterns are working together or conflicting. Are we keeping a steady beat? How can we improve? Pass your instrument to your neighbor. Repeat over and over.
  • Performance: Create another improvisation. Record it. Perform for the school community.

Eventually the process described above evolves to include conducting, dynamics, arranging, and more. With the addition of every new skill, the students rise to meet the expectation as ownership of the process and music making has been in place since the very beginning.



This fact was most clearly demonstrated by one of my sixth grade percussion ensembles. Through a district competition they were selected to perform at the annual “Collage”. This performance, held at the premiere downtown performance hall, showcases the district’s finest ensembles. What word comes to mind when you imagine such a concert? Through their participation in percussion ensemble, my students learned that a new label can be attached to their school and their names: OUTSTANDING. 

I invite you to attend my presentation, “A Creative Approach to Building a Percussion Ensemble in the Middle School Music Class” at the upcoming NAfME conference in Nashville! I’m looking forward to sharing these strategies and more! For more information or to get in touch, e-mail me at: ccalabrese@buffaloschools.org

Listen to Cara’s 6th Grade Percussion Ensemble here:


About the author:

Cara Calabrese

Cara Calabrese is a pianist, music educator, and children’s songwriter who has been inspiring students to find joy and creative expression through music for over twenty years. Trained as a classical pianist at the Eastman School of Music, Cara went on to complete a Masters in Arts Education as a Mellon Fellow at Columbia University, Teacher’s College. Cara’s career has taken her many places including NYC, Woodstock, NY, Berlin, Germany and most recently her hometown, Buffalo, NY. As a music educator in the Buffalo Public Schools, Cara is deeply inspired by her students’ innate musicality and boundless energy and spirit.    


Cara presented on this topic at the 2015 NAfME National In-Service Conference in Nashville, TN.

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