Help with Handheld Percussion
Five Tips for Your General Music Class
By NAfME Member Kelly Mraz
How long has it been since you’ve taken a percussion methods class? When other music teachers find out I am a percussionist, the number one question I get is, “I’ve always wondered, how do you play . . . ?”
In my webinar, “Help with Handheld Percussion,” I demonstrate proper playing technique for many small percussion instruments most elementary music educators have in their classrooms. I also talk about simple repair and alternate playing techniques. If you need a refresher on your percussion know-how, check it out!
So often, drums get our (and our students’) love and attention, but small handheld percussion instruments are just as important.
Here are my top five ways to help you and your students feel more comfortable in the world of handheld percussion:
1. Use the technique that will produce the best sound for each instrument.
I know this sounds obvious, but it is important to teach students proper technique from the beginning. Two questions I like to ask are: What will produce the best sound? And what will enable my students to play with control and confidence? Thinking about these questions will improve your students’ musicianship and fine motor skills.
- To give an example, playing finger cymbals can be done a few different ways. You can get a bright, ringing sound by pinching the straps while holding them next to each other, parallel to the floor, and striking the edges together. You can also “dunk the cookie” and hold one cymbal upside down (the glass) while using the other cymbal’s edge to “dunk.” You can also experiment with open and closed (non-ringing) timbres on all metal instruments, especially when culturally appropriate (i.e., playing Latin music). All of these techniques are demonstrated in the webinar.
2. Call percussion instruments by their real names.
This helps your students learn vocabulary (often in different languages) while treating instruments with respect, not as toys. It is easy to let young students call a guiro a “scrapy fish,” but that doesn’t honor the instrument or the culture it comes from. In my webinar, there are illustrations as well as descriptions of many percussion instruments from around the world.
- For example, caxixi are basket shakers used in Africa and South America that can add a lovely, clear shaker sound to your classroom in lieu of maracas, which can be tricky to articulate and break easily.
3. Don’t be afraid to modify playing position or mallet choice to accommodate your students.
Even professional percussionists sometimes have differing opinions about the correct way to play percussion instruments. If it sounds good, is comfortable for your students, and is not damaging to the instrument, go for it!
- This is especially true for small frame drums. Students can use soft rubber mallets if they can’t use their hands or the vibration is too much for them. You can also modify playing position. I like to use 10-inch drums for my students. I tell them to pretend they’re driving a car by holding the rim of the drum with both hands out in front of them. Then they drop one hand, and tap the drum head with it. Some students need to rest the drum on their leg or floor. As long as they can get a resonant sound, we can make music!
4. Be a percussionist!
It’s important to spend some time playing small percussion instruments yourself. It’s fun, and anything that improves your musicianship will benefit your students. You’ll be able to fix your students’ mistakes more quickly and with more empathy if you are familiar with the process of learning to master them yourself. There are many videos on YouTube that show how to play percussion instruments individually. In this webinar, I demonstrate proper playing technique for many instruments all in one place (instead of having to find a dozen YouTube videos).
5. Insist on respect for all instruments in your classroom.
Taking the time to teach technique, maintenance, and storage procedures from the beginning will make your classroom a more peaceful and musical place as your students get older. If your students leave for a different school, think of how their new music teacher will appreciate their knowledge and respect for percussion instruments of all shapes and sizes!
So often, drums get our (and our students’) love and attention, but small handheld percussion instruments are just as important. They allow students to experience rhythm, tone color, and the physics of sound in wonderful ways.
I hope you are inspired to explore the world of percussion with your students with these helpful tips and my NAfME Academy webinar “Help with Handheld Percussion.”
About the author:
NAfME member Kelly Mraz is in her ninth year as the music specialist at R.D. Head Elementary in Lilburn, Georgia, where she teaches general music for grades K-5. She also directs the R.D. Head Chorus and Mustang Drummers. She has been teaching in Gwinnett County for fourteen years and was recognized as a county semi-finalist for Teacher of the Year in 2015. Kelly received her Bachelors in Music Education and Percussion Performance from Ithaca College and her Masters in Percussion Performance from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. Her performing and teaching experience as a percussionist includes orchestra, steel band, Latin jazz, West African drumming, and marching band. Kelly also served on the rewriting committee for the Georgia Performance Standards for General Music in 2017. She has completed three levels of Orff-Schulwerk training and Masterclass Orff studies with Konnie Saliba and Jay Broeker. Kelly is also on the board of the Atlanta Area Chapter of the American Orff-Schulwerk Association.
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