A percussion section of a band room with drums, cymbals, and auxiliary percussion instruments.

Many people wonder what drummers learn will in school band.  Most school bands do not have drummers. Instead, they have percussionists, who play all kinds of percussion instruments.  School band percussionists often play snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, auxiliary percussion, timpani, and mallet percussion instruments. 

Auxiliary percussion instruments include woodblocks, cowbells, triangles, tambourines, and other small instruments.Xylophone, marimba, vibraphone, and concert bells are all examples of mallet percussion instruments. These instruments are pitched, allowing the percussionist to play melodies as well as rhythms.

Latin percussion instruments such as conga drums and bongos are often played in concert band music.  Drumset is not usually taught or played in beginning band.  It is usually incorporated within the following years for jazz band.  In high school, students will perform on marching snare and bass drum as well as tenor drums (sometimes referred to as “quads” or “quints” due to the number of drums being carried.

Can All Students Play Percussion in School Band?

A school band must have a well-rounded sound.  This is done by having a balanced instrumentation.  Therefore, not everyone in class can play the same type of instrument.  The band must have a full range of sound, from the high notes of the flute to the low notes of the tuba.  The music that the band performs is usually written for a complete band, so if an instrument is missing there will be noticeable gaps in the songs. 

Students usually request the instrument that they wish to learn.  If there are not many students who request percussion, the band director may accept all of them. If too many students wish to play percussion, the band director must choose an appropriate number to balance the sound.

Beginning Band Tryouts

In order to select percussionists for school band, the director may wish to have tryouts.  Since beginning percussionists are not required to have prior experience, band directors will sometimes test the student’s hand coordination and rhythmic aptitude.  The exact criteria changes from director to director, but there are some common expectations for students trying out for percussion.  These include the ability to do the following tasks:

  • Imitate rhythms – The band director will play a short rhythm and have the student repeat it in a call-and-response fashion.
  • Perform stickings – The director may as for certain stickings such as single strokes (RLRL RLRL), double strokes (RRLL RRLL), paradiddles (RLRR LRLL).
  • Play bounced strokes – The student would strike the drum with a loose grip, allowing the stick to bounce multiple times.  These bounces are the building blocks of a drum roll.
  • Strike the instrument, resulting in a musical sound – The director is looking for the student’s ability to get a resonant sound by drawing the tone out of the instrument.  This resonance will not happen if the student buries the stick or mallet into the surface. This assessment is often done on a pitched percussion instrument to allow for maximum resonance.
  • Play at a range of volumes – While most people associate drums with loud sounds, the percussionist must be able to play within a wide dynamic range while still retaining a musical tone. 

Is Priority Given to Students with Previous Experience?

Priority is often given to students who have previous lesson experience on percussion.  This experience should include the ability to read rhythmic notation, not simply the capability to play by ear.  It is beneficial for the student to have experience on mallet percussion instruments as well.

Students with previous piano experience often are chosen for percussion since the mallet percussion instruments use the same layout of notes as the piano.  Pianists will also be familiar with rhythmic notation. 

What character traits do school band drummers need to exhibit?

Here are a few qualities that band directors look for in a percussionist. 

  • The ability to follow instructions in a focused manner – Percussionists must have the ability to focus on tasks, since their musical parts often require them to switch instruments mid-piece.  There are also many directions in the percussionist’s sheet music that must be followed.
  • Sincere interest and determination – It obviously will take some time to get accustomed to an instrument.  The band director is not looking for perfection.  He or she is seeking students with determination and enthusiasm.
  • Independence – With few exceptions, the percussion section does not have more than one person on a part. This is different than the woodwind and brass instruments, who often play as a section.  The student must have confidence in fitting his or her part in with the rest of the section.
  • Teamwork – This may seem like a contradiction to the previous point.  While percussionists have to be confident while playing a single part, they also need to coordinate with the other members of the percussion section.  Oftentimes, percussionists must cover more than one part.  They may need to move instruments between musical pieces.  The smoother the transition, the less downtime there will be in rehearsals and performances.
  • Willingness to work on weaker areas – Everyone tends to accentuate their strengths, but percussionists need to work on the less comfortable concepts in order to be well rounded.  For example, a student may be very comfortable playing snare drum and less confident with mallet percussion.  Students must practice with the goal of becoming a complete percussionist. 

Necessary Equipment

School band percussionists are generally required to have some instruments for practicing at home.  Band directors will either recommend a bell kit with a practice pad or a bell and snare drum kit.  These can either be purchased or rented.  The kits come with a travel bag, stands, drumsticks, and bell mallets.

The bell set is often confused with a xylophone.  While a xylophone is a large, wooden instrument ranging from 3.5 to 4.0 octaves, a bell set is made of metal and is usually about 2.5 octaves. It is placed on a stand which can be adjusted for height. 

A practice pad can be used for practicing snare drum rhythms.  It is much softer in volume than an actual snare drum.  As mentioned, some band directors require students to have a snare drum at home.  Other directors require a practice pad, since the students will be playing on an actual drum at school.

Students often wonder if they should purchase a percussion kit or take advantage of rent-to-own programs.  Rentals will cost more in the long run.  String instruments, such as violin, come in various sizes.  For those instruments, it makes sense to rent (and trade up in size as the student grows).  The percussion kits are one-size-fit-all, with the stand being adjustable to the student’s height. Therefore, renting is not a necessity.  The decision to rent or buy comes down to convenience and price.

Percussion kits can also be purchased used.  Students will often sell their kit after they graduate (if they choose not to play in college).  Used kits should be in good condition.  A few light scratches will not change the sound of the bells. 

A stick bag is recommended.  As percussionists progress through the band program, they are expected to add to their collection of sticks and mallets.  These additions include soft yarn mallets, which will be used on vibraphone and marimba.  They will also add drum brushes and timpani mallets to their collection.  Over time, it becomes a bit of an investment.  The stick bag will protect that investment.

While not all school band percussionists own a drum set, it is suggested for students interested in jazz band.  A drum set consists of a snare drum, pedal bass drum,  cymbals, stands, and two or three toms.  See the article on this site (__WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A DRUM SET__) for more information on choosing a drum set.

Another necessity is hearing protection.  Hearing-protective earmuffs are convenient for practice at home.  Rubber, reusable earplugs work well for band class.  Ear protection must be used in marching band!


Many percussionists take private lessons outside of school.  Since the students will be learning percussion in school, private lessons may seem unnecessary.   However, there is a very good reason to take lessons.  Percussionist have to play a number of instruments.

Trumpet players only play trumpet, not every instrument in the brass family.  Clarinet players play clarinet, not every instrument in the woodwind family.  Percussionists, however, are expected to be able to play all instruments in the percussion family.  Students who take lessons often excel in marching band and other extracurricular musical endeavors. 

When seeking out lessons, be sure to find a qualified instructor.  Not every private teacher is qualified to teach school band percussionists.  Some teachers only teach drumset.  Some just teach by ear without utilizing musical notation at all!  It is essential that the student find a teacher that can teach rhythmic notation, technique, mallet percussion, and drumset.  For more information, please visit the article, How Do I Choose a Drum Teacher on this website.

Opportunities for School Band Percussionists

Percussionists who start in beginning band will rehearse and perform concerts with their school band.  As they progress, more opportunities will be presented.  Many schools will offer jazz band as a class or after-school activity. This allows the percussionists to play drumset.  Drumset is also commonly played at school musicals. 

Most high schools have marching band.  Percussionists will either play battery percussion (snare drum, bass drum, or quads/quints).  Those drums will be carried by the player through the use of a harness.  Those drummers, as well as crash cymbal players, will march in formation on the football field for performances.  The larger instruments that cannot be carried (mallet percussion, drumset, gong, suspended cymbals) are played in the “pit.” This is the musical term for the area on the sidelines. 

Many areas have district band auditions, where band students from various schools have the opportunity to audition.  The top students will rehearse together and perform in a concert.  There are also similar auditions for regional and state bands.  Many states have similar auditions for all-state jazz band.

Benefits of Being in School Band

Playing a musical instrument helps to develop a strong work ethic.  Musicians must have the discipline to practice musical exercises until they can consistently play their parts.  They also need to work as a unit, much like members of a sports team.  Working closely with classmates helps students to experience camaraderie and develop long-lasting friendships. 

As previously mentioned, school band percussionists have numerous performing experiences. They will also travel to perform at football games and march in parades.  High school marching bands usually take special trips to exiting locations.  It is not uncommon for bands to take one long trip each year to major theme parks or major cities.  The band will often perform and sightsee during these trips.

Being in school band allows students to enjoy playing music while sharing this experience with their friends and classmates.

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