Embrace the Drum Set

For many classical percussionists—especially orchestral ones—the drum set can be an intimidating, foreign instrument. The classical percussionist must spend countless hours refining their snare drum roll, learning thousands and thousands of marimba notes, and struggling to improve their intonation at the timpani (only to name a few things).

“I want to win an orchestra job, ” says one student.

“I plan to be a college professor,” says another.

Both of these students should be investing some amount of time in learning and/or improving their drum set skills. As a someone who came to percussion as a band student, I spent little time learning drum set as a young player. My time was spent learning All-State etudes, marimba solos, and my snare drum parts for marching band. The small amount of time I spent behind the kit was in jazz band, and I was really flying by the seat of my pants, with little formal instruction and mostly rote learning. I had little in the means of coordination, creativity, or reading skills.

My time in music school, especially graduate school, was spent cramming for the next audition: snare drum, mallets, accessories, timpani. All had priority over drum set.

And then this happened:

Drum Set repertoire for the San Diego Symphony percussion audition in December 2013.

Drum Set repertoire for the San Diego Symphony percussion audition in December 2013.

The San Diego audition in 2013 changed my life for the better. It forced me to treat the drum set no differently than all the orchestral instruments in which I’d invested so many hours. I used Tommy Igoe’s Groove Essentials and went to work learning each style note by note. I bought Tom Morgan’s Jazz Drummer’s Reading Workbook and learned how to read charts and improvise accordingly. The result? I became “serviceable” at the drum set and made it to finals in that audition.

The takeaway was that drum set, while maybe not essential, is an extraordinarily valuable skill to have as an orchestral percussionist. Since 2013 I’ve spent much of my spare time in between auditions trying to become a better drum set player; I’ve worked through the following books cover to cover and enthusiastically recommend all of them:

  • Tommy Igoe Groove Essentials

  • Tom Morgan Jazz Drummer’s Reading Workbook

  • Mark Wessels/Stanton Moore A Fresh Approach to Drum Set

  • David Garibaldi Future Sounds (shout out to Mr. Daniel Morris)

  • Rick Latham Advanced Funk Studies

  • Jim Chapin Advanced Techniques for the Modern Drummer

  • Doug Auwarter Essential Latin Styles for the Drum Set

  • John Riley The Art of Bop Drumming

Most of us shy away from the instrument, but those willing to invest in drum set may be rewarded with many more opportunities for work, both in and outside of the orchestra. No matter what city you live in, there is much more performing work playing drum set than any other percussion instrument. You don’t need crazy chops, you don’t need flash—you need consistency, dependability, solid time and groove, a little creativity, good reading skills, and a thorough knowledge of different styles.

So, if you’re a student pursuing a career as a performing percussionist, let me give you the following advice: