Whole Class Percussion Without The Pain: A Step by Step Guide

Class percussion lessons can be enormous fun and hugely rewarding for students and teachers alike.   Hand percussion is so accessible for all students, regardless of ability or experience and enables them to join in with a subject where they can easily feel out of their depth.  And for teachers, getting a whole class jam going, and seeing students really enjoying themselves is priceless.

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However, compared to a lesson of keyboards-with-headphones, this is noisy music at its best (or worst, depending on what experiences you have had!!).  If students aren't sure of their rhythms or are intent on just randomly hitting stuff it will just devolve into a terrible noise.  This can be unpleasant for everyone concerned and can easily put students off, rather than showing them how exciting music truly is.  Students with additional needs can also find it overwhelming 

So here is a simple step-by-step guide to leading a successful whole class percussion lesson. 

1. Set up expectations.   

Establish clear rules with clear consequences and rewards.  The treatment of instruments would definitely be on this list eg no jewellery when playing hand drums, with clear reasons for those rules.  Another must would be establishing a STOP signal.  No one wants to be shouting over 30 percussion instruments so set up a signal such as hand in the air, flicking light switch or clapping a rhythm for the class to repeat.  Offer ear defenders to any noise sensitive students, particularly those with additional needs.  Waiting until a student is upset by the noise is too late, prevention is much more effective than a cure.

2. Learn the rhythms first. 

Before you even reach for the percussion trolley teach the rhythms to your students.  These might be individual, small group whole class parts.  I like to set the rhythms to words and learn them as a song or rap.  A theme is really good for this - all my handy lyrics seem to revolve around food!!  Students can get a grip on the rhythms through whole class singing and understand aurally how the parts should fit together. 

3. Break out spaces

Now you can move on to clapping or body percussion.  If you have separate rooms or areas to send students, this is the perfect time to use them.  Group students into teams per rhythm and choose a leader.  This team then have time to learn their individual rhythm, complete with peer assessment.   So all students with Rhythm A go together, as do rhythm B etc.

You can then mix the groups up so you end up with several polyrhythmic  groups instead.  So you may have 1 student with rhythm A, one with Rhythm B etc.   It is hugely difficult for students to focus in one room together, so break out spaces make learning far more effective and pleasant for everyone, and enable progress to be made faster. 



4. Check accuracy

Now is the final point to check each group's performance.  You are now aiming for a performance with polyrhythm, in time with each other and at an appropriate dynamic.  You are also looking for students to know how to start together and stop together.  If it is sounding good on body percussion, it is time to get the instruments out!

5. Which instruments to use?

At this point I am always tempted to pull out the percussion trolley and say something like 'go, students, play the music' with a dramatic sweeping gesture.  However, on the occasions I have lacked self restraint and done this, it is invariably a disaster. 

As the teacher you need to choose percussion carefully and distribute it yourself.  No one wants to be in a room with only 30 snare drums, nor do you want 15 triangles versus 15 maracas.  Go for a balanced mixture of sounds to create your performance.  Choose the groups and for some classes even choose the instruments for each student yourself.  Noisy boys will always head for the biggest drum first and, in my experience, delight in playing it a top volume.  Again, prevent any noise disasters by distributing instruments yourself. 


6. Put it together as a class

If students can play accurately and fluently in their groups, attempt a whole class performance.  This will require greater concentration from your students and they will need to understand that it is not a 'who can play it loudest' competition.  This is a great opportunity to teach elements such as dynamics, tempo, rhythm and pulse and experiment with conducting or leading a group.  

If it's lovely weather why not take them outside and add some choreography to their piece?  They could even perform at school events, such as leading sports teams in or opening assemblies.  



I hope you found this post helpful.  I still remember my naive early days as a teacher when I would vainly hope that every student would simply pick up their instrument, follow all the rules and play their rhythm splendidly!  I have certainly found that this very structured approach leads to much better outcomes and progress.  


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