Percussion Workshop - My Thoughts
by Graham Elliott
Over the September 30 weekend, I attended a Percussion Education Workshop offered by Westwinds Music Society. It was a two day workshop held at William Aberhart High School, lasting from 9 am to 4:30 pm on Saturday and Sunday. And best of all, it was free!
I did not know what to expect going into the workshop. How many people would there be? Would I just get to hit stuff all weekend? Would someone teach me how to play a Phil Collins drum solo? And what is Westwinds Music Society?
Westwinds is a Calgary-based, not-for-profit adult music organization that runs a number of concert bands, jazz bands, and choir ensembles for all levels of musicians (as well as a brand-new beginner strings program). They typically rehearse one evening per week, and perform a handful of concerts throughout the school year. In regards to this percussion weekend, my understanding is that Westwinds is currently looking for more percussionists in their ensembles, and are hoping that by offering a free workshop they can recruit some folks to enroll in their bands.
Back to Saturday morning. My first surprise was seeing how many people - and the variety of people - that attended this workshop. When I entered the band room, there were about 40 other adults of all ages, sitting on chairs in a large circle. Our instructors for the weekend, Celene Yohemas and Nia Devetzis, two local professional percussionists and educators, introduced themselves and quickly got us standing with practice pads and sticks in hand, teaching the basics of percussion grip and strokes. 10 minutes in, and we were already hitting stuff - this was great!
Later that morning we started to explore the breadth of the percussion section, from timpani, tambourine, and triangle to bass drum, suspended cymbal, and bells. Who knew the difference between a vibraphone, marimba, xylophone, and glockenspiel? I am still not sure if I fully understand those differences, but it was interesting to see and hear the variety of instruments that hang out at the back of the band room. The information overload really set in when we started discussing mallets and choosing the right weapon for the job, while keeping both mallet and instrument safe and preserved. My ultimate take-away was that it comes down to sound production, and listening for which mallet will produce the most appropriate sound for your instrument.
After lunch, we continued on instrument exploration and discussion of these instruments in the context of school bands. I felt that this was more directed towards school music teachers, of which I sensed there were a number attending the workshop. It was a great opportunity for teachers to learn more about a section that they may not have been familiar with; however as a casual attendee I felt this was not as applicable to my learning and found it hard to stay focused (or maybe that was just the post-lunch nap setting in).
Ultimately, we ended the day with more hitting stuff, so they knew how to get me back. We practiced some “four-way coordination”, which is what you picture when you think of someone sitting down and playing a drum kit. Unfortunately we could not all sit at drum kits, but we did practice coordination by playing a rhythm with our right hand tapping on our thigh, then adding a right foot rhythm, and then a left hand rhythm, and finally a left foot rhythm. Similar to patting your head and rubbing your belly, and then some. Celene and Nia mentioned that to build this coordination, it is good practice to start with a different limb each time, and add the other limbs in various orders.
And so the first day wrapped up, and although it was interesting and I had fun, I was on the fence if the second day would be worth attending. With all the technicalities discussed on day one, I was worried that day two might be similar with limited interaction and playing. Celene and Nia were excellent instructors, but they were just two people trying to lead a group of roughly 40 hit-happy adults, and seemed to be running everything a bit on the fly. We did not have any specific itinerary for the weekend, and so it remained a mystery what would come on Sunday. All I can say is, I am glad I decided to return.
On Sunday morning, I was a bit surprised to see a noticeable drop in the number of attendees. It seemed a few other people may have had the same feelings I did. I also believe the fact that this workshop was free, allowed for a lower level of commitment to return. Nonetheless, we still had at least 25 people, and we started up with some gentle warm-up exercises and stretches. We then returned to drumming strokes and techniques on the practice pads, learning things like flams (think the percussion equivalent of grace notes), paradiddles (asymmetric hand strokes - literally, RLRRLRLL), and buzz rolls (striking the pad and continuing to gently press into the pad afterwards, to create - you guessed it! - a buzz).
We later looked at some drum notation, and how to interpret what is written on a score and how that should sound in concert. This was a theme of the weekend; Celene and Nia continued to emphasize that percussion has more interpretation and creativity than what meets the eye. A percussionist has to decide: what sound they want to produce, which mallet may make that best sound, where on the instrument surface that sound best comes from, what striking technique to use, whether to let the sound ring or dampen the sound with a free hand, how loud to play, how much they might stand out compared to other instruments in the section. It is a lot to think about, and many percussionists are moving around the section and playing multiple instruments, even at the same time.
The highlight of the weekend came in small group performances. This was fun because we were able to split off into groups of five to seven, each with a different score, and decide amongst ourselves how we would split up parts to perform in front of the entire group later. We were assigned a fairly beginner-level piece named “The Last Voyage of Queen Anne’s Revenge”, and sat down to delegate parts. This was surprisingly difficult! Everyone was polite and said they were open to trying all instruments, although I question if that is how we truly all felt (I secretly wanted the snare drum part, and later I wanted the timpani part!). We finally decided on our instruments, and set off to practice in a spare portable music room. We did a number of run-throughs, sounding better each time. We discussed each other’s techniques and what we thought might sound best for each person. Feeling confident, we went back to the band room to listen to the other performances.
All the other groups went before us, and sounded great. After each performance we briefly discussed the challenges of that particular piece, and what challenges the group itself faced in planning and rehearsing it. Then our turn came, and we stood up in front of the group at different instruments than we had practiced on, and in a different arrangement (in a line, as opposed to a circle like we had practiced). The result was no disaster, but it was evident that even these seemingly small changes threw off our timing, listening, and confidence. We stumbled through the piece unceremoniously and had a polite applause at the end. It was a good lesson, that I think relates to the piano - we can practice as much as we like in our familiar environments, but when we get into a new setting with a new instrument, all that seems to go out the window.
At the end of Sunday, as things wound down, we had free exploration time to try out any instruments we liked, and then formed an impromptu drum jamming session, which was a lot of fun. It was a satisfying way to finish the weekend, feeling some drumming spirit in a large group. I was certainly glad I returned on Sunday, as it was much more interactive, engaging, and rewarding from both a learning and musical perspective.
As I stated previously, Westwinds seems to be looking for percussionists, and I encourage anyone that might be interested to reach out and see if you can join in. Unfortunately it appears registration for 2023-2024 is now closed, but it may be worth contacting them if you are still interested in this year or next. I believe Westwinds is also going to host an ongoing, Monday night percussion workshop at Aberhart on a weekly basis this year, to continue some of the seeds of this weekend’s workshop by building technique, instrument familiarity, music interpretation, and sectional organization. However, this may be limited to Westwinds Society members. You can find out more at https://www.westwindsmusic.org/.