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Percussion Instruments for General and Performing Middle School Choir Classes

I have parent on the city council who, on her own, pushed to acquire a $500 check from the council to my choral program. It's nice to have friends! I have two goals towards which I've been saving up: 1) classroom and/or performing percussion instruments 2) new chairs. The first goal is the most immediately attainable, though any thoughts on which chairs I should get are more than welcome!
Any ideas on the bigger percussion instruments - bongos, congas, djembe?
What have you found most useful to have?
Suggested companies to buy from?
I work in a middle school set in a rural town outside of Birmingham, AL. I have 20 and 25 students in general music/vocal classes and 30, 25, 20, and 25 students in performing choral classes and I see each class everday. My 6th grade performing group is mixed, while my 2 7th/8th grade performing groups are split by gender.
Replies (10): Threaded | Chronological
on November 25, 2011 7:26am
Jeffrey - do you have any boomwhackers?  My students LOVE them and they are great music literacy tools (much less annoying than recorders, and much cheaper than handbells).  I'm even using them in my Christmas concert this year - which is put on by all the general music classes at my school.  My middle school boys much prefer playing to singing, so at least they'll be engaged for part of their performance.
on November 25, 2011 12:51pm
I hadn't thought of boomwhackers. I actually have a class set of alto recorders and another of soprano - I very much dislike recorders (they were left by the former teacher). That sounds like a great alternative. Do you suggest a certain array - multiple sets of one octave, multiple octaves, a class set?
on November 25, 2011 2:01pm
Hey, Jeffrey and Rebecca, I'm sorry that you don't like recorders, but I have to ask you WHY?!!!
In my late wife's research, she discovered that most school teachers who try to teach recorder have actually never learned to play the instruments themselves, don't know how to deal with intonation and breath support, and can't teach the upper register (because they can't PLAY the upper register!).  And recorders are ideal not just as pre-band instruments but as legitimate musical instruments with a long history and tons of great music written for them.  She introduced them in her own teaching as just another way to sing!
Allow me to recommend Susie's book, "Recorder in the Kodály Classroom," which uses Kodály principles but does not require Kodály training to be used effectively.  She specifically wrote it for teachers who have not had the opportunity to learn to play the instrument AS an instrument (which unfortunately includes most music education students).
All the best,
on November 26, 2011 5:44am
It's true, Judy, that boomwhackers have no sustain, but that problem can be solved like it is on any other percussion instrument - with a roll.  If your students are only playing one boomwhacker, put your hand slightly above your knee and move the boomwhacker very quickly back and forth between your hand and knee, like a triangle roll.  If they're playing two, it works like a drumroll.  I borrowed this from a Youtube video of PlastikMusic, a group that plays boomwhackers professionally in a touring group (it works kind of like a drumline for them).  They also solved the projection problem by hitting the boomwhackers against a resonator - a big plastic jug, or a long PVC pipe.  I never thought of the found sound idea, though - thanks for the suggestion, Judy!  That sounds fun.
John, I may actually look into Susie's book, now - thank you for suggesting it.  I'm not Kodaly trained, but I use some of his methods in my teaching.  I did learn how to play recorder as part of my elementary methods class, so that is not my problem; it's just that SO many students have overblowing problems and I can't stand the squeaky sounds!  I would also never make a very good elementary strings teacher.  However, the music teacher before me set up a recorder program, and students do love them, so I will be using them for my 3rd-5th grade classes as part of our big Music History unit.  I still think, however, that boomwhackers or choirchimes are a more accessible way to learn music reading skills because you don't have to learn very much about HOW to play them - and you're only worrying about one or two notes on the staff at a time.
And Jeff, in answer to your question - I have multiple sets of the diatonic C scale in my room, with Octavators (which make the boomwhackers sound an octave lower than they are) enough to create a two-octave scale.  I had some extra funds this year and decided against getting the chromatic sets or bass sets simply because my students are not used to reading music on the staff - we're gradually improving those skills, but I don't want to overdo it with them.  However, if your students are already comfortable with sharp or flat concepts, or bass clef reading, you may want to look into a more comprehensive set than what I have.
on November 27, 2011 4:58pm
John, to answer your question, I should be more specific with my original statement. I very much dislike the idea of trying to teach recorder to my current set of general music students. There are an array of reasons, but, being middle school students in a class they are forced to take with a teacher who isn't dying to teach them recorder... not a combination for success. Although, I'm not writing off the idea, just putting it off for now.
Thanks for asking though, we should always work in and on our weak areas (no matter how painful it may be).
on November 25, 2011 3:50pm
Choirchimes are another, less expensive alternative to handbells. They sound lovely and students enjoy them. I have also used BoomWackers. Students like them, but they have no sustain, and not very loud (which may be desirable). I also had great success with recorders. I'm an oboist, and taught recorders like I would a band instrument. There are a multitude of small hand percussion instruments that could enhance your music classes and performances.................think "Orff" classroom. Drumming is also an option, and a great draw and motivator............students love to drum. I also did a unit on "found sounds," and folk instruments, many of which are made from available resources in their particular location/venue. Large plastic water jugs (like the kind used for water coolers) make great sounding bass drums using a timpani mallet, or tom-tom with drum sticks. Different length PVC pipes make cool sounds, and many items can be filled with a variety of "fill" for different sounding maracas.  Students really enjoy finding different everyday items to use as unique instruments.  How lucky you are to see all classes every day!
on November 26, 2011 5:56am
For an inexpensive but decent quality, I would think about the remo tubanos or remo djembes---the tubanos are nice because you don't have to deal with tuning, etc and you can use them for music of lots of different cultures. Another idea is to contact a local college's percussion instructor, and they can give you some specifics on good quality for decent price. You don't want to buy junk because you will have to replace it sooner.
West Music is a great company with good prices to buy any of that from. You might also check with a local music store--ours gives discounts on  most sheet music and equipment that we buy from them, and don't charge for shipping, which will make your money go further.
on May 27, 2014 4:11pm
This forum is over two years old, but here are my thoughts:
I also recommend considering Remo tubanos along with Dr. Will Schmid's World Music Drumming curriculum.  This is a singing as well as a drumming program.  Every upper elementary and middle school music educator ought to take the 5 day Level 1 workshop, offered each summer in four locations around the country.  See and hear what you've been missing!  The tunable tubanos are well worth the extra money, and unfortunately, a set will cost you $3,000.  However, the workshop includes an evening of valuable fund raising ideas that have worked for others.
The problem with large numbers of students playing recorders is that when kids produce a proper sound, they blend together and can't hear themselves, so they blow harder and shriek.  Try separating the chairs as much as possible, or having only half the class play at a time, while the other half rests recorders on chins and just fingers the notes.  The soprano recorder is cheap and fits small hands well, but historically, the alto was usually the highest pitched instrument in the consort, and it's easy to hear why.  You could replace your sopranos with altos after the first year, or with 5th grade and up.  Students would still read and finger as if they were using sopranos.
Another alternative is to embrace the shriek and use pennywhistles as fifes.  This requires some explanation.  All these traditions--recorder, fife and pennywhistle--developed side by side in Europe.  Think of Bach and his use of both recorder and flute.  The fife and pennywhistle came to America with immigrants and soldiers from the British Isles and that music became part of the American tradition, while the recorder failed to catch on until the last 50 years or so.  The fife and pennywhistle play the same pitches, and the only essential difference is that the pennywhistle, like the recorder, has a fipple that automatically produces the sound.  The military fife was played in massed groups and was a major part of our musical history through the Civil War, so why not combine the two?  God Save the King, Chester, The Star Spangled Banner, Taps, Just Before the Battle Mother and many other important period songs are easily played on the pennywhistle, first in the lower register, and then, as control is gained, in the fife-like upper register. 
The pennywhistle has other advantages, too.  There is no thumbhole to complicate the technique; the notes and fingers are simply  0,1,2,3,4,5, and 6.  Blow harder and you get the upper octave.  Teach songs from notation, or make progress faster by teaching by rote or numbered chart.  For 12 years I have used the "Dixie Fife" by Trophy Mfg., for 3rd-6th graders.  Some music stores sell these but you are more likely to see this company's plastic slide whistles.  At any rate, they can be bought in bulk for $2, and are an incredible bargain: a well made, in-tune instrument with raised finger holes, and thumbrests for both thumbs.  Almost plays itself.  Lastly, a fife corps will give your students another performing opportunity and be a welcome part of school assemblies.  "Taps" can be mastered by beginners in less than a month and is a beautiful sequel to the Pledge of Allegiance.
on May 28, 2014 11:27am
I would consider buying a set of practice pads and sticks.
The weakness with whak-a-whatever, world music, and Kodaly, is they aren't very foundational to real percussion playing, and the whole thing devolves into rompa-room. The more creative students start to get into it, often based on their band aspirations, but the more timid ones don't learn a single thing. You can do true drum instruction on the 40 rudiments with practice pads in a group situation, move to an actual snare, and that will prepare the students for drum corps, trap set, and help develop hand independance. It's also much quieter.
It might not be very fun, but for the less creative students, it gives a specific and enumerated set of challenges. It exposes the truth that good music making takes meticulous sweat and dedication, and with the promise of eventually playing trap, some students might run with it.
on May 29, 2014 12:00pm
   How do you support practice pads for 20-25 students?  Do you have enough stands, or use tables?  Is it practical and advisable to put the pad on a lapboard while seated?  I'm not a trained percussionist, but I teach the first 10 or 12 rudiments to my small 4-5-6th grade drum corps.  I agree that drum rudiments would be a great addition to a music program, and could lead to a school drumline and other options, but have not been able to solve the support-the-practice-pad problem with the resources and space I have.  My student group--kids who expressed an interest without receiving instruction in music class--meets during lunch and currently numbers 7 snare drummers and 1 bass drummer.  Mostly we play historic calls and beats from the Revolution through the Civil War, plus accompaniment for some of the fife music mentioned in my previous post.  I'd appreciate any suggestions you might have on repertoire and activities.
   I don't agree with your assessment of world music as not being foundational to "real" percussion playing, except in the sense that snare drumming is what's commonly available in school and community music programs.  Properly done, all activities contribute to musicianship, and the World Music Drumming curriculum should not be confused with the common drum circle.  It was developed by a former music education professor and past president of MENC, in consultation with two master drummers from Ghana, and extensively field tested around the country before its introduction 20 years ago.
   Your posting gets to the heart of our task as music educators, and the question that baffles me the most:  How do I balance "fun" and "meticulous sweat and dedication?"  How do I expand the awareness of the students who "might run with it" while maintaining the interest of those who will not? 
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