Creative Drums

Creative Thinking in Percussion Teaching

Kevin Tuck

Creative Thinking in Percussion Teaching and the use of Music Learning Theory.

Authors Note: This Article was written as part of an extended study in music education methodology, during my Masters of Music degree in 1995. Consequently its style is very academic in nature – unlike many of my other articles!

Drums are creative instruments, correct? When a drummer reads a piece of music, does he play the dots exactly as they are written? How often do young inexperienced drummers lose their way in the music, and music teachers give up making them read, and therefore they become worse readers in the end.

Music Journals such as Percussive Notes, The Instrumentalist, and the Music Educators Journal, are full of articles on how to teach percussion, and a few offer a little advice on how to encourage drummers to phrase and read at the same time, but I have not found any writings on how to use creative thinking techniques as advocated by Webster or the music learning theories of Gordon.

This paper will mostly concentrate on the drum kit, as this is the instrument where most students will instantly require some level of competency in improvisation and reading skills within a short time of playing, if they are to persist with a study of percussion.

Most instrumentalists read the music, and play the notes exactly as written, and if improvisation is required, they can be divorced from the music to allow creativity. A drummer, on the other hand is usually required to follow the music, and play the important figures, and then add improvised fills and phrasing. Thus with this instrument, we have to simultaneously read and improvise.

In His Ph.D Thesis (1993) Gary McPherson identifies five separate areas of musical performance skills, and describes a ‘Balanced approach’ as one that helps the student become proficient in all of these areas. They are:

Recreative Visual

  • To perform rehearsed music, while reading.
  • Sight reading

Re-creative Aural

  • Play from memory, where music was learned visually and recreated aurally
  • Play by ear, where music is both learned and recreated aurally.
  • Improvisation

In order to play percussion, a strong ability is necessary in all of these areas. To be a competent percussionist, one must be able to play rehearsed music and sight read as well as any other instrumentalist, but also be able to ‘improvise’ around the written music. This is a skill which is not included in McPherson’s study.

Background – History of Teaching Percussion

The teaching of percussion has evolved over time along with the evolution of the instrument. Many of the early drum teachers taught mainly along rudimental lines: to teach students to become excellent marching drummers. In the 1920’s when the dance drum set began to evolve, the techniques also evolved with it. The reading of music in these early days was not important, and even through to the beginnings of rock n’ roll. One of the most famous drummers in history, Buddy Rich, could not read music.

Ted Reed’s “Syncopation” was published in 1958. This book was written in order to help the dance drummer learn to read music. This is the most common text which is used for teaching rhythm reading today. This book has a lot of limitations, and this was highlighted by my survey of percussion teachers.

There seems to be an increase in the last ten years of the private studio drum teaching methods which are, in many cases not based around written material. I have concentrated my survey and research to those teachers who are currently teaching in schools only. The private studio teacher will often not concentrate on reading or creative thinking, preferring to give the students the skills that they need to perform in Commercial Bands.

Current Practice in South Australian Schools

In researching for this essay I have interviewed a number of percussion teachers currently teaching in Adelaide. This survey was designed to try and ascertain the amount of activity in their lessons that was essentially creative in nature, and that encouraged students to play music in a musical and creative way.

The answers tended to vary enormously. Some teachers teach improvising on the drum kit in the first lesson, while others do not teach the drum kit at all for the first year. One of the most interesting findings was that when asked the question “How would you encourage a student who cannot play anything which is not on the written part, while still keeping to the basis of the music?” most of the teachers said that this simply wasn’t a problem.

I feel that this possibly is a result of the style of lessons that are given. If lessons are creative based – the student will also engage in activities like playing to music and playing with recordings[1], thus increasing their creative skills, not having a problem, while the non-creative teachers are possibly not aware of their students weaknesses, and thus also do nothing to solve it. Some of the Teachers in the Group lesson situation find that there is simply not enough time to involve creative techniques in their lessons.

It is interesting to note also that the some of the teachers found that beginning students we not reading band parts anyway, they were simply playing their own thing, not even following the music, and that this was even encouraged by the band directors as the directors primary need of the drummer in the band is to keep time. Some teachers found that it was only after quite a while of learning that they actually begin relating their skills which they are learning in the percussion lesson to the reading that they have to do in band situations.

Only one teacher so far has identified imitation and copying techniques as being a major part of their teaching. Two others said that it was used occasionally, but not as a central element. Two teachers never used copying, feeling that it did not contribute at all to the students progress in the visual – aural domain.


Edwin Gordon has called his theories “Music Learning Theory” Central to Gordon’s method is his invented term : Audiation. Audiation is explained as the hearing of sounds that are not physically present through recall, prediction and conception. Gordon also lists seven specific types of Audiation

  1. Listening to music
  2. reading music (silently or in performance)
  3. Writing music from dictation
  4. Recalling music (silently or in performance)
  5. Writing music from recall
  6. Creating or improvising music (silently or in performance)
  7. Writing music as it is being created or improvised

Drum students require Audiation at every level of performance. Firstly to simply execute a simple rhythm from written music they require more Audiation skill than other instrumentalists because of the co-ordination aspect.

A typical drum pattern will consist of three or more sound sources occurring regularly, in relationship with one another. I have found the simplest and best way of the student reaching the goal of playing the pattern accurately is for them to audiate the pattern as a whole, rather than consider each element independently.

eg 1 Basic Rock Beat

basic rock drum rhythm

A student attempting to play this with no Audiation will try to relate the snare and bass parts with the constant hi-hat, thus achieving the necessary rhythm. A student with skill in Audiation, will however be to recognise what the rhythm will sound like as a whole, and therefore be able to perform the rhythm far more proficiently.

A minimally skilled auditor in the words of Darrel L. Waters can “recall rhythm or tonal patterns if they are simple and repeditive”, while a highly skilled audiator gives “syntactical meaning” to the music he hears. This means that our highly skilled audiator will be able to hear the rhythm in the mind first, then put it into practice. This makes it a lot more simple when rhythms become more complex, ie, when they start adding more notes on the high hat and bass drum. This may be the difference between talented students who can instantly recognise a written pattern and play it, and one who has considerable difficulty in doing so.

Helping students to gain skill in Audiation

A basic method of improving rhythmic audiational skill is to encourage students to sing. I have found that singing rhythmic patterns through any sort of nmenonic system works to increase students skill in reading rhythm at sight. Research by Palmer (1976), Siemens (1969) and Bebau (1982) clearly show that Mnemonics are as effective as traditional reading methods. I have used many methods, but I feel that a singing method which imitates the sound of the different instruments to be most effective. For example, if a student is having trouble learning a particular rhythm pattern, I sing it for them, and then encourage them to sing.

For this pattern, I would sing as follows:

basic rock drum rhythm

Recently, since learning about Gordon’s music learning theory, I have begun using much more copy – echo – response type of methods in my teaching. One of my main methods is this, which I have called the “KT Audiation method”

Step 1 : The teacher plays a rhythmical pattern, such as would be used for a “fill” in drum music, usually four beats in duration, and the student echo’s it.

Step 2 : The student plays a rhythmical pattern, and the teacher echo’s. The pattern played by the student is often completely out of time with the time feel, but the teacher then adapts the pattern, and puts it into time. This makes the student feel better about what he has just played, and understand what they are trying to play.

Step 3. The teacher and student engage in musical dialogue. (improvisational)

I believe that this procedure is helping my students develop Audiation skill, in the aural – oral domain, as the students are hearing, and therefore creating instantly sounds that are not present. I have a theory that this skill can be transferred to the visual – oral domain if it is taken in a balanced program.

Method and Testing

I have conducted a number of small tests in which I have tried to determine:

  • how much are abilities in reading a rhythm pattern are directly affected by Audiation?
  • does Audiation gained through the aural-oral method helps them audiate in “notational Audiation”?

I chose a sample of 8 Students with a significant variance of abilities and ages. This would probably have been a more accurate study if I had taken a larger sample that had a consistent amount of musical training but I decided against this, because I felt that it would be more valuable to assess a variety of Audiational skills. I videoed all of the tests.

To test my theory of wether the student is audiating the sound of a pattern, I decided to ask each of them to perform an unusual rock pattern, using only crotchets and quavers. I wrote a 2 Bar phrase that was not common, as it strayed away from the basic back beat of the snare drum. The phrase contained a number or elements that the student will recognise, and some that they will not. The first two beats they would have come into contact with, as well as the last two beats, however the middle they should not have come upon.

testing pattern

What I am attempting to test is their ability to audiate the sounds in a logical way, ie their Recall, Prediction and conception of the pattern. Most of the drum students should be able to recognise the first two beats and the last two beats as familiar patterns, using recall. The ability to audiate the sound of the two bars as a whole is going to need prediction and then conception of the pattern as a whole before it can be put into practice.

My hypothesis is that a student with a good skill in Audiation will be able to predict the sound of the rhythm, and thus be able to perform it accurately after a couple of trys, but the poor audiator will not be able to hear the rhythm in his or her mind.

To give the student the impulse to audiate I gave them the instruction “Take your time – look at the rhythm first and play it through in your head, count it aloud to yourself if you wish”.

The students who were able to play this rhythm well, I asked to “groove” on the rhythm, that is, to add fills and phrasing where they wished. This is one of the fundamentals of drumming : keeping the rhythm intact, while adding phrasing, and it is also a skill that Audiation is necessary.

The second part of the test was to use the “KT Audiation method” described earlier to try and familiarise them with the rhythm patterns, and increase their Audiational skill. This also could have been achieved much better if it had been taken over a longer time frame than one lesson, but I felt that I would find just how successful my method is.

I played the following rhythms to them, asking them to echo me, on whatever sound sources they wished.

testing audiation patterns

These rhythms are all taken from the source material from the first pattern. This is nothing different from the way I have been teaching most of these students, so they should not really associate this activity with the first task. The exercise initially involved only one sound source, and after a few times, I introduced other sound sources, including mixing between snare and bass drums, as the rhythms exist in the testing material.

I then asked them to make up a similar rhythm, and I would copy them.

The final stage, to see if their Audiational skill had improved due to the call and response exercise, was to give them this pattern:

testing pattern

This is actually the same rhythm as before, but it is displaced by two beats.


The students showed a variety of results as follows:

Student Recall Pre Test Post Test Improvement
A Y 7 9 2
B N 5 5 0
C N 3 4 1
D N 6 7 1
E Y 8 9 1
F N 3 3 0
G Y 6 9 3
H N 4 4 0

The first Column Recall states wether or not the student recognised the elements that they already knew from other exercises. This tended to reflect the length of time the student had been learning.

I decided to give the students a couple of attempts at the first exercise, without any help. The next two columns shows the students improvement as they sort through the elements. This also gives us an indication of whether the student is a good audiator, as he or she will naturally improve.

The Post-Test column shows us the rate of success at the second exercise. As you can read from the table 5 out of the 8 students showed an improvement between the 1st attempt and the post-test result.

The last column shows the level of improvement between pre-test (1st attempt) and the Post-test result.

Analysis of results

While 5 of the 8 students showed an improvement between the pre-test and post-test, the link is fairly weak, because of the inaccuracies of the testing procedure. It is certainly true that the students improved between the two exercises, but it is difficult to know wether they would have improved that much anyway over the course of learning the pattern.

While 4 out of the 8 of the students recalled the familiar elements of the pattern, there was only a small link to the facility of the students to predict the sound of the unfamiliar elements.

While it is shown that most of the students have improved in the one lesson test, it is possible that the students may have improved this much anyway, through learning in the traditional sense.

The Test Re-visited

I re-tested the students four weeks after the original test. In this time they had received two lessons, in which we engaged in normal lesson activities. Generally, a typical lesson will include approximately 10 minutes creative activity, in which I have been continuing learning syncopated type rhythms as are present in the testing material.

Six of the Eight students have shown an improvement between the last attempt in the initial test, and the final result. This however, is a fairly poor indicator of progress, as I used a number of methods which helped them produce a successful performance of the pattern, including singing the pattern, counting aloud, and using direct imitation, ie asking them to copy exactly the rhythm pattern as I performed it.

Questions for further research and analysis:

Is the recall element of audiational skill a good indicator of skill in the area of prediction and conception?

Does the echo and response exercise really result in increased Audiation skill?

How do students who have been taught with creative methods compare with students who have been taught with traditional methods when they reach an advanced level?

Is teaching basic rhythm reading enough for students to become really good readers when playing drum kit?


To play the drum kit, a large amount of basic musical skill is required, despite the common jokes about drummers not being musicians!. Basically the principle that this research has led me to believe is this I do not teach students to play the drums, I teach them to play music. I think that this is they key to teaching percussion, and in fact can be applied to any instrumental instruction. I feel that there are a great many teachers who lose sight of this fact, through either teaching a large amount of irrelevant rhythm reading or teaching drumming through only visual methods.

[1] Found evidence of this with first question in survey “What texts and tutors do you use”. I found that the teachers who used creative type techniques also used music chart books with recordings ect.


Bebeau, Muriel J (1982) “Effects of traditional and simplified methods of rhythm-reading instruction” Journal of research in music education, 30, 107-119

Palmer, Mary (1976) “Relative effectiveness of two approaches to rhythm reading for fourth grade students. Journal of research in music education, 27, 149-162

Walters, Darrel L, “Audiation – the Terms and the processes” Readings in Music learning theory pgs 4 -11.

Walters. Darrel L “Skill learning sequence” Readings in music learning theory 12-25.

Please feel free to link to or credit this article in your research or scholarly paper. Copyright 1995 Kevin Tuck
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