The Working Percussionist (Pt. 1) “Hit the Streets”

By Dave Gerhart

For the past 13 years, I have been a lecturer at the Bob Cole Conservatory of Music @ CSU, Long Beach, and every semester my students ask me what it takes to succeed as a working percussionist. Now that it is April and the semester is coming to an end, I thought I would include some of those thoughts here and ask the DrumChattr community to add their feedback about this topic in the Chattr Section.

I strongly believe we need to create our own opportunities in order to “succeed” as a working musician. Sure, some of us are going to win a Symphony audition or be at the right place at the right time, but more likely, you are going to have to work hard, practice a lot, meet and connect with people and hustle any gig you can get. One of the first things I recommend is to start a private lesson studio and offer your services to school districts and drum lines. Start developing a relationship with the local schools in your area. Offer to do a masterclass (for free) in exchange for passing out your business card or a flyer. Once you have secured some students, make sure you have somewhere to teach. Be sure you have all equipment that is needed as well as handouts, practice pads, metronomes, pencils, a mirror and anything else you need for the lesson. Remember that first impressions are important and if you look unorganized, the student (or their parents who are paying for the lessons) will find someone else. Create a good learning environment at your studio. This space will not only be used for lessons, but it is YOUR practice space too. Make it a place where you want to spend time. Hang your diploma, some photos, banners or inspirational items.

OK, now that you have set-up your private lesson studio, it is time to “hit the streets” and get some gigs. Over the years, the stress has been placed on playing the most incredibly difficult four mallet marimba solo or SD etude. Don’t get me wrong, I think it is very important to learn these pieces for listening, developing musicality and stretching your technical ability, but if you can’t play V-I (in tune) on a timpani or play a suspended cymbal roll properly, it won’t matter how well you can play “Merlin,” you will be sitting at home wondering why the phone isn’t ringing. If I look back at the last 10 symphonic/chamber/church gigs that I have played, I haven’t touched a marimba and I would venture a guess that this is true for most of our members in the community. (Note: I am not counting any University related performance. I am talking about professional, paid gigs).

With that being said, here’s my list of a couple suggestions for succeeding on your next gig:

AKA “It is important to know how to…”
1) …play V-I on timpani in all keys
2) …play cymbal rolls in the correct place (from one phrase to another, at a key change or at the climax of a piece)
3) …play steady time with a shaker
4) …play some grooves on congas or djembe
5) …know some basic “Rock and Roll” tambourine technique (especially for a church gig)

Lastly, I think it is important to own good equipment. I know it is difficult to go out and buy the most expensive equipment while you are in college, but I would recommend that you start early and try to accumulate equipment as soon as possible. Remember that birthdays and holidays are good times to ask for equipment. A good “starter” list would include:

1) Tambourine
2) Triangle and Beaters
3) Good Mallets (Showing up on a timpani gig with mallets that look like they are falling apart is not a good idea)
4) Suspended Cymbal (17″ – 19″) and Stand (with felts, washers and plastic sleeve)
5) Djembe or Congas

These lists are in no particular order. Am I forgetting something? What do you recommend to your students? Leave a comment in the Chattr Section.

In Part 2 of this series, I will address how to start building a web presence for your personal brand.