In early 2014, my wife and I moved from the Phoenix area to San Jose, CA, and I soon discovered how difficult it is to survive as a full-time musician in a new city. Though I was playing drums in two rock bands, writing books and articles, and teaching private lessons (both Skype and in-person), the incredibly high cost of living in NorCal had posed a challenge. After putting my thinking cap on, I came up with a new idea to expand my teaching practice and to promote the art of drumming: after-school bucket percussion for young children. The program has since taken off in popularity and filled an important niche in the community. If you’re interested in starting a similar program in your neighborhood, the following information — best practices over the past two years — will hopefully prove helpful.
I first contacted a number of private schools close to my home. Two schools replied back and agreed to give bucket drumming a try: One World Montessori (OWM) and Achiever Christian Academy.
Why private schools?
- Familiarity — In Arizona, I had previously started percussion programs at a Jewish preschool and a K-8 charter school (where I taught third through eighth graders). Regular public schools may also be interested, but it can be hard to break through the red tape.
- Need — Oftentimes, music-related programs are in higher demand at private schools (and charters).
You would think that bucket drumming would be best suited for late elementary, junior high, and high school students. In fact, you see current examples of this across the US. Though percussion education obviously works well for all ages, youngsters (elementary age and younger) appear to be the ultimate bucket drumming patrons. After teaching K–4th graders at Achiever for one year — and watching the program just begin to take off — the school decided to stop offering enrichment programs through outside vendors like myself. In my first year at OWM, I taught students at the Primary level (ages three to six) at their San Jose location. Now in its second year, bucket drumming has expanded to include Primary in San Jose and both Primary and Elementary (preschool through third graders) in Santa Clara. I currently have 27 students total and the excitement continues to grow.
Even though I have six years of classroom experience at an elementary school, I was a little nervous at first about teaching large groups of extremely young children all at one time. It turns out that there was nothing to really worry about. Children at this age are surprisingly focused, malleable when it comes to technique, and very enthusiastic about learning music. A minimum of five and a maximum of 12 are a preferable number of students.
30 to 45 minutes is ideal. However, it’s necessary to split the time into many instructional pieces and to move quickly from one activity to the next. In the course of any one class, we do anywhere from five to 15 activities/songs.
Once a week seems to jibe with school schedules and keeps the price down for the parents. However, twice a week would also work well.
5-gallon buckets (yes, the kind that you can get at Home Depot or Lowe’s) are inexpensive (around $3 each), durable, and stackable. You can coax at least five disparate sounds out of the buckets, and they allow you to imitate a drum kit. (For more on bucket sounds, take a look at DIY: Turn Your Bucket Into A Drum Kit.)
Because they have been used for decades by street performers, buckets have a certain amount of street cred, though most young children are unaware of this. Buckets are non-intimidating for parents and other music teachers. In other words, because they are not considered “real” instruments, there’s no expectation for parents to have to sign their kids up for one-on-one lessons. Private music teachers also love it as their student improve rhythmic and melodic skills, while at that same time, there’s no worry of students switching over to buckets as their primary instrument.
I bring in two stacks of buckets: prepared (color-coded) along with plain (not color-coded). The plain buckets are used as the seats (drum thrones).
Some of the kids bring so much enthusiasm to the table that they can’t help but hit the drums really hard. This is a constant struggle, because when we play along with music — and if enough children are playing loudly — it can be hard to hear the accompanying track. To counteract this, we spend time on dynamic control and active listening exercises. Also, we use mute pads on top of each drum (see the article DIY: Homemade Mute Pads).
I invented muted sticks (see DIY: Padded Drum Sticks) to make the overall volume even more manageable and provide additional safety. We do a lot of stick clicking activities, which serve as a great way for the kids to stand up and develop hand-foot coordination. These sticks are classroom supplied, distributed with the mute pads before the activity starts.
Keeping with the household item theme, I’ve recently begun to incorporate plastic cups and Tupperware drums (see DIY: Tupperware Marching Drums). Plastic cups have become a popular percussion instrument since their use in the Anna Kendrick hit, “When I’m Gone.” Tupperware drums allow marching while playing (high cuteness factor here) and are extremely lightweight and quiet (unsharpened pencils are used as sticks). We’ve also used wrist/ankle rattles (with jingles) from time to time, especially around the holidays.
Besides drums, sticks, and various percussion implements, you will also need to invest in a big boom box (or small PA system) and carrying bags/cases when necessary (I use large duffle bags for the boom box & Tupperware drums and grocery bags for some of the smaller items). My boom box is Bluetooth enabled, which allows me to use my smartphone as a remote control device.
Price/Length Of Sessions/Requirements
I charge around 40% of my private drum lesson fee, which turns out to be $15 per class per child. The money is received in full before each session begins. Shorter sessions are more financially digestible for the parents, while longer sessions allow the teacher to get more skills/concepts accomplished.
I also require each child to own a copy of Drumset For Preschoolers (for Primary) or Drumcraft (for Elementary). I recommend, but do not require, that parents also buy a practice pad, pair of sticks, and a bucket. This allows for the children to better practice at home.
End Of Session Performance
We have a final performance in front of family and friends. Since the program is growing exponentially in popularity, future plans are to do even more shows: retirement homes, hospitals, parades, festivals, etc. I volunteer my services for all of these additional events.
For the children — It helps if the kids are somewhat independent, can count to ten, know their basic colors, speak fairly well, and of course have some interest in music.
For the teacher — Though drum teachers would definitely feel most at home here, this job is something that any musician could do, especially if you have classroom experience. You need to be able to think on your feet, exhibit a lot of patience, positivity, energy, organization, and have a good sense of humor. It also doesn't hurt if you can be a little silly from time to time. Making the kids laugh is always a good idea. After all, this is about learning while having fun.
Most schools require that you go through a fingerprinting process. In California the service is called Live Scan. Also, you’ll likely need liability insurance to protect yourself and your small business. These costs are often your financial responsibility.
Not including driving to your location, it takes about one hour to set up and take down and sign the kids in and out. I spend about 30 minutes planning and another hour or more writing weekly mass email updates to the parents, detailing announcements, assignments, and weekly class accomplishments.
Drumming Up Interest
When you start a program such as this, it’s advisable to give some kind of assembly in front of the entire school a few weeks before the start date. Once you’ve drummed up their attention, you can better promote your bucket drumming class. Also, take advantage of all opportunities to present to parent groups.
This isn’t the kind of teaching where you simply wing it. Both of my books, Drumset For Preschoolers and Drumcraft, are designed with instructional objectives in mind. Whether you use these books, other curriculum, or design your own, I strongly recommend that you have a plan in place.
Clear communication with administration, teachers, staff, students, and parents is the key to any successful after-school enrichment program.
Preschool classrooms (especially of the bucket drumming variety) might appear to be a little chaotic at first glance. A couple of children seek negative attention; one child chooses to not participate; another is likely talking to themselves; while the rest might be on task and completely engaged. Stay positive as much as possible. Provide specific praise when warranted, implement a routine as much as possible, and develop a quiet signal. When something goes awry or a child loses their focus, remember that they are extremely young. Choose your spots wisely and take advantage of calm, one-on-one interactions.
At the Primary level, we do a combination of songs, games and activities out of Drumset For Preschoolers, and simplified arrangements of pop and children’s music (also described in the book). At the Elementary level, we do simple patterns/rudiments, reading, writing, and playing rhythms (from the beginning portion of Drumcraft), accenting, and playing along to pop music. To get a better idea of how to transform buckets into a drum kit vibe, check out this YouTube playlist: