Teaching Young Children

Time-Tested Advice for Getting Them Going at an Early Age

by Jeff Salem

Nothing is more exciting than watching new students enter my teaching studio for the first time and seeing them react to all the drums, cymbals, percussion, and posters. It’s like a candy store for them—they want to indulge and eat it all up.

The first meeting with a potential young student and his or her family is crucial and can be the catalyst for a short- or long-term relationship. In my twenty-plus years of teaching I’ve derived great satisfaction and enjoyment from working with students of all ages. This article contains the steps I’ve taken to get the most out of lessons for younger students.

When teaching a beginner student, it’s important to start with a basic evaluation. You don’t want to waste the parents’ time and money if the child just wants to run around the studio and hit things. Keep the evaluation process fun so that you can keep the attention of the child. Potential students might be very shy and nervous at first, so I ask a lot of questions about why they want to play drums, what kinds of music they like, their favorite sports and food, and so on. I find that this interview process is a nice icebreaker, even if I’m doing all the talking.

Next I have students clap a basic pulse of quarter notes along with me. The goal is to see if they can keep a steady beat and count to four. If they can do that, I’ll play some simple rhythms on a djembe or conga while they continue to clap and count. I count along with them at first, but after a few bars I’ll stop counting and just play. When I stop drumming, I’ll ask them to tell me what number I stopped on. This test gives me a good indication of how focused they are, and if they will be able to maintain a steady beat. If all goes well, I give students a djembe and try some simple call-and-response patterns. If they show potential, we move to the drumkit.

If things aren’t going as planned and I feel the student doesn’t show much interest, I’ll suggest that the parents sign up for a program that offers group lessons. Many art and music schools offer lessons for young children that focus on singing, storytelling, dancing, and simple hand drumming.

Another option is to encourage the parents to wait six to twelve months and re-examine their child’s interest and maturity level. I’ve found the development that a three- or four-year-old child goes through every three months is almost equivalent to a year for young adults. The bottom line is that you always want to do what’s best for the student and parents. I welcome young students if I feel that they’re ready and would benefit from one-on-one private lessons. At this age level the private lesson should not exceed thirty minutes.

One of the biggest challenges of teaching small children is getting them to sit comfortably behind a full-size drumkit. There are a lot of drum companies making child-size sets with small thrones, which are ideal for the students to use at home. In my teaching studio, I have them play on a small five-piece kit that has an 18″ or 20″ bass drum, 10″, 12″, and 14″ toms, and a 14″ snare. Usually I have smaller students bring their own throne if they have one.

I lower the hi-hats, cymbals, and toms, and I angle the snare and toms toward the student fairly extremely, which makes it easier for the students to reach the drums. When they grow a bit, I change the angles back to a more normal playing position to avoid developing bad playing techniques.

Some students have a hard time reaching the pedals with both feet, so I often loosen the hi-hat clutch and lock the cymbals in a closed position. This will allow them easier access to the bass drum pedal. If they still can’t reach the bass drum pedal, I work with them on grooves that use the floor tom to mimic the bass drum.

Getting Started
Once the student is comfortable behind the drumset, I introduce all the parts of the kit and compare them to family members. For example, the bass drum is dad, the snare drum is mom, the toms are brothers and sisters, and the cymbals and hi-hats are relatives and friends. I explain how the goal of playing this instrument is to have all the family members and friends get along in a rhythmic way.

I have students begin by playing beats 1 and 3 on the floor tom and 2 and 4 on the snare along to some music. We usually play along with a song of their choosing or to one of the many songs minus drums that I have stored on my laptop. We do this for ten to fifteen minutes. Even if students can’t move beyond the floor tom and snare, they’re having fun grooving to a song.

The next step is to replace the floor tom part with the bass drum. If the student can do that, then we add the hi-hat. I start with a basic quarter-note beat with the kick on beats 1 and 3 and the snare and hi-hats on beats 2 and 4. I say “alone” when I hit the bass drum and “together” when I hit the hi-hat and snare. As the student plays, I have them say “alone, together, alone, together” instead of counting to four.

I end lessons by filming a clip showing me demonstrating the lesson material and them performing a beat along to a tune. It’s always fun to see the look on their faces when they watch themselves playing. Before they leave the lesson, I give them a homework assignment to write down five songs that they want to learn. Even if one of the songs is very advanced, we can still jam to it by playing basic quarter notes.

Building Rhythmic Vocabulary
I perform many drum circles at day-care centers and schools. The easiest way I get students to memorize rhythms is to relate them to food. For quarter notes, I say “fries” or “grapes,” 8th notes could be “hotdog,” “ice cream,” or “pizza,” and 16th notes could be “watermelon,” “peanut butter,” or “pepperoni.” An 8th note and two 16ths could be “pineapple” or “hamburger.” Two 16th notes and an 8th note could be “apple pie” or “cherry pie.” Many times I have students tell me their favorite foods from each food group, and we build grooves and fills around those words. A great word rhythm a four-year-old student taught me was “mashed potatoes.” I phrased it as a dotted 8th followed by a 16th note and two 8th notes to create a fun calypso groove.

I introduce reading to young students when they’re comfortable playing simple beats and fills by memory. I use different color highlighters to represent different parts of the kit. The “x” for cymbals is highlighted in yellow, a crash cymbal has a circle around it, and the ride cymbal notes have a line through them. The bass drum notes are highlighted blue, the snare is orange, tom 1 is green, tom 2 is pink, and the floor tom is purple. Over time I remove the colors and have the students read the notation in traditional form. After a year or two, most students are reading basic notation.

As you work on reading with young students, remember to keep the lesson fun and reward them when they’ve accomplished something. I give out stickers, posters, sticks, banners, and the like.

Some students enjoy having their parents sit in during the lessons, while others have a more independent streak. For three- or four-year-old kids, I usually have the parents be part of the lessons so that they can learn the material and then assist when their child is practicing at home. I usually have one or two lessons a month when I ask the parents to sit outside so I can see how the student responds. When the parents sit out of the class, I make sure to record the homework assignment so everyone knows what’s expected to be practiced and prepared for the next lesson.

Jeff Salem is a Canadian musician, educator, and clinician. For more on him and his teaching business, JS Music Studio, visit jsmusicstudio.com and drumsinu.com.