Looking Back On A Decade In Percussion

Percussion Trends Of The Tens

Penchants & Proclivities In Percussion

From The First Decade Of The New Millenium

It has been a quick decade, hasn’t it? It seems like only yesterday that we were all stocking-up on provisions and ammunition in preparation for Y2K. Okay, maybe that was just me. In any event, a new year and a new decade tend to bring with them a desire to look back and see where we’ve come from, at least in part to try and see where we’re going.

It has been almost 30 years since the publication of John Naisbitt’s original Megatrends, and 40 years since Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock and the birth of the modern futurist movement. Since then, guessing what might come next, based on what has come before, has become a pretty popular pastime. As Mark Twain is said to have pointed out, “Making predictions is difficult, especially about the future.” But then, another wise (albeit fictional) man named Tony Stark told us that “predicting the future is cool.”

It is in the latter’s spirit that we have undertaken to poll some of the movers and shakers in the percussion industry to get a look at what the trends of the last decade (or so) have been, mostly in percussion, but also in the wider world of drums and music in general.

We talked to performing and recording musicians, educators, authors, manufacturers, drum group organizers, music business theorists, and music vendors – in short, as varied a group of folks as we could find that represent the drum and percussion industry. What they had to say shines a light on a field that has grown in both complexity and focus over the last ten years, and is poised to take us on a whole new identity in the days, and decades, ahead.

Education, Therapy & Recreation

The first trend is perhaps the most obvious one, a category that has been growing for a much longer period than the last decade, but has maintained steady and sustained growth since the early 2000s: More people, of more diverse backgrounds and ages, of both genders, are playing drums than ever before. They are playing drums as an avocation, as a means to attain emotional wellness, to foster inter-cultural learning, and for team-building purposes.

Ed Roscetti, L.A. studio drummer and percussionist, composer, author, and educator/facilitator, correlates a growth in drumming with an upward trend in the wellness movement in general – a means to reconnect with people in a truly interactive way: “I see a trend in drumming that is very therapeutic, bringing people together of all age groups, playing in large or small groups. Working together on communication and building a rhythmic vocabulary within the ensemble can profoundly influence other aspects of life. Drumming and being open to the groove provides a powerful alternative to technology, getting people to step away from the computer and all digital devices for a moment to interact face to face and communicate in the language of rhythm.”

While it’s been several decades since the initial “Thunder Drumming” drum-circle movement, Ryan Bennett, co-owner of Drumskull Drums, a custom African drum manufacturer in Santa Cruz, California, sees the same trend that Roscetti does. He adds that there has been a lot of growth in the seriousness of the therapeutic and recreational players, in terms of their willingness and desire to learn traditional, authentic rhythms – we have come a long way from weekend warriors in loin-cloths banging away gleefully in the woods with no musical concept whatsoever, attempting to get in-touch with their primal selves.

“The major trend – Thunder drumming/drum-circle drumming – has lost steam,” says Bennett, “and has moved toward a focus in serious studies around the tradition of the instruments. In essence, education has grown and the consumer has become educated. You can see this in the loss of popularity with instruments such as ashikos and gain in popularity of quality djembes.”

Perhaps most importantly, the passion that drum circles helped foster has since galvanized into distinct pathways, like the rise of ethnic studies in school music programs. Unfortunately, budget cuts throughout the entire education system have put those studies at risk. But Bennett is confident that once funding resumes, so too will the educational trends that have helped bring traditional percussion to its current form.

The growing interest in traditional studies isn’t just limited to schools, however; it’s also had a measurable effect on popular music in general. “A great example of this is Ben Harper’s percussionist, Leon Mobley,” says Bennett, “who found his start studying traditional djembe. Fifteen years ago you saw guys starting to mix ethnic instruments into pop music. These days, pop music often finds its base spawning from an ethnic sound.”

On the other side of the communal interest in traditional percussion is the growth in self-study, facilitated by easy access to quality players and teachers through DVD’s and, especially over the last ten years, videos available on the Internet. While percussionists and set players from earlier generations were familiar with the ritual of wearing an LP record or cassette tape out from continuously reviewing a groove or lick, the now widespread availability of digital formats has greatly simplified that process. And that’s been a great thing for players of all levels.

“Educational DVD’s have become very prevalent,” says performer, author, and educator Jim Linsner. “This has enabled many drummers to become better players. As a matter of fact, I think this has raised the bar on the whole art! I think the only ones who suffer from this DVD boom are the private teachers. Why would you pay for a weekly lesson when you can get a lesson from Steve Smith or Dennis Chambers and watch it as many times as you want?”

While many private teachers might disagree with Linsner’s assessment of the state of drum education, the popularity and plethora of instructional videos are beyond dispute.

Danny Frankel, New York City—based drummer and percussionist, sees a convergence of the recreational, therapeutic, and educational strands in the percussion world. “There’s an awareness of everything being connected,” he says. “For example, a percussionist will learn snare drum rudiments and tabla technique, as well as tai chi and eating well and keeping healthy.”

Frankel has also identified one of the most encouraging aspects of this new percussive playing field. “In this era of vanishing record companies, the live show is intact. I’ve experienced as a performer and audience member that there’s an emphasis on the live show – still happy and healthy.”

Real Healing Power

Jim Donovan, percussionist, educator, facilitator, author, founder of multiplatinum worldbeat band Rusted Root, and Drum! Magazine’s “2008 Drum-Circle Facilitator Of The Year,” has shifted his perspective from hanging with the stars to collaborating with students. He sees a distinct upswing in education/therapeutic trends.

“Having had the opportunity to see the industry from both the performing side and the teaching/therapeutic side, I’d have to say that one of the most exciting developments in the drumming industry is the progress and acceptance we’ve had using drumming and percussion as a mainstream tool to bring people together. For me, witnessing the expression on a child's face as they realize they have a place at the table in a musical experience, regardless of their ability, is more deeply satisfying than it was playing in front of 500,000 people at Woodstock ’99.”

Most drummers, says Donovan, have energy and a natural passion that allows them to connect with others on a fundamental plane. “When we combine that excitement with a format that empowers individuals to be co-creators of music, we've re-discovered what our great grandparents knew about music. Stop worrying about being ’the best’ musician and just get together with each other and play.”

No one understands that edict more than Eddie Tuduri, a drummer and percussionist from Carpinteria, California, who followed an age-old trend – he took a negative, blasted it with open strokes and hammered it into a positive. Tuduri had toured with the likes of The Beach Boys and Rick Nelson, but a bodysurfing accident in 1997 ended his career as a touring performer. While recovering, he discovered the joy and the therapeutic focus that rhythm can bring. Since that time, Tuduri has built an organization, The Rhythmic Arts Project (TRAP), that has helped developmentally disabled children and adults to experience the healing power of music.

“We integrate drum and percussion instruments as creative learning tools that address life skills and enhance the mind, body, and spirit,” Tuduri explains. “TRAP’s primary objective is to promote the inclusion of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in all aspects of everyday life. We look forward to a world in which people of all abilities are treated with respect and dignity and are free to fully engage in the world around them.” Tuduri’s organization has served people all across the U.S., as well as Bulgaria, Syria, Canada, Australia, and South America. How’s that for a positive trend with global significance?

A Dancing Drum community drum circle at the 8th annual Rhythmic Arts project benefit concert in Santa Barbara, California, June 13, 2010

Biz Buzz

There has been a tremendous proliferation of new products and the companies that create them in just the last ten years. The quality and availability of entry-level instruments has grown along with high-end custom offerings, allowing a larger and more diverse consumer base to find their entry point.

Not everyone sees this trend as positive, however. Paul Musilli, owner of Buffalo Drum Outlet, a Five-Star drum shop in Buffalo, New York, views the new market field with some suspicion. “As far as consumers go, brand-name preference is not nearly as prevalent,” he says. “Proliferation of brands means that now there are about 15 to 20 major hand percussion manufacturers, whereas formerly there were maybe three or four. The quality of lower-priced instruments is going up, so the trend is to spend less. The ’low end’ is where everyone is buying. This sounds good to consumers looking for a good buy, but overall, it’s not really great for the sustainability of the industry; it makes it hard to stay in business.

“Certain major music-store chains have created a climate where ’selling units’ is the norm. It pits quality against quantity. You could call it the ’Walmartization’ of the drum industry. We don’t see it as a good thing.”

Drumskull’s Ryan Bennet understands this trend well, but doesn’t necessarily feel that the future of the hand-drum industry is in immediate danger. “I think it's fair to say that hand percussion is like anything else: As time goes, things get more defined. Quality becomes better. That is why when it comes to the industry of these instruments, you see a few companies that are ahead of the game.”

Karl Dustman, of the Percussion Marketing Council and a member of the National Association Of Music Merchants’ (NAMM) Music Education Coalition, also notes expansion in the drum and percussion industry, and is banking on the continued uptick in education programs and experiences that will “hook” younger players long term.

“There are whole neighborhoods of drumming bands that have nothing more than five-gallon Home Depot plastic buckets,” says Dustman. “Each player is experiencing drumming and having true fun. Once they get bit by the ’percussion bug,’ they will want the real thing and become a player of some kind, hopefully for life.”

The Technological Revolution

The rapidly growing use of electronic instruments and their proliferation in the marketplace has been a sustained trend. As Dustman notes, “A happy coexistence between the acoustic and electronic percussion world has allowed many players to use both types of instruments for many different performing and recording applications.” Combining the sound stability and range of choices afforded by electronic instruments with the organic experience of making rhythm with the hands or sticks has been a continued priority for many manufacturers. This movement dovetails with the growth of the Internet as a resource for musicians in the areas of learning, self-promotion, access to percussion-related consumer goods, and even collaboration with other musicians worldwide.

While the “promise of the Internet” has fallen short of the utopia imagined by those of us eagerly anticipating each new technological advance in the early ’90s, it has definitely changed the game. Exactly what those changes are, and what they mean, seems to have a different interpretation almost daily.

“The end of the music business as we know it” has not meant much to most rank-and-file musicians, but one recent development that may have far-reaching effects on all musicians and consumers alike, not just percussionists, was highlighted in a recent comment by Moses Avalon (author of Confessions Of A Record Producer):

“Last week the data monitoring service Big Champagne brought a whole new meaning to the words ’chart buster’ when they announced that they intend to revolutionize the industry and give Billboard/SoundScan a run for their money. Their release of ’Ultimate Chart’ lit up the blogs – a hit chart that ignores traditional brick-and-mortar sales and instead aggregates data from electronic sources to determine what is truly the ’most popular’ music … The basic theme was how, in the new music business, will we evaluate a ’hit record?’ Does tracking a physical sale matter when consensus is that most music today is acquired illegally? Or as one of my readers put it, does an industry that is below the radar, still need the radar?”

The Internet will obviously continue to be a major influence on the music business as a whole, but the jury is still out on whether the positive attributes outweigh the negatives. DRUM! columnist Richie “Gajate” Garcia, a percussionist, drummer, clinician, and educator who has toured and recorded with top-name stars and done soundtracks for many of Hollywood’s blockbuster film soundtracks, feels that electronics, video, and the Web are combining with the educational aspect to bring about a sea-change in the world of percussion. His ideas synthesize comments made by Dustman, Frankel, and Bennet:

“What I am seeing is that more and more drummers are learning percussion and vice-versa. Doing this will hopefully open more work opportunities. Also, being that technology has made the world smaller and more accessible, drummers and percussionists are learning more about the music of other countries.”

But how does one go about putting today’s worldwide access and technological advantages to the best use?

“To me, learning first the styles of music that would be the most used within the music played in the U.S., like Latin music. Since there is a huge Latino population in the U.S., music in general has incorporated more and more of the Latin flavor as well as the Spanish language. Learning other ethnic music can also enhance the creativity of the composer and player.”

Other Important Trends

One prominent factor has been the mining of new demographics of players. While drums and percussion have traditionally been considered a “male” instrument group, that distinction is simply no longer valid. As Karl Dustman points out: “I see the female market for drums and drumming to be a goldmine of potential. Many are missing 50 percent of their market by ignoring the huge female populations that wants to learn and play drums. This does not mean pink drums for girls and ’real’ drums for guys. There are more women playing percussion professionally than ever before.”

Another trend is the surge of traditional percussion instruments in contemporary church worship services. Michelle Tennens, of the U.K.-based drum organization Psalm Drummers, shed some light on this phenomenon, as well as the trend toward more women playing percussion in church, as she described the situation in Great Britain. “In Christian worship, the drum is enjoying a renewed acceptance – both kit and hand percussion. People are discovering how powerfully rhythm can affect their music and expression of worship. In essence it has brought us full circle as the church rediscovers the instrument that was first used to call people and lead people in worship in the earliest biblical times.

“I find it significant that the first drummer (mentioned) in the Bible was a woman, Miriam, who took up her timbrel (a frame drum) and lead people in praise of God after the crossing of the Red Sea. Today we see women also returning to the instrument to bring a new dimension to the music and stir up a heartbeat that reflects ancient and modern worship in praise of God.”

Looking To The Future

By now you may be wondering about the lack of discussion of specific gear – either traditional acoustic percussion instruments, or the shiniest new electronic gizmo – in an article about trends in percussion. The simple fact is that no one we spoke to, from the manufacturing or artistic side, seemed eager to wade into those waters. The conversations instead focused more on conceptual and esoteric concerns.

This may be because, given the elemental nature of percussion, and its strong relationship to tradition, even gear innovations have followed behavioral trends, rather than the other way around. The explosion in popularity of cajons, for instance, seems to have been at least partly in response to more percussionists pulling double duty as drummers as bands tighten their belts to weather the downturn in the economy.

Which brings us to the least-happy trend of recent years. No doubt, those choosing a musical profession are facing some lean years ahead – just as musicians in the past have. In a recent article featured on the CBS MoneyWatch.com, the areas of music, art, education, and human services were forecasted among the “20 Worst-Paying College Degrees In 2010” (Lynn O'Shaughnessy; August 12).

While this “news” may deter some talented people from entering the field, based on the people we talked to, and our own experiences, the trend seems to be going in the exact opposite direction. Music will forever be a critically needed form of expression and communication, and people are just as drawn to it as ever. While the job description of “Percussion Star” is only “nice work if you can get it” for most of us, there is an obvious satisfaction in doing what you love, and finding ways to share it with others.

Market factors, job sustainability, and technological and demographic shifts aside, percussion is the oldest and most accessible form of musical expression on the planet. The power of the drum is here to stay. The rest is up to you. Here’s to the future.

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