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In this article, I’m going to address five different scenarios to start drumming at any age. In my many years as a percussion instructor, private teacher, and ensemble director, I have worked with beginners ranging in ages from ages 5-55, all with varying degrees of success.
For the drum teacher, there are no two questions that get asked more than any other:
- At what age should my child start drum lessons?
- I’ve always wanted to learn to play the drums, is it too late to start?
The answers to both are straightforward.
You can start drumming at any age as long as you simply begin and stick with it.
However, when looking into different types of formal study and the responsibilities inherent within specific age ranges, the answers can be a bit more complicated.
Five Scenarios for Beginning Drumming at Any Age:
- The Elementary School Beginner Drummer
- Beginning Toddler or Younger Child Drummer
- Adolescent or Late Teen Beginner Drummer
- Adult Beginners Drummer
- Senior Beginner Drummers
You will find that each group will contain its own set of challenges and advantages, but the one constant will be the commitment needed to become a successful percussion student.
Drum Corps International Hall of Fame Legend Thom Hannum states in his book “Championship Concepts for Marching Percussion“:
“…and finally, above all else, your mental commitment to excel will determine how fast and how far you will progress. This commitment is your ability to focus on specific guidelines, evaluate your level of achievement, and make adjustments when necessary. Be willing, listen to your instructors, and heed their advice.”
Now let’s look at the first of our five scenarios and age groups:
1. Elementary School Beginner Drummer
Although this is not the youngest possible age one can begin, it is the most common, and for many reasons, the one that is the most practical way to start a formal study.
Elementary School band and percussion lessons offered in most public and private schools are generally the most common way drummers and percussionists get their start. School Band, Orchestra or “one on one” lessons usually begin in 4th-5th grade or equivalent (8-9 years old).
Three main things for this age range:
- Focus on fundamentals: technique, reading, and musicianship
- Snare drum or pad study is also accompanied by learning bells or xylophone.
- Instruments are provided by the school or a “rental” program.
The standard instrument for the elementary school percussionist will be a “bell kit” consisting of the following:
- Snare Drum, Pad or both with a stand
- Bells with a stand (or interchangeable with Snare Stand)
- Method Book
- Music Stand
- Carrying Case
Vic Firth “Educational Kits” are an excellent option for the elementary age percussionist.
Elementary Band or private lessons will provide an excellent foundation for Middle and High School Band Programs that allow the student to check out some of these options that might interest them:
- Percussion Ensemble
- Jazz Band
- Marching Band or Indoor Drumline
- Stage or Show Choir Band
- “Pit Band” or theatre work
- Mallet Instruments such as Marimba, Xylophone, Vibraphone (“Vibes”)
- Drumset Studies
For many years, middle school would be the age range that teachers and music programs would introduce drumset after the student had shown a strong understanding of the basic percussion fundamentals taught in elementary school. Nowadays, this is not always the case with a lot of young students starting on drumset (sometimes as young as 3 or 4 years old).
There is nothing wrong with either school of thought, as all students have different aptitudes and learning styles. For those starting on drumset, it does, however, ask the question:
What is a good first drumset to provide for my child?
There are many options, but one must consider a few factors as this could be a significant investment. Budget is the primary consideration as drumsets are not always inclusive. You will need to factor in all of the following, a lot of which is sold separately:
- Cymbals- Hi Hat, Ride Cymbal, 1-2 Crash Cymbals
- Stands- Snare Drum, Tom (possible), Hi-Hat and 2 Cymbals Stands
- Bass Drum Pedal
- Drum Throne or Stool
- Heads (likely if buying a new kit)
- Cases (optional but always a good idea)
Other factors to consider when shopping around is the age and size of your child. If purchasing a small or “junior kit”, they might outgrow it in a couple of years, and you’ll need to upgrade.
All of the Major Drum manufacturers offer entry-level or “student” model kits that are very affordable. These manufactures include:
- DW (and PDP)
You can often find great deals on used drumsets in places such as eBay, Craigslist, Free Share, etc.
Current tonight show and The Roots drummer, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, has designed two excellent kits for Ludwig with the beginner in mind that are affordable and of good quality:
- The “Pocket Kit” for 4-10 year olds that is all inclusive.
- The “Breakbeat Kit” a compact kit for drummers of all levels
Again, percussion study does not have to be with a drumset. There are specific physical and co-ordination challenges that some students are not ready for at the onset of their education. This is all OK! The focus can be on the hands-on a snare drum or pad or other areas of percussion and drumset studies can begin when the student is ready.
2. Beginner Toddler Drummer
In recent years there have been many programs offered to pre-school aged children that will engage interest in music and percussion at a young age. These are generally group music or “rhythm” classes in which most times, a parent will also participate.
I’ve found that even the most talented and prodigious of children under eight years old (or 3-4 grade equivalent) might find it challenging to sit for 30-45 minutes for a formal lesson and also have the discipline to commit to several practice sessions between each meeting.
- Classes such as “Rhythm Buddies” (offered at Indian Hill Music in Littleton, MA where I teach) provide a relaxed, hands on, group experience in which young children can explore all of the percussion instruments and basic rhythms.
- Kindermusik classes have proven quite popular over the years with the opportunity for children as young as birth through age seven. These classes use ‘the power and joy of music- making to help learn and grow during the years most critical to brain development.”
- Local Public Libraries or Community Centers often provide very affordable (or even Free!) music classes and programs for young children.
Any of the options listed above are all great ways to expose children to the joys of playing the drums and music-making, but you can also foster a love of music from your own home.
- Listen to a wide variety of music, focus on things that they enjoy. Ask questions about what instruments do they hear? What do they like?
- Bang or clap rhythms on toy drums or kitchen items
- Dance, clap and “find the beat” to their favorite music
- Call and response: Sing or Clap a rhythm and have them play it back
Our Children loved Disney’s “Little Einsteins” series. This series does a great job of providing entertaining content for young children based upon classical music and art. To this day, they can recognize excerpts of Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” and Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” thanks to Little Einsteins.
The main thing to remember with this age group is to keep it FUN and avoid pressure- especially if your child shows real promise or interest. I have seen many promising students start formal lessons too soon and sadly lose interest. It’s OK not to rush things. Keep them interested, and when the time is right, they will be ready for the next level of instruction.
Although she did show promise at a very young age, my oldest daughter did not begin formal lessons until 4th grade with another teacher in her elementary school band program.
I did show her basic things to play on the drumset as early as four years old, but I did not start the formal process until she expressed she was ready for lessons. This proved to be very successful as she became a focused student (thanks to her great teacher) and has a general love of music and drumming that was not derived from unrealistic expectations or pressure.
Again, all children are different, and this is what worked best for her.
3. Adolescent or Late Teen Drummer
Although these students did not have the advantage of being involved in a regimented lesson or school band program for elementary school, frequently, they are coming from another instrument or have shown a strong passion for music.
These students develop interest from seeing church bands, local garage bands with friends, video games like Guitar Hero or Rock Band, or through family friends or relatives that are musicians.
I played Violin first, then Cello, and then picked drums entering my freshman year of High School when I joined the Marching Band (Kind of hard to march around with a Cello!).
I also grew up in a musical family where my sisters played the violin, and my older brother played the drums. It helped that I was exposed to all of this at a young age.
Although I was behind a lot of my peers in percussion techniques after starting drums at 14, I did have an excellent understanding of melody, time and dynamics that eventually led to me always approach the drums from a musical standpoint.
I also had come up through the elementary and middle school orchestra programs and had private lessons, so I was aware of the commitment involved with studying an instrument.
I took to the drums very quickly as I was very motivated to put the time in to excel and was soon a member of the Wind Ensemble, Jazz Band and Show Choir Band in addition to the Marching Band and Orchestra.
This provided an excellent foundation for a lifetime devoted to studying the drums and teaching and playing professionally.
Some of the most famous drummers and innovators in the world today were also either “late bloomers” or originally started on another instrument.
Longtime drummer for The Black Crowes, Steve Gorman, did not formally start playing drums until age 22 after he joined his first band.
Contemporary Jazz and Electronica great Mark Guiliaa did not begin drums until age 15. One of the most innovative drummers in the world today, Mark, was able to form his sound in a relatively short period.
Dave Grohl originally played guitar but switched to drums in High School and continued to be in garage bands until he started to gain notice in the punk rock band Scream. His natural ability on both instruments would lead him to work in two of the most successful rock bands of all time in Nirvana and Foo Fighters.
Often for the late beginner and the next two age groups, the following question will arise:
How important is it that I read music?
Well, any professional musician would tell you it’s essential as it’s a significant part of your overall musicianship just as literacy is critical to learning a new language.
However, it’s understandable that “Late Bloomers,” Adult and Senior beginners may have some aversion to learning to read due to time commitment in addition to the time already put aside to learning the mechanics of the instrument.
Some may have great ears for music, and after years of developing their ears listening to music and possibly teaching themselves to play, learning to read could feel like a step backward.
I always like to make the analogy that music is indeed a language, and just like you learned to speak before you could read or write, eventually, your literacy skills caught up to your verbal giving you complete mastery of the language.
For most, playing by ear and intuition will be faster than their reading, but students of any age and ability level should have a general knowledge of the following:
- Note values and rests
- The Staff, leger lines, space and note names
- Treble and Bass Clef
- Notation for drumset (usually in place of notes on the Staff)
- Basic Melody and Harmony
For the beginner drummer looking to read and understand basic rhythms, Ted Reed’s “Syncopation for the Modern Drummer” is a great resource.
Also, for the beginner, who has a love of John Bonham or Neil Peart, A transcription book (Amazon Link) containing some of their favorite music is a great way to get comfortable with reading drum notation and charts.
4. Adult Beginner Drummer
Adult Beginners are often drum teachers’ most enjoyable and insightful students. Although most have not had any formal lessons (or once studied formally and stopped), they bring along a lifelong passion for music and with them with the enthusiasm of bringing a “dream” to realization. This can often be incredibly rewarding and inspiring for the teacher as well.
Adult Beginners usually fall into one or more of the following categories:
- Those who have always had a passion for music and drumming and are now seeking guidance.
- Those who had studied at some point as a youth and are looking to pick it back up again. (Technically not a “beginner” but they are starting fresh)
- Musicians who play other instruments that are now looking to either switch to the drums or gain some drumming skills to help their overall musicianship
- Working Professionals looking for a hobby or creative outlet outside of their daily working lives
For the adult beginner that is starting drums for the first time, motivation will not be a problem. Chances are they already making a living in another field and are willing to make both the financial commitment and time sacrifice in order to practice. They will most likely have an idea of what drummer or what style of music interests them, so it will be easy for the teacher to provide a framework to help achieve their goals.
For some, the goal will simply be to make music with others; this is a privilege to which those that have played in school or garage bands have had for years.
Luckily, there are many opportunities for the adult student to not only play with other musicians but to join a band someday themselves. Joining a band is something that I think all students should aspire to regardless of their amount of years they have been playing.
With some guidance and a right amount of practice, the adult beginner can quickly find themselves opportunities to play and connect with other musicians such as:
- Local Blues or Jazz Jams. These are hosted by a “House Band” that provides equipment and helps guide those sitting in (“jammers”) after the house band plays an opening set. “Jams” are friendly environments and give the beginner with an excellent opportunity to get the playing experience they need. It is also a unique opportunity to meet other musicians to meet and connect that could lead to other performing opportunities.
- Open Mic Nights. This is another excellent opportunity for those looking to play music with others. Often singers and songwriters use acoustic open mic nights as a way to “road test” their material or gain playing experience themselves. These are generally acoustic, and at a lower volume than Blues, Rock, or Jazz Jams, this is an excellent opportunity for experience playing with brushes, multi-rods or percussion such as Congas, Djembe or Cajon.
- Community Music Schools and Higher Education Continuing Ed Programs. Adult ensembles offered at both of these types of institutions are an excellent way for the adult student to gain playing experience at a level to which they are comfortable. One can gain college credit or enroll in a “certificate program” to which a certain number of ensembles, classes, and private lessons will be required to meet this requirement.
For the teacher, the approach and relationship with an adult student can be different than that of a school-aged one. It’s important to realize that there are different priorities for the working adult and that music may not always come first.
This does not mean that it’s any less important, instead the expectations will need to reasonable. The time management skills possessed by many working adults can play a significant role in coming up with a reasonable yet effective practice schedule.
A great analogy can be that of someone taking up a new sport, hobby, or skill (like learning a language) in their 20’s or 30’s. Although I never played any organized sports through high school or considered myself to be an athletic person, I learned to love running while getting in shape for drum and bugle corps in college.
Running fairly regularly became an interest I pursued casually in my 20’s which developed into a passion in my 30’s when I started running longer distances and trained for my first marathon- a feat that never would have seemed possible as a teen. This was a dream fully “realized” for ME.
I had no illusions that I would become a world-class or elite runner (I believe I was always outside the top 25% for my age group in races for many years), but I found the routine of having it as a regular, stress-free part of my life high enjoyable.
As a drum teacher, I liken a lot of my adult student’s passion for drumming akin to my running pursuits. I often learned as much from them about how to fit an enjoyable pursuit or hobby into a busy, priority filled lifestyle as they do from me about drumming.
For those adult students coming from another instrument, I find they have a tremendous opportunity to enhance their overall musicianship, and some may even find that playing the drums is their actual musical calling.
Two of the greatest Jazz drummers of all time, Art Blakey and Jack DeJohnette, started both of their professional careers as pianists before switching to the drums. Both of their highly musical, unique styles on the drums can directly be attributed to their formative years on another instrument.
Here is an excellent clip of Jack discussing how the piano has influenced his drumming:
Jack with Miles Davis 1970:
5. Senior Beginner Drummer
Although seniors may feel they are starting “too late” due to physical age or lack of experience, most have incredible focus, wisdom, and lifelong experience in other skills that can be easily applied to music and drumming. Some are even able to make it an excellent addition to their lifestyle.
One does not need to look further than the example of Grandma Moses, the famous artist who started at 76 years old. Moses initially started painting as a hobby to distract from arthritis and keep her busy after the loss of her husband.
She went on to become a renowned folk artist known for paintings of country life and was considered a highly successful artist whose pieces hang in some of the world’s most famous galleries.
Drumming and Rhythm classes also have numerous health and therapeutic benefits for seniors and are used widely in community centers and nursing homes. Benefits of drumming for seniors include
- Relief of stress, depression or anxiety
- Help with cognitive and motor skills
- Social Interaction with others
- Fostering a lifelong love of music
- Improving joint flexibility/arthritis relief
In Massachusetts, companies like Respectful Beats led by drummer Steve Benedetto offers workshops to retirement homes, and he has seen firsthand the positive health benefits it has to its members.
For the teacher, working with and having a relationship with seniors can be extremely rewarding as well. For what percussive expertise and knowledge you bring, it is often met with gratitude and also shared wisdom.
For example, as a Jazz Musician, working with those who lived and experienced the music in that era can be incredibly insightful. Many times, I have shown a student how to finally physically play something that they have heard for years only to be rewarded with a story or anecdote about seeing a long since passed drummer or Jazz Artist. Due to my age, this is an experience I would never be able to experience myself.
By looking at these five examples, I hope you now have a better idea of where either you or your child fall within this range of beginners.
As stated in the beginning, the most important thing is to begin and stay with it! Everything else is trivial. Any student can learn at any age with the right amount of commitment and guidance.
Master Jazz Drummer and author John Riley sum it up best here:
As John puts it, “The Gifted are the lucky few who have found something they are passionate about. So passionate that they are compelled to investigate whether someone else is interested in or not.”
I encourage you to follow your passion, investigate, and experience the joy of learning to play the drums for either you or your child.
Stay Healthy, Stay Busy, and I hope to see you out there!
Dave Fox is a drummer and educator located in the Boston area. He is Percussion and Jazz Department Head at Indian Hill Music Center in Littleton, MA and teaches percussion at MJ’s Music School in Waltham, MA. He performs nationally and abroad with three-time Grammy Award winner Tom Hambridge and his band The Rattlesnakes. He is a current member of The Stan Strickland/Josh Rosen Quaret, Boston Rock Legends The Stompers and The Gravel Project. When not performing as a sideman, he leads his own jazz group featuring Ken Clark on Hammond B-3 Organ, Bill Jones on Sax and Phil Grenadier on trumpet. He is an endorser of Vic Firth Drumsticks. You can find more about him here: www.davefoxdrums.com