Drum Set or Percussion for Music School?


By Daniel Weidlein

How do you figure out whether to focus on drum set or percussion for music school? 

Too often all of the percussion instruments (and the people that play them!) get lumped together in one oversized category. But the instruments themselves, and the styles in which they’re played, serve myriad functions across every genre of music. The similarities seem to end at the “hitting something” part. 

So how do you hone your focus amidst so many options? Here are a few ways to think about it.

Classical percussion

Classical percussion programs, such as the one at Temple University Boyer College of Music and Dance led by Phillip O’Banion, include focused study on individual drums (snare drum, timpani, bass drum), cymbals, and mallet keyboards (marimba, xylophone, glockenspiel). Mallet keyboards are especially important to a classical percussionist’s skillset, and something that you may not have been exposed to if you primarily play drum set or marching band drums. At Temple, part of the entry audition is an étude or solo on a keyboard percussion instrument, so prior experience is vital. 

Drum set

Outside of a classical focus, music majors at most schools focus on drum set, either in a jazz or popular music program. Many jazz programs also offer a vibraphone major, although that varies depending on the faculty. 

An important thing to note is that many jazz drum set majors are still required to take two years of private study with a classical teacher, as is the case in the jazz program at Temple. Classical percussionists, on the other hand, are encouraged to study drum set privately, but are typically not required to do so. With the rise of more and more popular music programs, there are also more options to study drums in pop, rock, and R&B styles.

Hand percussion, world percussion, and everything else

Some schools offer more specialized percussion majors. For example, the CalArts Herb Alpert School of Music offers undergraduate and graduate specialized majors in addition to more traditional jazz drums and classical percussion. In its World Percussion master’s program, CalArts students study African, North Indian and Indonesian percussion instruments as well as a host of instruments of other cultures. 

Other schools offer students the opportunity to perform in world music ensembles outside of their major. At Eastman School of Music, for example, undergraduate and graduate students are welcome to join gamelan and West African drumming ensembles. No prior experience is required. 

An example of a more specialized program is at Berklee College of Music. Berklee breaks its percussion students up into six principal instrument group categories: drum set, hand percussion, orchestral percussion, vibraphone, marimba, and steel pan. A student is required to pick (and audition for) their primary instrument, but there’s a lot of room to study other instruments through their Lab program which allows for hyper-specific group study in a wide range of stylistic categories (everything from Ghanaian drumming to frame drum ensembles to New Orleans brass bands). 

I play it all! How do I pick my major? 

The reality of being a working musician, especially a percussionist, is that you have to be able to do a lot of things well to make a living. An excellent example: theater drummers who play in Broadway-style pit sections. To get the gig, you likely need to be a good drum set player with great feel and time in many styles (jazz, rock, soul) and a good hand percussionist. You should also be comfortable enough with classical percussion instruments to cover a xylophone, triangle, or gong part. 

These days in recording sessions, you’re much more likely to get the gig if you can play all the different layers of percussion yourself – rather than the artist having to hire three or four separate musicians for each part. So unless you are fully dedicated to becoming a touring jazz drummer or the principal percussionist of a major orchestra, being a well-rounded percussionist is a highly-valuable skill. 

How to pick a focus

Yoron Israel, chair of the percussion department at Berklee, says the bottom line is that you should be focusing on the instrument/style that you’re most comfortable with. University-level music programs are competitive, so put your best foot forward. 

Seek out a program that allows you room to study other instruments and styles on the side. At Berklee, there are jazz drummers playing in the orchestras. At CalArts, there are classical percussionists playing in gamelan ensembles. Paul Romaine, drum professor at the University of Colorado Boulder College of Music, expects his students to compose and arrange their own music, with the belief that being able to write music undoubtedly makes you a better drummer and someone who “understands the music more completely.” 

Preparing for your audition

Schools vary so much in what they look for in percussion auditions. It’s therefore extremely important to do your research ahead of time and understand the specific requirements at each school.

Recently-admitted Berklee student Josh Baum suggests going on YouTube and checking blogs to see how current and former students from any school talk about their audition experiences. “[I was surprised] to find out that I was required to know music theory and singing [as part of my audition],” he says.

You’ll likely be locked into studying the instrument you auditioned on for at least the first two years. So pick something you’re passionate about, that you’re best at, and the instrument on which you want to further hone your craft.

Reach out to a professor you’re interested in studying with. Not only can they help clarify what will be expected at the audition, but you will also get a head start in establishing a connection that will be helpful if you choose to attend that school. Ask for a trial lesson in your junior year or fall of your senior year to learn more about how professors teach at schools you’re serious about.

No two schools are looking for the same pool of students, so find which programs and which professors resonate with you the most. And be sure to bring your passion for learning your instrument to your audition. 

Know that at most schools, your entrance audition is also a merit scholarship audition, so it behooves you to prepare well. 

Career options

Some of the many career opportunities for percussionists include:


• Back up bands

• Military bands

• Local and regional symphony orchestras and chamber groups

• Orchestras associated with ballet and opera companies

• Pit orchestras for theatre productions (drum set, hand percussion, mallets, and classical percussion all in one!)

• Recording drum set player

• Keyboard instruments such as glockenspiel, marimba, tubular bells, vibraphone, xylophone, steelpan

• Hand drum such as Middle Eastern frame drums, West African percussion, Afro-Caribbean percussion, South American percussion 

• Studio or session musician (free lance work playing on albums or compositions of other artists; playing on film music)

• Touring


• Band director

• Clinician and adjudicator 

• College-level

• K-12

• Private lessons

• Providing drum and percussion clinics for major instrument companies


• Composing and arranging

• Ethnomusicologist (studying and performing styles such as Balinese and Javanese music)

• Historian (reviving and performing older percussion styles) 

• Instrument technician

• Lecturing and writing on percussion topics

• Music therapist

• Working with music instrument, recording, retail or sheet music companies

Daniel Weidlein is a professional composer/songwriter, music producer at BioSoul Music, and multi-instrumentalist. He is a graduate of USC Thornton School of Music with a major in Jazz Saxophone Performance and minor in recording. 

Photo Caption: Drummer Josh Baum recommends finding out how each school you apply to helps its students access summer internships and work after graduation. Photo Credit: celebrateeverydayphotography.com

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