Percussion instruments are perennial favorites of both children and their teachers within any music education program. The variety of percussion instruments available for purchase by educators and parents is rivaled only by the wide range of such instruments that school groups and families can make from relatively simple materials.
Here is a summary of the fascinating history and educational uses of drums and other percussion instruments.
Why keeping the beat is important
Babies and young children love to shake, rattle, and roll a variety of musical instruments and common household items. The “aha!” instant when a young child discovers the ability to manipulate objects to make sounds can be a joyful and momentous one.
So rhythm instruments solve one perennial classroom problem: Ensuring an orderly environment conducive to learning while at the same time respecting young children’s innate need to make noise and enjoy movement.
While learning the words to a new song can be challenging and involve a great deal of memorization, making music with rhythm and percussion instruments is so simple that it can be enjoyed by children with a wide range of abilities.
For shy children, having a musical instrument in hand can increase their self-confidence as they join musical activities that demand only that they make noise.
One study after another has shown that learning to make music supports the full range of intellectual, artistic, social, and emotional development in young children.
Early education programs that make good use of rhythm and percussion instruments can be particularly helpful in strengthening spatial and kinesthetic awareness, as well as to develop young participants’ coordination.
Some simple examples of percussion in the classroom
You can instruct children to shake their rhythm instruments alternately high, low, to the left, and to the right, in front of themselves and behind their backs. Children can make the big motions that reinforce gross muscle development while shaking their instruments, or small movements that build fine motor skills.
Real-time verbal commentary (“Shake it to the left! Shake it to the right! Over! Under!”) adds another layer of language learning to the mix, while rhythm and music can help to anchor memories of new words in children’s consciousness.
Young musicians can easily learn to adjust their movements, ranging from vigorous shaking to delicate jingling, as they learn more about the concepts of “loud” and “soft.”
The history of drums reverberates to the present day
Civilizations throughout recorded history have made use of drums. Military maneuvers and marches have been accompanied by drum beats. Ancient tribes frequently used drums to broadcast signals and send messages back and forth.
Many students of music history believe that the snare drum arose in medieval Europe, at a time when a wide range of drum types were used, although the ultimate origin of drums was likely in Asia.
The Middle Ages also saw the extensive use of the timbrel, an early type of tambourine with jingling attachments, and of the frame drum or tympanum, whose body was a wooden frame with an open underside. Itinerant performers would often pair a timbrel with a pipe held in one hand.
Medieval Europe also saw a proliferation of various types of drums, with no standard way of referring to them. “Tabor” or “tambour” was another term used to describe a drum, with various linguistic variations. The phrase “trommel” was a 12th century coinage from Germanic languages that linguists believe to be the source of the current English word, “drum.”
In medieval Europe, the bass drum followed the snare drum into wide use, even as drum sticks evolved to the point where they were carved from a range of wood types. Beef wood was a popular drum stick material in the 18th century, while military bands of the following century favored ebony.
The era of European colonization led to the adoption of bongos from African and Afro-Cuban populations into Western cultures in the 1800s, as well.
The early 20th century witnessed the sale of entire sets of drums as a unit, with innovations adding cymbals and other percussion to the standard set. In the 1950s, Joe Calato introduced the nylon-tipped drum stick, and electric drums appeared for the first time in the 1970s.
Homemade rhythm instruments can be all you need
Homemade rhythm and percussion instruments can provide hours of fun. And they can be as simple as a small, sealed container filled with rice, beads, or other items that produce sound when shaken.
Other, more elaborate shakers can be made by using strong packing tape to attach two clear plastic cups together after filling them with percussive material. To add flair, you can attach shower curtain rings to either end of this type of shaker with more packing tape. Then you can attach ribbon to the rings to serve as colorful streamers.
A discarded coffee can might become a drum, or unused window casings or wooden rectangles can be cut to various sizes and assembled as a xylophone. A garbage can is just waiting to become a steel drum, while a series of jars filled with water of varying depths can create cascading, delicate melodies when struck with a light mallet.
For those who would rather purchase their instruments, a wealth of online shopping sites offer inexpensive, child-friendly egg-shaped shakers, rhythm sticks, whistles, small drums, tambourines, and more.