Women in Percussion

These days, more and more women are entering the field of marching percussion. While opportunities seem to be more level, a 2005 study cited in the December 2008 issue of “Percussive Notes” found that male percussionists still outnumber female percussionists in every continent except Asia. In North America, the results showed a ratio of 62.8 percent male to 37.2 percent female. Find out how four inspiring and influential female percussionists rose to the top of the ranks and hear their advice for young percussionists today.

Photo by Rene DeLucia

I recently had the chance to sit down with four of the most talented and inspirational women in the field of percussion. They come from different locales and have varying educational backgrounds and careers, but they all share one common trait: a love of and belief in the benefits and enjoyment of marching percussion.

JULIE DAVILA grew up in Indiana and Missouri. She received her bachelor’s in music education from the University of North Texas (UNT) in Denton. She plays drum set, steel drums and everything else as a founding member of the Caixa Trio. She has also served as chair of the Percussive Arts Society Marching Percussion Committee. Her books on playing tenors have become staples and classics. She teaches, performs and judges throughout the world.

AMY SAVAGE (formerly Amy Davis) grew up in Ohio and received her bachelor’s degree in music education from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. She has played in several orchestras and marched in the Garfield Cadets Drum and Bugle Corps. She teaches, writes and judges throughout the United States including at Duke University where she works as director of marching percussion.

KATHY MARVIN grew up in Colorado and received her bachelor’s degree in music business from the University of Colorado at Boulder. She writes for and teaches several high schools—including Northglenn High School where she works as front ensemble percussion instructor—in the Denver area and is very involved in WGI Sport of the Arts and the Rocky Mountain Percussion Association.

STACI STOKES WAITES grew up in Oklahoma. She received her bachelor’s of musical arts with business emphasis from the University of Oklahoma in Norman and her master’s of percussion performance from Texas Tech in Lubbock. She enjoys judging in Texas and is the director of education for Pro-Mark Drumsticks and Mallets.

Early Influences

DeLucia: When did you start to play drums?

Davila: In fifth grade, I went to my brother’s jazz band concert and decided I wanted to play drums.

Savage: I grew up in a musical family with five sisters and one brother and convinced my parents to let me study drums in the fifth grade. My sister played snare in marching band. I was fascinated with that drum and became determined to play it, and I did—taped sticks and all!

Marvin: Third grade. My father was a band director and brought home a set of vibes one summer. That was it!

Stokes Waites: I studied piano when I was very young, but I wanted to join the band in sixth grade, so I switched to percussion. Needless to say, I eventually quit playing piano!

DeLucia: Who were/are some of the major infl uences on your musical growth?

Marvin: Those that were close and hands-on: my parents, my violin and dance teachers, my college professors Terry Smith and Doug Walter.

Davila: My parents always exposed me to lots of music. In high school, I attended drum corps shows and many jazz concerts like Chick Corea, Maynard Ferguson, Pat Metheny, etc. They all inspired me to pursue music. My parents [also] allowed me to attend summer camps at Bands of America. At UNT, I was surrounded by great teachers and players in all areas of music.

Savage: My family was very musical. In college I loved marching band and learned so much from my professor Bill Albin. I marched in the Garfield Cadets, where I learned from Jim Prime, Thom Hannum, Joe Gaudett, Bob Morrison and George Zingali! What a great education!

Stokes Waites: My high school attended “Days of Percussion” in Oklahoma where I met performers such as Leigh Howard Stevens. My college teachers such as Lisa Rogers and my drum corps instructors such as Scotty Sells taught me about musicality and gave me the confidence to perform.

DeLucia: What attracted you to corps/ marching percussion?

Stokes Waites: I saw The Blue Devils in Tulsa when I was in middle school and then joined Black Gold.

Davila: It was so impressive to see and hear the precision and uniformity of the top corps!

Savage: I went to a corps show in Fort Wayne and just knew that I had to do that someday.

Memorable Moments

DeLucia: What have been your most memorable/rewarding experiences?

Marvin: Memorable? Winning WGI with Northglenn High School in 1997 and the performance of “Adagio for Strings” in our “Chess” show.

Savage: Our encore performance with the Garfield Cadets in 1984 after winning Drum Corps International. Performing with our medals around our necks was the most memorable experience for me.

Davila: As a teacher, building the program at John Overton High School and enjoying many successes with those kids through the 90s, including a WGI Scholastic World Championship in 1996; as a performer, playing in the Seoul Drum Festival in Seoul, Korea, were all the most memorable.

DeLucia: Any embarrassing moments?

Savage: I was playing vibes in a faculty concert when the audience began to leave. I didn’t think I was playing THAT badly! Finally, a man approached the stage and said, “A tornado is heading right towards us; we have to leave NOW!!!”

DeLucia: Did you face any challenges as a female in percussion?

Savage: Yes, I did face challenges as a female percussionist. I didn’t look like everyone’s idea of a typical drummer. I enjoyed being feminine. When asked what I did for a living, people didn’t believe me. I felt I had to prove myself before being considered as a knowledgeable percussionist. With ensembles early in my career, I was often assigned to mallet parts until it was realized that I could play all the percussion instruments, not just the marimba.

Years ago, I was a substitute timpanist for the Hobbs Southwest Symphony in New Mexico for a weekend rehearsal/ performance. The principal percussionist was an older gentleman who felt it was his duty to explain every detail of technique as if I had never played the drums before. I politely nodded and went about my business. During the rehearsal, the treatment I was receiving caught the eye of the conductor, who then stopped the orchestra, looked at me, complimented me on my playing and told me to show the principal percussionist how to play the snare part that he was messing up. THAT was justice!

From an early age, I wanted to be a drummer. My parents and first band director were supportive, but not everyone was. Sometimes the ridicule hurt, but I continued to pursue my dream. … I took brave steps to introduce myself to people considered important in the world of percussion. Their advice encouraged me and helped to shape who I am today as a percussionist. As a matter of fact, I’m marrying the one [Matt Savage] who encouraged me most!

Stokes Waites: I certainly did face some challenges as a female percussionist when growing up, but it seems to be quite a bit different today than it was then. When I was in high school, there weren’t very many females in percussion, and the ones that were in percussion were mostly in the pit (front ensemble), and they were just there because they were a double-reed player and needed a place in the marching band. It seemed to be a very “boys play battery” and “girls play mallets” sort of environment even though it was never really dictated to us by our teachers.

When I was in middle school, we learned some of the “stand tunes” and went and played alongside the high school band for one of the football games. I was on snare drum, and I spent what seemed like hours practicing “Wipe Out” for the game. Whenever we got to the drum solo, it was always a competition on who could get through it without breaking (and it seemed to be really fast at the time!). It was very obvious that the guys in the line felt threatened by the fact that the “mallet player” was attempting to play snare drum, and they teased me and made me feel very self-conscious. But I was practiced and was so determined to get through the drum solo of “Wipe Out” at the game. … I made it through, and the adrenaline rush was the best! I felt so cool playing alongside the high school snare line and holding my own. But I felt that people expected me to break and “fail” because I was the mallet player trying to play the snare drum.

So, I ended up going through high school and college completely terrified of the snare drum. I hated to practice it, and I would just break out in a sweat when I was assigned any concert snare part in percussion ensemble or drum corps. It took me studying for my master’s degree and actually having to teach lessons on concert snare to finally get over my fear of it.

Davila: I didn’t really face too many challenges as a woman percussionist. It could have been that I never really tuned in to any skepticism from others; I was too busy trying to work toward my next goal rather than focus on others’ opinions.

Early on, one of my biggest challenges was making the University of North Texas snare line. Up to that point, there had not been any girls that had played in the snare line, and so for me, that was added incentive. I guess I might have felt like there wasn’t as much room for error as I didn’t want to give them any reason to target “the girl” in the line as the “tick.” I’ve always been more interested in being recognized as a solid player, a good allaround percussionist rather than being recognized as good “for a girl.”

Marvin: I am fortunate that I haven’t had many challenges being a female percussionist. In my generation and location growing up, it was quite common that girls played mallets and guys played drums. I personally didn’t feel pigeonholed because it was what I loved to play, and I got to be a part of some great ensembles and performances because of it. Honestly, it was nice to have the guys help me schlep the marimba beast around!!

Words of Wisdom

DeLucia: What are the benefits of marching in corps, band or indoor drum line?

Marvin: First of all, they develop a type of teamwork like no other musical group. The extreme dedication and work ethic create a unique bond among the members because everyone works toward a common goal, and no individual wants to let his/her colleagues down.

Savage: It gives one a chance to develop skills necessary to master percussion, learn to work as a team, use physical activity in a creative way, train ears to listen beyond one’s own drum and to appreciate greatness by watching other groups perform.

Stokes Waites: Friends for life! Plus learning self-discipline, goal-setting and time management.

Davila: I agree with everything that’s been said! The skills and habits learned can be applied to many facets of one’s life.

DeLucia: How do they transfer?

Davila: Well, when the Caixa Trio is preparing for a performance, we don’t have as much ensemble time as we would like, so we must be very efficient with our rehearsal time. One of the advantages in participating in corps/indoor lines is that you really learn how to break things down, isolate, assess and build it back up to a high level of precision and musicality. I think that is why so many great drum set artists like Tommy Igoe, Steve Gadd, Pat Petrillo, Greg Bissonette and others were a part of the marching activity.

Savage: Repetition, discipline, patience, teamwork and listening skills are valuable assets in everything!

Marvin: In addition to what Julie and Amy said, learning how to balance life is critically important.

Stokes Waites: Plus you learn to push yourself beyond what your perceived abilities are.

DeLucia: For a student, how much “marching” percussion is too much?

Stokes Waites: Marching percussion is by far the most popular aspect of percussion education today. Students, and sometimes their parents, can’t seem to get enough! As teachers, it’s exciting to find an outlet for students that is so positive and educational and fun!!! Whether it’s “too much” depends on the student, the teacher and the environment.

Marvin: Everything in moderation is probably the best advice. Balance. Exploration. Involvement.

Savage: If the activity is based on quality of time versus quantity of time, then it’s all good. But it’s important for a student to explore sports, clubs, other arts and other facets of music.

Davila: If kids are in it as a high school or post high school “hobby,” I don’t think you can put a limit on the involvement. But if a student wants to pursue a music career, he/she must be well-rounded.

DeLucia: Any hip tips for teachers or students?

Marvin: Find current tunes that kids are listening to and turn them into exercises. Explore a variety of styles.

Savage: Watch yourself practice in front of a mirror. Watch YouTube, WGI, DCI and as many percussionists as you can. Learn from the good and the bad. Emulate whom you admire. Perform often. Enjoy practicing; make it fun and rewarding.

Davila: Practice what you don’t know, what you struggle with. Don’t do the same thing every time. Start exercises on the left hand as well as the right. Never be satisfied; you are never “there”!

Stokes Waites: I believe that students pick up the personality traits of their teachers. If someone teaches by intimidation rather than positive reinforcement and encouragement, the students will react accordingly.

DeLucia: Any specific advice for young female percussionists today?

Savage: My advice for the female percussionist is to set your goals. Follow your dreams. Learn from people around you. Study hard, practice harder. And don’t let anyone steal your desire to be a percussionist. There’s a reason you set your heart in that direction!

Stokes Waites: I could be wrong, but it seems to me that today, the playing field is a little more even with regards to girls and boys in the battery or front ensemble. It’s so cool to me to see the cutest girls kicking butt on snare drum (or tenors!) and that is always one of my highlights of WGI every year.

I guess if I had any advice, it would be for them to not feel that there are any boundaries with regards to percussion. I would encourage them to learn it all (I wish I had!). And don’t feel like you have to be “one of the guys” or a tomboy if you’re in the drum line. Be a “girly girl” if you want. That’s one of the most refreshing things today; I see some of the “girliest” girls playing in the battery and doing great, and I love it.

Marvin: In the marching activity today, I think the opportunities for young women are very open, and we are seeing more and more females marching snares, tenors and basses. I encourage them to go for the passion and challenge of what they want to achieve but also recommend they become strong, both mentally and physically. You’re probably outnumbered in a drum line, so just practice hard, be prepared for discussions that might come up and keep your goal in focus! You have to be physically prepared also. Guys are just genetically stronger than us, and it may be a little harder strapping on a 35-pound set of tenors or playing on kevlar heads, so condition and take care of yourself. If it is truly your passion, you will be just fine and gain respect for what you achieve.

Davila: My advice to another female percussionist is just to believe in yourself, work hard and develop a mentality of being a life learner. Percussion is such an exciting career choice, and the learning curve is never ending. There are so many styles, genres and facets of percussion from a global standpoint that it is a never-ending adventure. You’re never “there,” so don’t stop working on fundamentals, practicing, going to clinics, researching and sharing with others. What I’ve found to be the most important ingredient in developing a successful career is to stay diligent, be responsible and be efficient with time management. Of course, I believe all of this advice would apply to all genders.

About the Author

Dennis DeLucia is a percussion teacher, arranger, clinician and judge. A former member of the West Point Band, he is best known for his successes with championship corps and bands. He has been inducted into three of the major Halls of Fame: Drum Corps International, WGI Sport of the Arts and the World Drum Corps Hall of Fame.

Field of Vision

Aligned with their band directors on common goals and values, booster organizations can better promote their organizations’ cultures and support their long-term goals. At Foothill ...