Ernst Bacon’s Notes on the Piano: The relevance of piano to percussion and drum set

by Aaron Bagby, Drum Instructor at The Lesson Studio

Aaron Bagby, Drum Instructor at The Lesson Studio

Aaron Bagby






          “Branch out; take another approach; expand your horizons.”  These are several common idioms we hear from our teachers as they encourage us to grow musically.  Myself, having recently graduated and no longer in the regimen of weekly music lessons, I now find myself drawing inspiration from non-percussion / drum set-related resources to improve my musicianship as a performer and educator.  Ernst Bacon’s Notes on the Piano is one resource I have found particularly valuable as Bacon’s work easily relates to many aspects of playing percussion and drum set.  In this blog, I hope to share my thoughts on ways to apply Bacon’s theories in order to help Lesson Studio students in their own rehearsals and performances.

            One of the most important sections of Notes on the Piano focuses on studying etudes, exercises, and solos.  As we begin studying a piece, we should commence in the same manner a painter begins his work on an oil portrait: first, sketch the main outlines; second, add particular color tones for effect and emphasis; third, lay the paint on the canvas; and fourth, critically appraise the work.  While musicians may not concern themselves with paint and canvas, Bacon’s message is clear – progress from the general, to the particular, to the general.  General aspects of music may include elements such as tempo, climax, and dynamics, while the particular could involve stickings/fingerings, examining the form, and so on.  As you begin studying, rehearsal space cleanliness is another vital aspect to productive music making.  A clear mind is reflective of a clean, efficient work area.  As we consider the analogy to the oil portrait and importance of a clean work area, it is also important to remember that the quickest way to learning new pieces is to take your time and wait for your own realization.  The more you rehearse, you will begin to enjoy the passages and play with pleasure, not from necessity.  However, there are some pieces which want to be devoured quickly.  If a piece is particularly enjoyable or challenging from the beginning, console yourself in the thought of acquired knowledge and skill.

            Choosing the proper stickings (or fingerings for pianists) for certain passages is an aspect of rehearsal which presents a challenge to many young drummers and percussionists.  Frequently, the physical motion involved in the music we create can drastically impact the resultant sound.  Therefore, it is important to make as few changes as possible from your first decision.  This requires careful editing at the beginning as our muscles will begin to “learn” or remember particular movements associated with certain passages.  However, there are still some sticking patterns that need to be altered for an individual.  This is testament to the unique individuality of each musician, no matter the level of expertise.  With this thought in mind, it is important to consider the second best sticking may be better if the first (or printed) fights the habit of another.

            While Bacon’s work is comprised of many more useful techniques and thoughts for rehearsing, the incorporation of a mirror into practicing is the last theory I will discuss.  For the pianist, Bacon suggests the mirror be placed at the right of the piano, but I believe percussionists and drummers should have two mirrors: one in front and one on either side.  Not only does this vision of ourselves create an audience viewpoint, but it creates an illusion of self-detachment.  By using a mirror, we are able to escape the immediacy of our instrument just as a painter removes himself from his work by taking a step back after the last stroke.  Speaking more in a physical manner, using a mirror during rehearsal can also help to correct certain mannerisms which may be either distracting to an audience, detrimental to our sound production, or it may help reveal errors in technique.  If a mirror is too hard to come by, taking videos are a perfect substitute.  With the advent of the iPhone, built-in laptop cameras, and handheld cameras, musicians of the 21st century are now more equipped than ever to use technology in order to improve.

            Bacon’s Notes on the Piano is just one example of a resource we can use to draw inspiration from in order to better ourselves as percussionists and drummers.  Timothy Gallwey’s The Inner Game of Tennis and Quantz’s On Playing the Flute are two other works which have been invaluable to me as a working musician.  However, not to discredit the previously mentioned works, the influence of great drummers, percussionists, bands, and ensembles such as John Bonham, Max Roach, Arthur Press, The Doors, Steve Reich, JS Bach, and Ethos Group have been monumental to my playing as well. 

            Take advantage of all the opportunities we have afforded to us!  Music lessons, YouTube,, Pandora on-line radio, and attending live music concerts are all great resources we can use to learn from and to increase our enjoyment of making music.


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