Get Your Piano Students Grooving with Bucket Drumming

Get Your Piano Students Grooving with Bucket Drumming

bucket drumming piano students

I’m so excited that TopMusicPro Community Members Leila Viss, Marie Lee and Heather Nanney could come on the blog and share details about their latest resource: Bucket Drumming for Piano Teachers

If you’ve ever asked yourself:

Why do my students struggle so much with rhythm? 

Then this is a resource you’re going to want to explore.

Making connections with Music Learning Theory month, Leila explains how bucket drumming works, its pattern-based approach and how it develops great listening and rhythmic skills.

Whether you’re teaching groups or individual students, Marie, Leila and Heather have you covered with over 80 “Recipe Cards” of activities you can explore using buckets, patterns and rhythms off the bench.

Your students are going to love it. Let’s get into it!


Leila and Marie posing with buckets at the Denver 88 Creative Keys Workshop. Sorry we missed getting Heather in the pic!

Why would a piano teacher integrate bucket drumming into lessons?

Why would Tim Topham feature a post about bucket drumming in a month dedicated to the highly respected Music Learning Theory of Edwin Gordon?

To answer these two questions, bear with me (Leila Viss) as I weave in a personal story. It’s my journey as a musician and piano teacher. Then I’ll move on to why you’ll want bucket drumming in your studio and the resource to help you do it!

My story

Due to circumstances beyond my control, I was FIRST introduced to a lead sheet after receiving a Masters in Piano Performance and Pedagogy. Although my skills for interpreting and memorizing Bach or Brahms were sufficient, my ability to improvise within basic chord progressions was weak.

This revelation that my skills were unbalanced for what a church music program desired (which I quickly rectified with earnest practice!) devastated me and put a huge dent in my confidence as a pianist.

Ever since this gaping hole in my training was disclosed, my approach to teaching piano has developed out of reaction to this “devastation.” I am dedicated to filling the gap between eye and ear skills of my students and am devoted to bringing up musicians who feel comfortable with a score, a lead sheet and creating their own music.

Three major factors helped to map out my approach

  1. A four-step process for introducing concepts,
  2. A recognition that this process must be customized to suit learning styles and
  3. A continual desire to maintain a balance between eye and ear skills.

The Process

During graduate school, my thesis was devoted to Lynn Freeman Olson, a recognized pedagogue, author, composer and descendant of Frances Clark’s guidance—the “matriarch of piano pedagogy.”

The hours of work devoted to the 200-plus-page thesis ingrained in me Olson’s teaching process that I follow to this day. All concepts are explored with a student in this order:

  • Hear it, then
  • Play it, then
  • Assign a symbol to it, then
  • Create with it.

In my thesis, Edwin Gordon’s studies were frequently cited as Olson’s process stems from Gordon’s “hear-it-first” philosophy. Tim’s focus on Music Learning Theory (read his terrific post that explains it more here) reminded me of my roots in Gordon’s theory of audiation or as he calls it, the  “foundation of musicianship.”

Customize It

Every student who walks in the studio door is unique. To my surprise and now to my delight, many of them would much rather play by ear and improvise than just read a score. Trying to fit a young musician into a square when he or she is clearly round doesn’t work.

The tools required to lead these students in their musical journeys has directed me past most method books. Don’t misunderstand, I still use beginner method books to help with sequential organization of concepts but, when parents arrive for an interview and ask what method I teach, I state:

I teach a human being, not a method.

I gauge a student, see how they process information and choose an experiential path which usually includes a method book that suits their learning style and taste. In addition, I integrate iPad apps and off bench manipulatives like plastic eggs, lids, straws and yes, even buckets, to keep things fresh and to develop listening and improvisation skills. These are always good options for those who have serious wiggles on the bench.

You may feel my “off-the-cuff” approach alarming. I get it, and if a certain method works for you and your students, stick with it.

My challenge to you: double check that your lessons nurture your students’ eye AND ear skills and encourages their musical imaginations. Remember, you teach a human being, NOT a method.

My hope is that this encourages you.

If you don’t have the financial means to invest in more training or revamp your approach or if it’s too late to reorganize your group curriculum, then try this: every time you introduce a new concept, like quarter notes, 4/4 time, note names—think about how your introduction can begin with pianists hearing and playing it first before reading it.

For example, plug in bucket drumming activities when you know your students need rhythmic reinforcement.

Balance Eye and Ear Skills

When students see their teacher explain things with an app or a drum instead of a lecture, or play a piece following no score, it allows them the permission to imitate and do the same.

Like their teacher, they may favor reading from the page, but they also know that “duding up” a melody in a sonatina or playing “Happy Birthday” from a lead sheet is of equal importance and fun, too!

This freedom to roam off the page during lessons equips pianists to enter the real world of chord charts, accompanying and collaboration. It’s why I co-founded 88 Creative Keys with Bradley Sowash—there’s a need for more teachers to learn how to build creative confidence and balance their own skills (because of their similar backgrounds to mine!) and those of their students.

Back to the Buckets

When I heard that fellow colleagues and dynamic teachers Marie Lee and Heather Nanney were going to offer bucket drumming in their studios, I was immediately impressed and determined to do the same. Because I knew they had great ideas, I thought it made sense to work together and compile a resource geared towards helping fellow piano teachers integrate bucket drumming into their curriculum.

Teachers in Oregon used slightly smaller Tillamook ice cream buckets.

Teachers in Oregon used slightly smaller Tillamook ice cream buckets.

We were dedicated to developing a product that suits the needs of piano teachers who teach privately, in groups and/or hold summer camps.

With this in mind, we created a downloadable PDF that includes a detailed guide and over 80 “recipe” cards that you can sort through, cut and stack in order of your preference and integrate them into any type of curriculum you desire.

Leila’s Experience with Bucket Drumming in Groups

Leila Viss owns a tech-savvy, creative-based piano studio in Colorado and struggles to stay within the “traditional-teaching” box. She offers private, partner and group lessons.

Marie, Heather and I knew bucket drumming would be a hit with students.

I was stunned at how easy it was to incorporate Olson’s four-step process when isolating rhythm with buckets and sticks. In addition, pianists didn’t hold back and had loads of fun creating original patterns because there were no “wrong notes” to worry about!

Here are samples of four cards provided in our resource that I used in recent group lessons.

1) Listening skills were heightened with Card #23 Explore Dynamics and Tempo.












2) Listening connected with improvisation skills were addressed with Card #27  Call and Response.












3) Notation of rhythmic subdivision became clear with Card #1 called Fruity Beats . 












4) Creativity exploded way past expectations with Card #53 Trading Fours.












Marie’s Experience with Bucket Drumming in Groups and Summer Camps

Marie Lee owns a booming studio in Nevada and offers terrific tips on how she integrates bucket drumming into group lessons and summer camps.

Months ago, I started using bucket drumming in my classes as a way to introduce new pieces.

For example, students would listen to the piece, follow the score, and only drum on the rests. Or we’d listen for a repeated rhythmic pattern and then play the recording again, drumming only on those patterns.

By the time my students sat down to play the piece for the first time, they’d already heard it several times, knew what patterns were coming up, and had very few mistakes.

This type of activity only took a few minutes of class time but got my students started on the right foot. No more correcting mistakes the following week and sending pieces home again to practice the right way. Confidence in my students has blossomed because with the right introduction, they see progress quickly!

Although learning sequence activities are the heart of Music Learning Theory, where theory is applied directly to music teaching practice, the main objective is to enhance the teacher’s ability to help students understand the music they study in classroom activities. – Gordon Institute of Music Learning Theory

Let’s face it, kids like to bang on things!

After listening to my students beg to use the buckets every week, I had a thought—why not offer bucket drumming as a summer workshop?

Bucket drumming gives my current students a break from the piano while still building musical skills. It’s been my most popular workshop of all time! It’s also a great way to introduce new students to your studio because it levels the playing field.

No one needs to have any prior musical experience. In just one month, current students have invited seven friends to attend bucket drumming classes—kids that might not have said yes to piano class are saying yes to bucket drumming.

  • Start by teaching some basic skills–how to hold sticks, different types of tones you can make- side of bucket, top, rim shot, hitting sticks together.
  • Next, ask students to echo some simple patterns, then divide students into groups and give each group different parts to create an ensemble.
  • We’ve played rhythmic ensembles using Wipe Out, Uptown Funk and Surfin’ USA as our backing tracks. That makes for excited students that want to be videoed, which makes for great promo material, which shows the value of your music program to others. We weren’t going for anything professional in our videos — just happy students having a blast making music together. Add light-up drumsticks and it gets even more appealing!
  • Our bucket drumming activities transfer over to other percussion instruments and body percussion as well. I’ve also offered Stomp, Boom, Blast workshops this summer and found that I could easily use the exact same activities. That saved me a lot of time in planning and was able to help me reach a different group of students.

Rhythm is not processed intellectually; it must be felt in the body through movement. Music Learning Theory methods are designed to help students develop an inner awareness of meter, macrobeats, microbeats, and melodic rhythm in order to perform with accurate rhythm, steady tempo, and rhythmic “flow. – Gordon Institute of Music Learning Theory

Bucket drumming is a win-win in my group piano studio, building confidence, instilling a more secure sense of rhythm and pulse in current students, bringing in new students, and most of all, giving us the joyful experience of making music with each other!

Heather’s Experience with Bucket Drumming in Private Lessons

Heather Nanney owns an anything-but-typical studio in Missouri and offers dynamic suggestions on how to integrate bucket drumming into private lessons.

I use bucket drumming in private lessons for three main purposes:

1) At the beginning of a lesson for an attention grabber.

Sometimes when a student walks into a lesson, you can sense that they are unfocused, maybe their day isn’t going well or their mind is preoccupied with what’s going on outside of the lesson.

This is a great time to pull out a bucket drumming activity and start the lesson differently than what you might typically do.  It is a fun, attention-grabbing activity that is sure to focus your student and start your lesson on the right track.

You’ll see their eyes light up and they’ll start to smile and that is a great feeling.

2) In the middle of a lesson for a brain break.

If you’ve been working really hard with your student preparing for an exam, a recital, or a festival, sometimes students can use a break, and frankly I can use one, too!

After drilling, polishing, and moments of intense focus, it can be so refreshing to take a deep breath, step away from the pieces you’ve been working on and lighten things up with some bucket drumming.  

It can be just what they need to get ready to dive into another session of focused practice and hard work.   

3) At the end of a lesson for a motivator.

Don't have room for big buckets? Use cups and chopsticks!

Don’t have room for big buckets? Use cups and chopsticks!

Students LOVE playing on the bucket and look forward to it  each week.  Some of my students walk through the lesson door asking for it first thing.  

Bucket drumming can be a great way to start a lesson or a brain break, but it can also be used as a bribe. Oops! Did I say bribe?! I meant to say motivator. Bucket drumming is highly motivating.  

Do you have a student who usually rushes through a piece without paying attention to technique, dynamics, articulation, octaves, rhythm? Surely none of your students do that, but on occasion I have some that do.  With the promise of a drumming session, they will pay attention to anything you ask them to!

In addition to these three purposes, bucket drumming can be a great way for students to FEEL the beat.  I am going to risk ruffling some feathers here, but I am going to say it…Stop making your students count out loud.

If it doesn’t come easy to them and it feels like torture for the teacher, why are you still banging your head against the wall with this? Surely your students are feeling the same way. Turning on the metronome and counting will never replace internalizing rhythm and pulse by using body movement. Rhythm and beat becomes a part of them and it will translate to better playing and less frustration for both student and teacher.

Break out some buckets and let us know how your students like it!

Making the Music Learning Theory Connection

The resource offers activities for private, and group lessons and camps in various levels and indicates

The resource offers activities for private, and group lessons and camps in various levels.

Bucket drumming is all about moving off the bench, isolating rhythm, echoing, feeling a steady pulse, matching tempo, dynamics and creating with patterns FIRST without visual cues—all components of the Music Learning Theory approach as explained by Marilynn Lowe in a recent podcast interview with Tim.

Our Bucket Drumming for Piano Teachers compilation offers oodles of ideas on how you can reinforce rhythmic listening and reading skills in any type of lesson. If you know it’s time to get off the bench and move and enhance your teaching, our resource is just what you’ll need.

Your students will thank you.

Purchase your digital copy of

Bucket Drumming for Piano Teachers here

Hurry, it’s $10 off until August 3rd, 2016!

Leila Viss

Leila Viss owns a tech-savvy, creative-based piano studio. She’s an organist, pianist and accompanist, blogs at, writes for Clavier Companion and authored The iPad Piano Studio. With Bradley Sowash, Viss cofounded 88 Creative Keys--a keyboard improvisation workshop--and served as chair of the NCKP Creative Pianist Track.

 feeling inspired? 

bucket drumming piano students
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