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A Passion for Improving Percussion Pedagogy

A visit with Julia Gaines, Director, School of Music

By Molly Duffy
Published: - Topics: School of Music percussion marimba College of Arts and Science pedagogy
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Julia Gaines wanted to play drums in her junior high school band. She sat in the classroom on the first day of band, listening to the director call roll; when he read a student’s name, the student would call back the instrument he or she wanted to play. By the time he called for Julia, not one girl had called back “percussion!” So, lackluster, she responded “clarinet.” Julia resigned herself — her dad had suggested clarinet, and it was a more “girly” instrument, she thought. But then roll call reached the T’s, and a girl named Karen Thompson proudly told the class she wanted to play drums. Hearing that another girl was interested, Julia shot up her hand: “Oh, oh, oh, I want to play percussion, too!”

Julia grew up to be Director of MU’s School of Music with research interests that revolve around making music more accessible for beginning players. Looking back, she quips, “I think I would have eventually gravitated toward percussionMirimba because I’m just naturally gifted at hitting things.” Her interest led her to specialize in the marimba, an instrument that is approximately 10 feet long with wooden bars arranged like the keys on a xylophone. Hitting it with a mallet produces a deep, resounding tone. Marching bands have popularized it in high schools, though it is generally a solo instrument.

Gaines fell in love with the marimba in junior high school and decided she wanted to become a band director. However, once she finished her first semester of college, she realized there were too many drums to learn and changed her major from music education to music performance. She earned her undergraduate degree at the Lawrence Conservatory of Music in Appleton, Wisconsin, and then a master’s degree at the Eastman School of Music. Realizing she wanted to teach in a university setting, she headed to the University of Oklahoma for her Doctor of Music Arts degree.

The marimba, in its modern day form, is maybe 60 years old. When Gaines started teaching students to play, she found herself with very little pedagogical literature to work with: “It’s so new there’s hardly anything done.” As the marimba grows in popularity, which Gaines attributes to Internet exposure, the demand for beginning literature has increased. Before widespread access to the Internet, people did not see the instrument unless it was on television or in a concert hall. Video sharing sites have changed that. In particular, young rural kids are seeing videos and deciding they want to play, but finding few or no in-person opportunities to start learning. Gaines realized she could teach those students through virtual lessons. “They have no books, they probably don’t have a teacher within one or two hours,” she explains. “So my goal was to create kind of ‘Suzuki Level 1’ for four-mallet marimba.”

In order to begin, she needed research funding from MU — and to commission beginning marimba pieces, she needed data to prove the need for more beginning literature. To do this, she created a matrix to grade the effectiveness of existing marimba literature. “If you ask ten different instructors what was a beginning piece of marimba literature, you’d probably get ten different answers. And that’s not how it is for piano, that’s not how it is in violin. Everybody knows what the beginning pieces are. And we’re not there yet.” She analyzed 400 pieces of music, categorized them, and started writing a book series.

The series, Sequential Studies for 4-Mallet Marimba, is written at an eighth grade level because young marimba players often get started playing with two mallets in middle school but face a huge learning curve when they reach high school and have to learn four mallet sequences quickly. Still, there are students who enter college and start with Gaines’ book. She doesn’t write off students who had no access to the marimba before reaching MU, so she has a broad base of entry-level students.

Gaines has been teaching at MU for 18 years, but she’s been housed in Loeb Hall, a few blocks away from the Fine Arts Building where the School of Music is centered. “Truly, some faculty in this building don’t really know me as anything but the drummer girl over the way,” she says. When she stepped in as Director of the School of Music this year, she gave a speech to the faculty about her most memorable musical moments, culminating in her debut at Carnegie Hall.

“Everybody always asks, ‘How do you get to Carnegie Hall?’ and the common answer — that’s kind of a joke — is ‘practice, practice, practice,’” she says. “Well you can also rent the hall. And that’s what Mizzou did for two or three years.” When an MU faculty composer was asked to select pieces representing his music at a Carnegie concert, he asked Gaines to play the marimba solo that she had commissioned him to write. “Boy, when you get to Carnegie Hall, there is a sense of arrival,” she remembers. “Every musician in the world wants to play in Carnegie Hall, and not just as an ensemble member, but as a soloist. …You can list all the ways I was able to get there, and it might not be the way Yo Yo Ma got there — but through my contacts, through my education, through my initiative to commission a piece, through my connections, through my relationships — I made it. I arrived. And that was really a pinnacle, it has to be considered a pinnacle in any musician’s career.”

As Director of the School of Music, Gaines plans to make headway in fixing some long-term problems: “My learning curve is the job, not the people or our issues,” she clarifies. “Clearly, for me our absolute number one issue is our facilities.” Needing new facilities is “not a new problem, but for some reason we just have not been able to conquer the project.” Gaines is working to push the project through to completion.

“Every idea that I’m thinking of, every plan I have, points to a new building,” she says. The school “can’t grow much more … until its facilities are out of the 1960s. A part of me is surprised that students keep coming here, but fortunately our faculty are so talented that our students want to come no matter the facilities. … But we need a new facility badly. And that will be my number one commitment.” A new facility will mean a more cohesive School of Music and a better experience for its students.

Improving students’ experiences and moving them forward in the music world are two of Gaines’ top priorities. She believes that music is essential for society’s well being — it isn’t just enrichment — and that learning to play an instrument is just as important as learning addition and subtraction. Although her directorship means she’ll be teaching fewer students at MU, she’s happy to help out music professors, observe quartets, and continue teaching extra-curricular percussion at Lee Elementary School in Columbia. “I get less and less concerned about where my career is going,” Gaines says. “I would say right now my proudest moments are when I get the call from a student that they’ve gotten a job, the last person who had some success in the field because of an ounce of what I did and what I helped them with. That has to certainly eclipse anything that I’ve done.” Students keep her updated on competitions they’re in — she fondly remembers one late-night text from a student that simply read, “I won!!!!”

Interestingly, through her years of teaching, Gaines notes that there are still few women in percussion. She continues to have mostly-male classes in her studio, and she can think of only two other women in tenure-track faculty percussion positions who also have a family. “You’d think being a female professor at a major university, that would attract more women. I don’t think it has anything to do with it. I think it has to do with whether they like studying with me or not, whether they’re a man or a woman.”

Gaines’ own children both play piano, and her son, Zachary, eventually started banging the drums around the house. When he was younger, Gaines would tease him about whether he’d follow in his mother’s footsteps. “Now Zachary, you’re going to play drums like your mom, aren’t you?” Gaines asked once. “I mean, drums are really cool, Zachary.” He looked up at her with the absolute seriousness of a five-year-old. “Mom,” he replied, “drums are for girls.”