Pity percussionists?


It was late at night and the band had been practicing several difficult passages for what seemed like hours. As the rehearsal came to an end I decided to ask the band play the entire piece one more time. This would give members the chance to play some of the easier passages they clearly enjoyed. It would also help to put the harder sections we had been focusing on in their proper musical context.

“Play it just the way you would in front of a live audience,” I told them. Unfortunately, it did not happen quite like that. As the music approached the final bars and the band began a crescendo, I looked towards the percussion section. A cymbal crash that would bring the piece to a climax was imminent. But the band's lone percussionist was nowhere to be seen.

“Toman, Toman!” I yelled above the din. Toman, who at that very moment was sprawled out on the floor enjoying what must surely have been an extended nap, staggered to his feet as the vital moment approached.

Hitting a cymbal almost a beat too late, Toman threw the entire band into confusion. Drums rolled in all directions and the cymbal provided an appropriate encore as it hit the floor.

It is easy to neglect drummers.
It is easy to neglect drummers. Despite the tremendous expansion of the role of the percussion section in modern music, it is still probably true to say that – in comparison the brass or woodwind sections - most composers still write in percussion parts as an afterthought.

In fact, there are so few certainties associated with the percussion section – and the parts written for them can sometimes be so boring - that I often wonder why anyone would want to join the section. No-one seems to know for sure how many instruments it includes. And few such instruments have an agreed set of playing techniques. And to add insult to injury, most musicians (apart from long suffering percussionists!) can't even name an orchestral piece specifically written with the percussion in mind.

The very name of the section is subject to debate. Very few percussion instruments actually "percuss" – that is, strike (from the past participle of the Latin verb percutere). Many instruments we normally think of as belonging to the percussion family may be more accurately regarded as concussion instruments. In other words, they are shaken. The increasingly popular maracas is an obvious example. Then there are the instruments of friction (eg castanets) to consider.

Perhaps we should drop the term “percussion” entirely, and follow the practice of jazz musicians by referring simply to the “rhythm” section.

Percussionists like Toman often lose out.
Percussionists like Toman often lose out when it comes to music education. The current drummers in Medan's Brass Band Jenderal (featured elsewhere on this website) are familiar with the notation of basic rhythmic patterns, for example. But they can barely read the treble clef. 
Sadly, many young players also still seem to accept the popular assumption that the percussion instruments they use only have one or two possible sounds. Is it because their band directors – myself included – have failed to open their eyes to the possibilities? The answer, I think, is yes. The reality is that percussion instruments can be struck, shaken or scraped in a wide variety of ways according to the requirements of the music.  
Composers do write pieces for secondary and college level bands that include more interesting parts for percussionists. But they often call for the use of instruments (chimes, miramba, timpani etc) or different types of sticks that only the better equipped bands actually possess. Most well-funded college-level bands in Singapore would have no problem. But what about bands in less developed parts of Asia or Africa? 
One reason BBJ's Indonesian percussionists only know how to play the snare and bass drum, for example, is because - until very recently -  they were the only instruments available to them. 
There is a limit to substitutes.
What can be done? One lesson BBJ has learned in Medan is to be a little imaginative. Wood blocks, for example, can be handmade. And when the music calls for a tambourine, a toy rattle can sometimes work as a substitute. But substitutes can only go so far. A bass drum is a poor substitute for a timpani section in a brass or wind band version of Handel's Haleluyah Chorus (see the free scores section of this website). Nor does it work very effectively in a piece BBJ is currently (June 2010) rehearsing – a stirring arrangement of “Joy to the World” written by Salvation Army composer Ray Steadman-Allen. 
Hopefully, things will improve. Current plans to overcome the percussionists ignorance of the treble clef in BBJ involves teaching them to play the second hand glokenspiel I bought for the band earlier this year. 
But what of other percussionists in the developing world who play in bands that lack such a sponsor? Their lot is an unenviable one. Rarely given the chance to shine on their own instruments, most seem fated to spend their musical lives accompanying others. 
Pity percussion players? I do.