The Paradoxes of Percussion

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In 1989 I was approached with the prospect of editing an issue of the Bristish publication Contemporary Music Review about contemporary percussion. At the time, I thought it would be very interesting to give percussion performers a forum in which to present some of their feelings about the professional situations into which they are drawn by a pursuit of their art, and so I solicited articles from friends and colleagues – among others, Steve Reich, Robin Engelman, Garry Kvistad and William Cahn. The responses of the various contributors all raised paradoxical issues, many of which, zen-like, have no reasonable resolution. They are musical surds, and they lie at the heart of contemporary percussion performance. I decided to preface the entire issue with an editorial which I titled “The Paradoxes of Percussion”. Contemporary Percussion -Performers’ Perspectives, edited by Bob Becker, was published in 1992 as Volume 7, Part 1 of Contemporary Music Review by Harwood Academic Publishers, UK.


I am a percussionist by profession. As a member of the percussion group Nexus I have been engaged to premiere a new concerto by an important composer at a very prestigious venue with a major symphony orchestra and conductor. We have just received the parts and the first performance is six weeks away. Most of the part that I am to play is scored for double lead steel pans (a two-and-one-half-octave chromatic instrument from Trinidad). There are also passages for vibraphone and glockenspiel, often played together as one extended instrument. I have two degrees from an internationally recognized music conservatory and five years of post-graduate training in the world music department of a progressive university. I have travelled in Africa, I have studied in India, I have toured with jazz groups and I have played in symphony orchestras. One might consider this to be a fairly thorough professional background, and yet I have never before played steel pans. In less than six weeks I am going to go out on a stage in front of a large and sophisticated audience, most of whom will have paid a substantial amount of money (and a few of whom will be describing my performance in the press) and perform on a musical instrument that I have never learned to play.

I want to make it clear that this situation is unique for my colleagues and me only in degree. All contemporary percussionists face variations of this story regularly. This is not necessarily bad, nor is it necessarily good. It is simply a fact of professional life, and how we as performers respond to this kind of paradox determines our success artistically as well as financially.

Another of the percussionist’s paradoxes is displayed most dramatically in the modern symphony orchestra. How to consistently respond, in a creative way, to the routine of being a member (in any section) of a symphony orchestra is one of the great challenges in the music profession, and orchestra percussionists face unusual difficulties both technically and psychologically. A major factor in both respects is the paradox of inactivity. A percussionist contracted to play in a symphony orchestra is paid a salary to perform repertoire that calls for a great deal of “not playing”. However, this kind of inactivity is quite different from simply doing nothing (as in daydreaming or watching TV, for example). It typically involves counting rests with determined concentration, maintaining a commitment to remain engaged with the music as it unfolds and, in many cases, monitoring the changing conditions of sensitive instruments as they react to temperature and humidity. “Not playing” of this kind demands energy, and may be exhausting for a player, particularly during rehearsals. When the opposite of “not playing” is called for, it often occurs suddenly in the music and may be technically demanding in the extreme. Substantial preparation time is often required for only a few seconds of actual performance. Imagine yourself in the following scenario – a portrayal of the experience of performing the entire cymbal part to Dvorak’s Symphony #5. (To be fair to Dvorak, there is also a triangle part in the Scherzo that is normally played by the same performer.) You are wearing fully formal evening attire and for the last half-hour you have been sitting on a stage without playing a single note, or even moving your body except in the most inconspicuous manner. Suddenly, you alone must stand up among one hundred other seated musicians. You are holding two very large shiny objects, thus guaranteeing the focused attention of nearly everyone in the auditorium (including a conductor). At a precisely determined moment in time when most of the other musicians stop playing, you are to bring together the shiny, and, by the way, heavy objects so that their contact with one another produces a single soft and delicate shimmer of sound. After having done this, no matter how successfully, you must then return to your seat and wait an additional ten minutes for the conclusion of the piece. During this time you might reflect on the fact that the sound just made was the sole criterion for judgment of your musicianship by the conductor, your colleagues, the audience and, in fact, yourself. A performer who resigned his position as a percussionist with a major symphony orchestra once explained that, “Ninety percent of the time I was bored to death, and the other ten percent of the time I was scared to death.”

“You should have taken up the piccolo” is a comment often heard while packing and moving large percussion instruments. My usual response is, “But then I would have to play the piccolo.” Nevertheless, the fact is a percussionist must own, insure, store and maintain a huge inventory of musical instruments. The financial investment required to obtain even the basic range of percussion equipment called for in contemporary music is substantial. If a player is interested in the special sound qualities of older vintage or custom made instruments the costs can be staggering. Paradoxically, it is typical that many of the instruments in a percussionist’s collection are called for only occasionally in the repertoire, and even then may be required to create just a few isolated sounds. I can point to a number of instruments in my own collection that have yet to be used in any public performance.

Many percussionists also find it necessary to purchase some type of cargo vehicle in order to transport their equipment. Members, like myself, of professional touring ensembles may invest substantial amounts of money in road-worthy cases for their instruments. There have been numerous occasions on which I have paid many times the cost of a particular instrument to have an appropriate case constructed for it. These cases themselves then need to be insured and also stored someplace when not in use. On the positive side of all this is the fact that instruments, cases and the like make excellent tax deductions.

Why then do percussionists put up with, and sometimes masochistically embrace, the traumatic effort and expense involved with large instrument collections? Some may develop a kind of addiction to the excitement of collecting new sounds for their own sake, but for most professional players an instrument collection represents a personally selected palette of sound colors. Why own ten different triangles, thirty different cymbals, eight different woodblocks? Because the greater the choices among instruments of a given type, the broader the range of expressive possibilities and the greater the opportunity to make a creative musical statement. A well trained player can manage competently in most contexts with one standard triangle, one standard pair of cymbals, one woodblock and so forth, but a creative performer will always want options of timbre, tessitura and resonance. The individual choices of instruments that a percussionist makes, the specific sticks selected to strike those instruments, and the personalized approach to tuning drums and timpani are factors as critical to defining a unique musical interpretation as is the subtle stroke of a mallet or the elegant phrasing of a melodic line.

It has been my experience that many contemporary composers do not understand this aspect of “the collection”. I have often been involved in the process of working with a composer on a new piece for percussion solo or ensemble. One of the first things he or she usually wants to do is examine my, or an entire ensemble’s, collection of equipment. This examination generally consists of cataloging the number and type of specific instruments, with special note given to anything unorthodox or new to the composer. It may even include making a tape-recorded inventory of timbres and specific pitches. The instruments themselves then become part of the structural basis of the composition. A composer who uses “the collection” in this way is really dealing in exotica – the specific instruments determine the general musical structure. Percussionists, however, do not usually assemble a “collection” in order to provide a potential resource for someone else’s creativity.

It seems to me that a healthier situation for a composer is to determine, through personal interest, study and experience, the general types of instruments and sounds that best suit his or her musical ideas and then write for those instruments and sounds. This places the onus for the orchestration (general sound selection) of a piece on the composer, where it has traditionally resided in western classical music, and places the onus of interpretation (specific sound creation) on the performer, where it belongs.

For the percussionist, the dilemma of the instrument collection is that the expansion of options is creatively and musically desirable to no theoretical limit, while practically, there certainly are limits to things such as cash-flow, storage space, and time and energy for maintenance and transport. This particular dilemma is no longer confined to the realm of percussion. One of the more satisfying experiences I have had recently occurred at a recording session for which I had been hired to play tabla (North Indian hand drums). Arriving at the studio with my drums in a shoulder bag, I found the doorway blocked by several large trunks. Inside, someone was struggling with a dolly loaded with amplifiers and other assorted electronic gear. When this person came outside to make another trip to the van parked nearby, I recognized him to be a well known electric violinist. Once inside, I unpacked my tabla and then had a coffee with the flutist while the violinist took another 45 minutes to unpack and set up his equipment. Later, I told him he should have taken up the drums.

Bob Becker
Toronto, Ontario
September, 1990

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