The Responsibilities of a Professional Principal Percussionist

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This article was written for the Atlanta Percussion Newsletter in October 1991

by Bill Cahn

A symphony orchestra, or for that matter any large organization comprised of many different people, is a complex and frequently difficult-to-understand entity. Seventy to one-hundred highly educated professionals – all having unique backgrounds in the study of their particular musical instruments; many having different nationalities of origin; all having differing amounts of experiences as well as differing views on what constitutes ‘beautiful music’ – are brought together for one common purpose, the performance of music. The fact that great music-making can occur at all in this environment of so many differences is truly amazing, and yet it happens regularly in orchestras all over the world. In this respect – the bringing together of many people having wide differences for the purpose of cooperating to make great music – the symphony orchestra is perhaps one of the highest achievements of human civilization and at its best, it is worthy of imitation in every other field of human endeavor.

Each musician in an orchestra plays his or her individual part, but the result is frequently music that can transcend and elevate, ideally lifting the performer outside of the self and into a higher realm of awareness or consciousness. To the extent that this happens for a performer, a sense of well-being and fulfillment is made possible. That’s the good news! The bad news is that through the years of the development of the orchestra as an institution, a number of artificial structures have been devised which, although probably intended to help orchestra musicians to attain their highest level of performance, frequently fail to do so. These structures may even on occasion actually inhibit performance. These artificial structures are simply the hierarchies of positions that have evolved within the orchestra – conductor, concert master, first violins, second violins, principal players, section players, and all the rest. All too frequently these artificial hierarchies serve only as the means for some individuals to exercise control over the music-making of others.

However, the first premise of this article is that the highest level of music-making and self-fulfillment occurs when a performer assumes for himself or herself the responsibilities of: 1. determining what musical goals to pursue and: 2. deciding which path to follow to achieve those goals. Furthermore, each performer must eventually go through a process of self-discovery in order to achieve the personal confidence and skills that will empower him or her to handle those two responsibilities.

In a music school it is the job of the teacher to guide the student in the discovery of his or her own strengths and weaknesses in order to help the student to achieve the ability to think and act for himself or herself. However, for the purposes of this essay the focus will not be on the responsibilities of a principal percussionist in a student ensemble, although there may be many parallels with the professional environment, because in some important respects the needs and skills of the student can differ drastically from those of the professional. Rather, attention will primarily be given to the responsibilities of the professional principal percussionist.

In a professional symphony orchestra it is ideally everyone’s job to be responsible for his or her own music-making and to help to create an atmosphere in which others can do the same. More often than not this can be accomplished simply by encouraging or allowing others to be themselves, rather than by suggesting, or in extreme cases even dictating that certain parts should be played a certain way. If the responsibility for each performer’s own musical self-fulfillment is not acknowledged, and if it is relegated by any performer to someone else, say to a conductor or to another musician, then personal and musical problems caused by a lack of fulfillment are sure to follow for that performer.

It is therefore the main contention of this essay that principal players in an orchestra should not and cannot be responsible for the music that is made by others in the same section. To put it more clearly, it should not be the job of a principal player to supervise over the performance of the other musicians or to tell others how to make music, even if – in fact, especially if – other musicians choose to follow a differing technique or aesthetic.

Essentially, the job of trying to influence the music-making of others belongs only to the conductor, although it must be said that the best conductors are those who also strive to allow performing musicians to be themselves – to create their own music – whatever it may be. It takes a very secure person to do this. Allowing others to discover and follow their own paths is one of the rarest and yet most powerful skills that can be harnessed to motivate others. It is a skill that does not come naturally for most people , and if it is acquired at all it is usually only as the result of much experience and many mistakes.

Leopold Stokowski addressing the Philadelphia Orchestra in March 1956 stated the issue very clearly:  “Each one of you must be a poet, as well as a great player of your instrument. And through your poetic feeling you can express every kind of music. ‘Do not permit yourselves to become, as is a tendency in the world today, standardized, so that you all think and feel the same way. Do not crush your real individuality, but express your individuality through the music. Give … your personality, all your inner feeling, give that expression through the music. Do not be all alike. Be different, as you really are different in your natures. No two violins are alike. No two bows are alike. No two hands are alike. No two nervous systems are alike. No two minds are alike. No two emotional characters are alike. You are all different. Be different! Don’t standardize yourself. And, put all those differences, all that richness of different colouring of personalities into the music.’”

Just to be clear, it is not being suggested that in order to assume the responsibility for one’s own music-making, a performer must ignore or even argue with a conductor who wants something different from what the performer wants. It is still necessary for musicians in a symphony orchestra to be flexible enough to embrace any idea that a conductor may express.

Normally, however, in most orchestras the conductors do not regularly ask performers to change details of their performance. Rather, for the most part performers are restricted in their music-making only by their own personal perceptions of what is correct and incorrect in performance. These individual perceptions can vary widely among musicians within an orchestra and even within a section, based on differing backgrounds and experiences. The point is that individual musicians within an orchestra can (and should) be able to exercise responsibility for their own performance and control over the many musical decisions that are necessary in preparation.

In the normal course of any pursuit – including the performance of music – there are times when questions arise and when it seems that the easiest solution is to seek the advice of another person. However, the soliciting of advice from others can actually indicate a failure to assume the two responsibilities mentioned above. In addition, the offering of advice, whether solicited or not, implies that the receiver of the advice is not willing or capable of handling those two responsibilities. For these reasons, the following rule of thumb is usually appropriate: NEVER offer or give advice to anyone unless asked, and even then, ALWAYS encourage or allow the seeker of advice to find his or her own answer.

Another variation of this rule of thumb was expressed by the late Charles Owen, who for many years served as the distinguished principal percussionist with the Philadelphia Orchestra. His comment, made during a clinic at Syracuse University, applied to a situation in which advice was being solicited, rather than offered. He said, ‘NEVER ask a question to the conductor! . . . In so doing, you are only letting the conductor know that you don’t know the answer yourself.’ It could also have been said that in so doing, you are indicating that you either don’t care enough or you don’t know how to find out the answer by yourself.

Therefore, it is proposed that the two most important responsibilities of any musician, whether a principal player or not, are the following:

1) to know how to answer your own questions, and

2) to acquire and continually refine the skill to be able to encourage others to answer their own questions.

The most important thing is to know how to learn, and to realize that learning ideally never stops, because what works on one occasion may not be what is required on the next. One of the best ways to develop the skill of learning is to just ask yourself questions. The raising and answering of questions yourself is one of the oldest of techniques for encouraging the process of learning.

But asking a question is only half of the equation; the other half of the equation is going through the process of answering the question yourself. By asking someone else for the answer to your own question, you are in effect merely attempting to avoid the process of obtaining the answer yourself. You may succeed at receiving a response from another person, but you also may not be learning because the answer is not your answer. An answer that works for someone else may not necessarily be the best answer for you.

As for developing the skill to be able to encourage others, one of the best techniques is to simply listen to what others have to say and to then respond with either an appropriate question such as ‘What do you think you should do?’ or an encouraging statement such as ‘Do whatever you think is best’.

How does all of this relate to being a principal percussionist? Well, in every orchestra and in every percussion section there are regularly a number of routine house-keeping tasks that must be done in order to prepare for and to present a performance. These routine tasks continually cause questions to be raised, such as:

* How many percussionists will be required for each piece?

* Are the printed parts legible and complete?

* Which percussionists will play which parts in each piece?

* What percussion instruments will be required for each piece and for each percussionist?

* Are the instruments in good playing condition or will some of the instruments require repairs or adjustments?

* How will the required percussion instruments be obtained and transported for each rehearsal and concert?

* How will the percussion instruments be arranged on stage for performance?

Essentially, the responsibility of the principal percussionist is to ask and to answer such questions. The way in which they are answered will be different for each principal player. However, it is important to remember that every player in the section also has the responsibility of raising and answering the same questions, if only in order to prepare his or her own part for a performance.

In some orchestras principal players may feel that they must answer not only their own questions, but also all of the questions of anyone in the section. In other orchestras principal players may wish to assign the responsibility of answering certain kinds of questions to each person in the section. Or, some principal players may devise a forum (such as a meeting before a first rehearsal) in which the responsibility for answering questions is shared jointly.

However, regardless of which method is used to determine the answers to those routine questions, it is the responsibility of the principal player to encourage or to allow the other musicians in the section and in the orchestra to be responsible for their own music-making and thereby for their own sense of fulfillment. The surest sign of whether or not the principal player is succeeding in these responsibilities is the degree to which the principal player and the other musicians in the section are having fun and are continuing to enjoy the process of making-music.

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