The (minor) miracle of a percussion section.

I’m often asked if there are different personalities among musicians who play different instruments. It is an extremely difficult question to answer; after all, it is hard to stop laughing when one is laughing that hard! To explain this to someone who has spent little to no time around musicians, it may seem a bit bewildering. After all, a musician is a musician (is a musician), isn’t he? But naturally, we musicians know differently! Anyone who has witnessed an exchange between an oboist bemoaning her reed, only to be interrupted by a violinist complaining about bowings (or seating)…well, assuming they’re standing far enough away to avoid being caught up in the fray, answers should reveal themselves quite easily.

Yes, I’ve written it before: we musicians are a strange lot, with our own personalities, quirks, idiosyncrasies, insecurities and social hierarchy. Most can be explained quite simply: violinists are confident (except for the 2nd violinists, who are…well…let’s not go there.) Violists are the confused middle children of the orchestra. Double bass players are…there. Oboists are charmingly neurotic. Bassoonists are slightly less charming. Trumpet players are also confident–but a little more, ahem, expressive about it. So on and so forth. But percussionists…well, percussionists end up in their own special category. They are sort of the third base coaches of the orchestra world: nobody really notices them unless they screw up. 

Percussion is a special case within the musical community. They are certainly easy targets: many of their instruments appear easy to play, even easy to master. After all, a number of their instruments (triangle, tambourine) are favorite playthings of the pre-kindergarten set, often employed as methods of torture and tests of patience for parents of young children and once-eager early childhood education students. And the timbre of the instruments may be recreated on any number of common household items, with kitchenware being especially popular. 

As always, it is not that simple. Percussion, after all, may allow an exceptionally well educated, mature, well-adjusted adult to utter the following phrase without irony: “I lost a $140,000.00 per year job because my triangle playing was sub-par.” Yes. read that again: “I lost a $140,000.00 per year job because my triangle playing was sub-par.” (Disclaimer: The author of this article has never personally uttered this phrase, though he admits that his triangle playing, while having its moments, is generally quite mediocre.) These instruments are hard. The great composers who wrote for them were unafraid to present a challenge. To be a percussionist requires much more than the ability to hit a drum or find the right keys on the xylophone! In fact, the only thing that should be struck by a percussionist is the word hit from his vocabulary. The percussionist must draw out the sound from the timpani; elicit crisp yet smooth notes from the snare; carefully extract myriad colors (at the right moment and in exactly the right manner) from the cymbals; the list goes on and on. The decisions, often made quickly and on the spur of the moment during rehearsal, are dizzying: which mallets to use? Which size and weight should the cymbals be? What size triangle–which beaters, too, and to hold or mount? Calf-heads or goatskin? Dresden or Berlin? Chain or pedal? Plastic heads or brass? Wood shell or copper?!

Perhaps most surprising of all is the makeup of a section and how well it can function together. Dysfunction would likely be assumed by most of their orchestral colleagues, of course, owing to the fact that the term ‘peanut gallery’ has often been applied to the usually colorful bunch of characters standing (or sitting around) at the back of the orchestra. When one thinks about it, the percussion section is unique: unlike other sections, they rarely, if ever, play together. 

It is not so in other sections. Section wind players learn to shade the principal–and other instruments within the section as a whole– in matters of tone and phrasing. The horns and brass, almost as a rule, develop a single, unified sound and color, with a particular blend being ideal. And the strings! Ah, learning to bow and even play vibrato with as much uniformity as possible–it is their chief concern most of the time, leading to incredible camaraderie (or, on occasion, rivalry.)

Composers rarely write for percussion with any consistency. There is often timpani, of course; that is a given, going back to the early Baroque. But the timpanist plays alone, with few exceptions. There does exist something of a basic unit, early on: the ‘Turkish’ section of triangle, cymbal and bass drum, though it may be argued that in many cases (such as Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraligo and Beethoven’s Ruins of Athens and 9th Symphony) the intention of the composer was to achieve an effect and not to require any particular sense of finesse (though, of course, musicality and finesse are essential when performing these works in the concert hall!) Beyond this, however, there is little in the repertoire to suggest any sort of attempt at consistency. Not only does this tend to vary from one work to another, but there is often a great range and variety within a single work. Percussion may be called for in one movement but not the next; in extreme (but hardly unusual) cases, an instrument may be called upon to play in just a few measures–even just a few notes–in the entire piece.

So it is incredible that the section, all playing sporadically and almost always playing different material (rhythmic, harmonic, timbrel) can achieve cohesion rather than chaos. And yet it happens: a camaraderie and personality develops within the section, jobs are assigned (the establishment of a principal cymbalist, auxiliary, bass drum, etc) and a sound and style emerge. From chaos emerges consistency: yet another miracle of music and the great institution of the orchestra.


4 thoughts on “The (minor) miracle of a percussion section.

    • i really, but really enjoyed this. And , a few comments:
      1] Regardigt the Trianle- When i was a young player one of the veterans once told me (i think it was after some violinist had a comment about his tri playing):”Everybody can play the Triangle until you put one in their hand…”

      2] Whilst i agree that musicians have their particular idiosyncrecies i often wonder if it is a case of the instrument making you such or a case of you choosing (or being succesful with) that particular instrument because it “fit” your character. Us percussionist are usually regarded as missing a screw& over energetic….and yes, the kids from the “other” block. The LAZY kids from the other block who never work and have it easy. All they do is sit on the stage and sip My ties with little umbrellas. 🙂

      3] As a percussionist i never cared for the notion of assignig a specialsit for every instrument. I hold the opinion that each of us should be a profficient “all around” percussionist, maybe with the exception of drum set playing.

  1. I enjoyed this blog, as well! I am both a percussionist and a music teacher (well, looking for a music teaching position currently). In my college years, especially, my percussion instructor tried to give as much teaching as he could on every instrument in the percussion section– every percussionist should be able to play everything. Of course, each is better at some instruments over others, but that is to be expected.
    I am fascinated with the psychology of musicians with their instruments. Especially in band, my specialty. 🙂

    Thanks again for this article!

  2. Great article! I myself am a percussionist going into college on a music scholarship to play percussion (although my first choice would have been piano). And I always appreciate it when someone actually notices us (albeit not for the wrong reasons like missing my only cymbal entrance in Liszt’s Les preludes after standing around for fourteen minutes drawing dumb pictures with the french horns.) Last year I was asked to perform with the Denver Youth Artist Orchestra on Pines of Rome (tambourine, ratchet and tam-tam). I wasn’t even called in until the dress rehearsal and when I came in a measure early on the tam-tam the director gave me the meanest death glare ever. In my defense the first measure of my sheet music didn’t even start until halfway through the first movement. Because of that I thought that I was losing my mind and that I just completely forgot how to count. Anyway what I’m trying to get at is that I wish percussion was a little more respected because I would have appreciated being treated like an actual musician and not some short order guy brought in last minute to hit some metal things with other things. It was pure luck that after I lost my place during the performance somewhere between the 3rd and 4th movement that I guessed my entrance correctly. The conductor actually looked up at me in surprise that I actually knew what I was doing. Of course that’s not the only struggles myself and my fellow percussion comrades have faced. (And by the way, at my school at least, the percussion section is perhaps the most diverse yet closely bonded of all the sections.) During a performance of John Rutter’s Magnificat one of my percussion buddies zoned out from boredom and locked his knees somewhere around the 6th movement. He then preceded to pass out straight into the crash cymbals. I was on timpani at the time and I missed my entrance into the 7th movement because I rushed over to him thinking he was having a seizure. It was terrifying at the time but now we tease him about it. Anyway I’m not sure what tangent my response is taking but thinking back I’ve had some pretty crazy and interesting experiences that only being a percussionist can entail. Again I really enjoy your articles, and as a budding composer and performer I do value your insight.

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