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.

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Speed isn’t everything! The challenges of Barber’s ‘Adagio.’

I went to the gym this morning. My workout was fairly intense but when I finished I decided to walk the 12 blocks back to my apartment.

With the hot sun beating down on me and my muscles somewhat tired, my legs grew heavy. Climbing the hill that led me towards my avenue suddenly felt like a Herculean task. One step led to another, one foot followed more and more slowly by the other. I became quite aware of the heaviness I now felt in my legs, as if weights were attached to my ankles. Feeling frustrated, I broke into a sprint. Half a block elapsed–then a block, and I was now nearly to the top of the hill. Relieved, I decided to walk. The heaviness returned, accompanied with a new sort of fatigue. I sprinted again–no problem. But as soon as I returned to my andante pace, even with the hill now behind me, the difficulty returned, with each slow step accompanied by a sort of agony.

This is what it is like to conduct Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings.

It is a mark of maturity and yet a somber day when a young musician realizes that it is easier to play fast than to play slowly. No young violinist begins his practice session eager to work on his legato or the slow movement of his sonata or concerto. Heaven forbid! No, for the young musician it is speed which enthralls the audience, wins competitions and makes the girls swoon. Paganini knew this all too well–not to mention Viotti, Ysaye and other highly violinistic composers. And of course it is not limited to that instrument. The thrill of playing fast is unmistakable–rapid 16th and 32nd notes for strings and piano, double or triple tonguing for winds and brass, endless melismatic runs for singers and…well, just about everything for percussionists.

But to play slow? It hardly seems virtuosic. Playing long, sustained tones seems better suited to the first half hour of a practice session than to be a point of pride. Just ask a violinist the following question: Would you be more excited to play the first movement of a Tchaikovsky symphony or one by Bruckner?

Enter the Barber. It is not a long work by any means and, quite frankly, requires little technical virtuosity (or at least little physical virtuosity–the idea of playing 5 flats is, for a string player, something which requires a certain mental fortitude.) But the Adagio is incredibly virtuosic: it requires an incredible range of emotion and expression, absolute command of physical technique, unusual self-control and the highest levels of musicianship.

The Adagio, you see, is a paradox: It is often presented as an indulgent work, along the lines of the eponymous work by Albinoni (really more inspired by Albinoni than authored by that composer) or Mahler’s Adagietto. And yet when going to the heart of the work one realizes that it is not about self-indulgence but rather self-control. There are moments of complete and utter gratification–it does not require quite the same level of self-denial and patience as, say, Tristan und Isolde–but they are fleeting and somewhat unsatisfying, if not entirely tragic.

To say that it is a work which alludes to certain physical passions may be accurate–indeed, most musicologists and conductors have theorized that it contains certain clues which point to it being a love letter. But this work throws into relief something which we Americans often overlook: namely, the complexity of sexuality and the fact that ‘sex’ isn’t merely a singular physical act. (Disclaimer: I am not about to delve into Freudian theory nor the debate of the US Congress circa 1998.)

To put it more directly: This is not about getting through dinner and a movie on the 3rd date. It is a different sort of self-denial or delayed gratification. This Adagio is about finding a love for self, for acceptance and understanding. It is an invitation, or a hope for an invitation into the deepest emotional places one may have. It is a hope for total intimacy, even if that involves making oneself vulnerable to the point that our very existence may be questioned from all possible angles.

How may one conduct or play this? Well, in a word….slowly. In two words, very slowly. This is a work which searches, probes, thinks, desires, hungers, longs, starves and weeps. But most importantly, it breathes. It never seems fully comfortable. There are three climaxes: the first two (which are nearly identical) allow for a sigh of relief, however short-lived it may be, before moving on in search of…more. The third climax is reached after a prolonged, agonizing build up–but instead of a sigh, we are given a gasp, sharp and cut off all at once.
And what then? What is next? What answer have we been given?

For a work which lasts 7 minutes (though Bernstein and Celibidache could make it last nearly 10!) this is a monumental series of hills. To climb them at a pace of molto adagio shows that hills and valleys are often much more similar than we perceive–and forces us to ask ourselves just how much self-control (and self awareness) we truly possess.