‘How can you tell that a drummer is at the door?’ - ‘The knocking speeds up’
‘What did the drummer say to the band leader?’ - ‘Do you want me to play too fast or too slow?”
As Santa might say, Ho, Ho, Ho….
Doubtless you’ve heard dozens more. As a percussionist, I’ve been the butt of jokes for my whole musical career, but it’s not just the jokes… it’s the derision. It is infuriating having my art lambasted as the easiest section of a band or orchestra to play in, with remarks such as ‘What do you do to a brass player who can’t play their instrument?’ - ‘Stick them at the back of the band and tell them they’re a percussionist now’, and ‘Do you know the percussionist in the band?’ - ‘Yeah, he rings a bell’.
Well, enough is enough! Stand by to be presuaded that percussionists should neither be mocked nor dismissed, and why in fact, being a percussionist is the single hardest role in any ensemble setting.
I began learning percussion, namely timpani, marimba, drum kit and xylophone, as a complete novice when I joined The Portsmouth Grammar School at age 11. After six years studying under the tuition of Alonzo Mendoza, I reached distinction level grade 8 in all of these instruments whilst also playing in numerous school bands and local amateur orchestras. This amounts to some 50 concerts, playing in around five ensembles per concert, with styles ranging from full orchestral works to brass band Christmas favourites. In each of these ensembles and concert settings, I can only remember a handful of times when I thought the part I had to play was either easy or insignificant.
I’ll start off by exploring what falls under the category of percussion - spoiler alert, it rarely involves the triangle! The word ‘percussion’ stems from the Latin ‘percutere’, which means ‘to strike or hit forcibly’. On top of this, the Latin noun ‘percussor’ means ‘one who strikes, stabs, or shoots’ and is commonly used to describe an assassin or murderer!
Thus the 600 odd instruments which involve hitting something come under the very general term ‘percussion’. The etymology is misleading in itself, as many percussion instruments are naturally resonant simply due to their size, and so the art is actually in not hitting it forcibly, but rather hitting it in such a way that the player utilises that resonance to their advantage. Mindlessly walloping a timpani as hard as possible will not produce the sound that the composer wanted to hear! Furthermore, there are many percussion techniques that don’t involve hitting, such as using a double bass or cello bow to rub the vibraphone keys, creating a wonderfully ethereal sound full of harmonics that has no form of percussive attack. Essentially, the term ‘percussion’, despite having aggressive connotations, covers a large range of instruments and playing techniques, so cannot possibly be generalised to the degree that it is by many musicians.
One of the most difficult aspects of playing percussion in an ensemble setting, particularly when performing contemporary works, is the sheer range of instruments that one player is expected to not just know how to play, but perform on perfectly in concerts - potentially I could be called upon to play a random selection from hundreds of different percussion instruments. So when I open a score for the first time at the first rehearsal, I won’t just see a single instrument as the violins or cellos would, but may see tens of instruments that need to be divided up between the players available. For a brilliant example of a well thought out percussion set up, and a demonstration of how many instruments have to be played by one person, take a look at the picture at the top of this blog, which was taken of the tuned percussion section for the Broadway production of Aladdin.
Most commonly there will be a separate drum kit and timpani part for two players, a tuned percussion part that may include marimba, xylophone, glockenspiel, tubular bells, or vibraphone for a single player to cover, and then a further general ‘percussion part’ that will include anything from sleigh bells to bongos to be played by whoever is left. In my time as a percussionist I have also been called upon to play accordion, slide whistle, and even my own voice in a performance of John Cage’s ‘Living Room Music’.
It is no mean feat simply organising this number of people and instruments, but the logistics don’t stop there. Before the rehearsal or concert starts, and often up to an hour beforehand in a professional setting, the percussionists will arrive to set up their section with meticulous attention to detail. Due to each player often having to play multiple instruments in a single piece, let alone in the whole concert programme, each instrument has to be within easy reach of whoever has to play it, while also being easy to move ready for the next movement or piece that needs a different selection of instruments entirely. However, before this can even happen, the often small hatchback-sized instruments have to be taken to where they will be played. This means planning van trips with the timpani, packing down and setting up the marimba, and hauling a travelling drum kit along with the other 30 pieces of hardware that you need such as cymbal stands, seats and traps.
All of the above is enough to be dealing with as it is, but what about when something inevitably goes wrong? This is when the most percussion specific trait comes into play: adaptability. It not only refers to the range of repertoire that is written for percussion and the varying instruments we are expected to play, but also the amount of problem solving we have to do, whether that is fitting five large instruments in a minuscule orchestra pit, or fixing a broken piece of hardware just in the nick of time. Speaking of broken hardware, I once had to fix a broken timpani tuning rod minutes before a concert, using boiling water from the Cathedral coffee machine and a plastic card. Just slightly harder than replacing a reed in an oboe…
With all of those things taken care of, we come to the main point that the jokes we hear are making: that playing percussion is easier than playing any other instrument. I would beg to differ. Let's focus mostly on the larger instruments such as drum kit and marimba, rather than the smaller instruments like the triangle, which is actually very difficult to play correctly. Due to the size and percussive nature of these instruments, playing them is often physically demanding. Percussionists need to have serious stamina and strength to be able to hold up heavy cymbals at arms length, or sustain a roll on the timpani for 30 bars (thank you, Offenbach). They are also technically demanding, especially the many percussion instruments that are played with sticks, which are much harder to accurately hit a small target with, as you do not have the same dexterity and spatial awareness as you do with your own fingers. This is what makes playing the marimba with four (or six!) sticks so challenging. A drum kit specific challenge is developing the ability to have all four limbs doing different things. How many trumpet players can keep a 3/2 clave rhythm going with their right hand, while their left hand plays triplet quavers and their feet keep a steady crotchet beat?
It is often the case that each percussionist will be playing an entirely unique part in a piece. This means one drummer, one glockenspiel player, one timpanist, one triangle player, etc. Compare this to the multiple first violins, multiple cellos, multiple brass players and multiple woodwinds in a modern orchestra, and percussionists are almost always playing solo. Occasionally there might be two snares doubling, or two timpani battling it out (listen to Nielsen’s Symphony No.4 for a fantastic example of this), however I believe that the pressure attributable to always playing on your own is one of the hardest things to overcome as a percussionist, and something that only other musicians who regularly perform solos can relate to.
A further issue is the geography of the orchestra. The percussion section is usually situated at the back or side of the orchestra which can not only limit our visibility of the conductor, but also means we may have to play a fraction ahead of the beat so that when our sound hits the audience, it sounds as though it happened at the same time as the first violins who are mere feet away. This skill only comes with experience, and might explain some of the rushing percussionist jokes. It also doesn’t help that many of our instruments are audible above the whole orchestra due to their percussive and often metallic timbre. This means that if you make a mistake or play in the wrong place because you can't see the conductor, everyone will know!
So there you have it! Being a percussionist is not just being a musician, but being a master of multiple instruments, being a logistics expert, being extraordinarily adaptable, being patient, being calm under pressure, and most of all, rising above the relentless jesting from other musicians!
Now stick that in your flute and smoke it!