Over the last few years I have been working with professional, university and school level percussion sections. This article is going to highlight a few tips and points that will help develop your percussion section to become a well-oiled machine.
Setup is so important.
When I work in a percussion section one of the first things I undertake is to work out the layout of instruments for the repertoire we will be performing, something that constantly needs variation. Unlike other sections, percussionists need to deal with constant changes in their setups, as most players will have to move between instruments. Below is a basic layout that will work for most School, University or Community percussion sections.
With this setup we have subsections inside the percussion section, Timpani, Battery, Auxiliary and mallets. This is beneficial as most players will need to stay in these subsections, i.e. a player may need to go from vibraphone to marimba not snare drum unless it’s a Bernstein or De Meij work. This is the reason why planning the setup from the start will help the percussionists in being able to change and work in a well laid out specific setup. Just as a comparison, I recently performed Symphonic Dances from West Side Story with the SWE Percussion section from the Arts Unit. Here is the layout from that performance and as you can see the setup is large and organised so each player can access the right instrument at the right time. Preparation in any setup, advanced or beginner should always be the first step as the physicality of the section is like no other. As a conductor you can help facilitate this setup plan and help the section develop these concepts.
Percussionists need to know the whole section and all its differences!
One of the most common things I hear from young percussionists is that “I don’t play that instrument I only play this instrument”. This point will be focused towards students and how important it is for them to have a firm grounding on each subsection of instruments.
A common thing I come across while working with students is the fact that they sit on the same instrument all the time as it is easier to just let the percussionists play to their strengths, something that I have named “using Band-Aids”. It is important to introduce all students’ to the similarities and differences between the instruments. A great example of this is showing instrument/genre specific videos like the Congas or bongos and their role in Latin Music. Everyone should get their section together and YouTube a conga player named Lenny Castro, a great introduction to hand percussion and then Rob Knopper, an orchestral battery playing genius. By encouraging students to study and learn the basics of each instrument you will be investing in variety. This will pay off as the section is called upon to play harder repertoire as well as instilling confidence in the section.
I like to encourage conductors to do some research on the basics of every percussion instrument as when you push a student to move in unfamiliar territory its important that you have some basics to pass onto them before a specialist can help. The concept of “percussionists just hit things” can be easily passed onto young players and will not help them or your section.
While you are encouraging all players to play multiple instruments also teach them how to respect and look after even the smallest instrument. Things like using the wrong mallets on the marimba or xylophone can damage the instrument and you need to make sure they are looking after and respecting everything from the triangle to the timpani. With this you should also encourage your students to purchase some of their own percussion instruments such as triangles, tambourines and mallets. These can be purchased at a reasonable price and will be a great assistance in helping you teach the value of the instruments, like when a student spends money on a new clarinet.
Knowing our foundations!
I encourage all conductors to look into the foundations of un-tuned percussion in the same way you do with scales. These foundations are easily studied by looking through the 40 essential rudiments (Google it). These 40 rudiments are rhythmical patterns we use to help develop sticking, technique, sight-reading ability (like a scale we can relate rhythms from pieces to one of these rudiments) and many other things.
The very first rudiment I teach all students is the single stroke 4 (four strokes as semi-quaver triplets to a quaver). This rudiment helps in developing stick control and alternation between the hands, a weakness I come across constantly with players. This below exercise is a great sectional exercise that makes the percussionists perform the rudiment both on and off the beat, a great subdivision exercise as well. With younger sections instead of getting them to just play the scales along with the band or orchestra maybe take a few minutes to run this exercise at some point during the warm-up stage.
This may come across as to hard for some people but this is a fundamental of playing percussion instruments. The time investing in this exercise will pay off in developing their independence, stick control and hopefully a passion of learning more off the 40 essential rudiments. While undertaking this exercise, make the percussionists subdivide quavers, a great starting point in their journey of subdivision. This means the triplets will go from being on the beat to the offbeat in the second bar, as well as enforcing the concept of triplets. Over the years I have found this rudiment and exercise the best foundation for helping students and percussion sections develop even, reliable and constant single strokes.
Single and Double Strokes What is that about!
There are three common sticking stroke methods we use to play a passage, single, double and triple. The triple stroke is uncommon but should still be encouraged and researched but we will be focusing on the single and double stroke.
By having an understanding of these strokes, you will be able to help your percussionists in sticking different rhythms and helping them develop a stronger level of independence between both hands.
The two strokes are:
Single Stroke - RLRLRLRL etc
Double Stroke – RR LL RR LL etc
This is a warm up I like to use with students and in my own private practice to help work on independence between double and single strokes. Encourage your students to use this exercise at home with a metronome, it will help them hear unevenness and will enforce pulse into their practice.
This is a great exercise that encourages students to play the same rhythmical passage in two different ways. As the double stroke gets developed it leads to developing controlled multi-stroke rolls, something we can talk about in the next article. The aim of this exercise is to transition between the two types of stroke evenly, something that’s really challenging for young players but an important skill to develop. With all rudiments being based on either a single or double stroke, this will help students develop the most fundamental techniques in performing on percussion instruments. While doing warm-ups or sections in the repertoire, you will be able to instruct the percussion section to play it as either a double or single stroke, or even ask them which one they think would suit.
A little addition to this exercise after students have been able to get the transition between the two types of stroke is to add a rudiment that uses both single and double. The single paradiddle uses two single strokes and then a double stroke with an accent on the crotchet beat, but this can be added in over time. This adds a third method to playing these semiquavers and again, is important to be developed evenly and consistently.
With three different methods, these semi-quavers should be played one after another with little difference in the sound and the tempo. A common problem here is that the double strokes tend to get faster as the method of control is different. By encouraging students to develop these different sticking methods and also when to use them, you will be introducing them to the rudimentary world inside percussion, the foundations that all percussionists should know.
The percussion section is unique; it has to face challenges the other sections in the band or orchestra don’t have to deal with. The demand on players to change instruments as well as change mindset/technique is usually a scary hill to climb and can be daunting, Even though we have a large body of instruments there are fundamentals in percussion technique which are universal in how we perform and play rhythmical passages. The exercises in this article will help your percussionists strengthen the most basic fundamental of all, how we strike the instruments. By investing your time in understanding our fundamentals and setup demands, you will be able to talk shop about the traditions of percussion technique and layout. This will help develop the section into a well-oiled machine that can think and make its own musical and technical decisions. It is easy to have the best drummer on drums and the best keyboard player on mallets, but as this article points out, percussionists should be able to play and understand everything that is percussion.