The Year of the Percussionist

A bit of frivolity on this slightly icy Northern New Jersey evening.

No band rehearsal tonight, except for the new Bloomingdale Cornet Band’s Big Band band.

The tittering this evening is due to an article in the Nov. 19, 2015 issue of National Review by Jay Nordlinger, NR’s classical culture critic.  Nordlinger was bemoaning the state of contemporary classical musical.  Chiefly, he wondered where exactly contemporary classical music has gone to.  Or rather, what passes for it.

 

I’ve wanted to write on this subject for several weeks now.  The night of Obama’s State of the Union address seemed to be the perfect night for a diversion.

 

His conclusion is that somewhere along the musical path, composers and musicians diverged. Geniuses, he says, now compose the music and the rest of the professional musician class plays it.  The result is a mass of atonal, arhythmical music in which performance art now passes for music.  Current classical music isn’t so much about the sound the musician produces, but how they produce it.

 

Most regrettably, he notes the increasingly important role of the percussionist in world of classical music. Too much drumming, he sniffs.  Too much loud drumming, to be more precise.  This observation had us practically rolling of the couch, especially as we were watching one of the classical symphony orchestras as I relayed this information to my tuba-playing companion.

 

This observation had us practically rolling off the couch, especially as we were watching one of the classical symphony orchestras as I relayed this information to my tuba-playing companion.

 

He would certainly agree that percussionists play far too loud, especially certain snare drummers with very thick sticks who grew up on rock n’ roll drumming legends as Jon Bonham of Led Zeppelin, Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones, and Keith Moon of The Who. Gone are the days of The Hooterville Band’s thudding bass drummer.

 

We’re only community band musicians, ourselves, one step above the one-man band according to the hierarchy of professional musicians. The really great musicians (IOHO) were not the symphonic violinists of old or even the experts on the military bands, but the circus band musicians playing the wild dogfights of John Philip Sousa and Karl L. King.  Finger that music, if you can, playing at clown-car tempo!

 

Mr. Nordlinger should know that if percussionists (and I am one – mallets, to be precise) get more than the usual attention, it’s because we spend entire concerts standing up, for the whole world to see (whether we really want them to or not). Sometimes, snare drummers get to sit down, if they’re playing at a drum set.  Otherwise, they’re on their feet the whole time, just like the rest of us.

 

Symphonic percussionists have it easier than we mere mortal percussionists. Since some symphonic pieces require delicacy of dynamics, the percussionists get to sit out entire symphonies.  In other pieces, they spend most of the time sitting, counting our, perhaps, 200 measures, ring the triangle for three measures, and sit down again until the piece is over.

 

Mr. Nordlinger can have no idea what we percussionists really go through if he only consorts with the upper crust musicians. Some of the really big symphonies and rock bands have roadies and stage hands.  The percussionist of Broadway shows, however, must bring their own.  They’re required to lug in their own snare drum sets, xylophones, even timpani.

 

The shows provide some mallet instruments, all crammed together into the black pit, which are played by one, overworked union musician, some of whom are friends of mine who join us for fun in the lower ranks, when they don’t have job (no one in the lower musical world calls it a “gig”; it’s a job).

 

Occasionally, a director will throw a percussion solo piece at us, thinking they’re doing us a favor. These directors have no idea of the panic into which they throw us, since we’re almost as understaffed as the typical Broadway pit orchestra.  In addition to the main parts (snare, bass drum, mallets and timpani), these percussion features are loaded up with what are known professionally as “traps” but which we call “toys.”

 

One does not simply ring a triangle or tap it. One never, ever “shakes” a tambourine.  Heaven help the percussionist who also “shakes” the sleigh bells.  Some of my professional percussionist friends have an entire set of triangle beaters, from big, honking come-and-get-up beaters (using big, honking come-and-get-it triangles; the triangles also come in a variety of sizes) to tiny little beaters no bigger than a miniature screw driver.

 

In fact, there is a whole “Toy” School of thought on how most effectively to play each and every instrument in the toy box. The tambourine is never shaken; it is laid on a special percussion table, covered with fabric, and tapped with the most appropriate stick or mallet.  While watching one of the Christmas symphony concerts, the tambourinist “rolled” the instrument on the outside.

 

That’s how percussionists learn, by watching.

 

The “zing!” of a cymbal is achieved by running a coin (the size depending on the dynamics required) down the crown of the cymbal. The shaker is not shaken haphazardly; it is shaken with the arm outstretched, palm up.  The crash cymbal is not always crashed with zeal; one must, again, account for dynamics.  Some marches only require short, little crashes, while Sousa marches demand the full, drum corps, inside out crash (turning the inside of the cymbals out towards the audience, not turning the cymbals inside-out, although some of us have been known to do just that, crashing the cymbals a little enthusiastically).

 

Every percussionist worth their salt shaker must have their own bag of toys. Professional percussionists, in particular, do not share.  Ever.  I share and sometimes lose track of something.  Right now, my tambourine is someone else’s bag.  I think it’s my good friend, P.D.

 

My specialty is the mallets: orchestra bells and xylophone.  I don’t play vibes anymore, since I no longer play with the band to whom the vibes were bequeathed.  I’ve only occasionally played the marimba when we were in a wealthy school that had a set.  Marimbas and vibes aren’t very portable, and I never play what I can’t carry with me.

The Bloomingdale Band has the portable student xylophone and we take that with us on concerts; it’s the sibling of the donated vibraphone, which appropriate was donated to a church. Since I only have the bells, my bell set must stand in for all four instruments, as well as the chimes (coat rack door chimes are most decidedly not portable).

 

For this purpose, I’ve accumulated a set of useful mallets that help me approximate the sounds of chimes and vibraphones, and occasionally, the triangle (if the trianglist gets lost). That’s where a friend like P.D. is invaluable.  He’s no more a professional musician than the rest of us.  He’s a tool-and-dye man, by trade, a machinist.  He sort of gives a new meaning to the word “materialist.”

 

When you’re a mallet player in need of a mallet that no one makes, he can cook it up for you.  Every mallet player should be so lucky as to have their own, personal machinist to custom-make their mallets.  He made a wonderful set of brass mallets for a bell player on another band.  He showed them to me and even let me try them and I just had to have a set for myself.  So he made them.  What fun I had showing them off to my jealous professional percussionist friends.

 

“What do you need all those for?” they asked me. I was shocked.  Professional percussionists asking moi about dynamics?  That was my reply.  “Why, for dynamics, of course.  What else?”  They walked away, shaking their heads.

 

I have mallets for every occasion. The common everyday brass mallets for loud pieces like marches when all you hear are trumpets.  I have my Lullaby mallets, which I used for professional orchestra bell sets (when I had them) and for Bloomingdale’s pitiful, schoolkid bell set, whose keys were locked down to make sure no sound emitted from them which would send the young musician running in terror from the band room.

 

Now I have an aluminum set. These bells are easier to carry but their sound is tinnier than a professional set.  The virtue is that they cost $800 (professional orchestra bells cost upwards of ($2,500).  For this set, my machinist friend made me a set of Peter Cottontail mallets.  They’re not made of compressed cotton, of course, but they sound like it when I play some Disney piece.  The Lullaby mallets were too hard for the new, aluminum bells.

 

Then there are my Star Twinkle mallets, the ones my machinist friend made, and its softer sister-set, my Buttercups (the handles are yellow, whereas the Star Twinkle mallets are black, with silver titanium balls). My directors are all very happy and I get general approval from the musicians near the back of the band.

 

As we watched one of the symphonies performing, and the camera turned on the bell player, I knew immediately that he had the wrong mallets. Only the violins were playing, and pianissimo (pp) at that, and the mallet player was about to attack his keys with a set of hard, black mallets.

 

“He’d better change his mallets,” I winced. “He’s going to be too loud.”  He was.

 

Meanwhile, my friend replied, “Well maybe he doesn’t have any other mallets or thinks he’s using the right set. Leave him alone.  He’s a pro.  He knows what he’s doing.”

 

“He’d better have another set,” I murmured. “Because he is too loud.”

 

The camera had turned away. Now it came back to the bell player.  He had another, softer set of mallets in hand, for the same phrase of music (which was being repeated).

 

“I told you so.”

 

While we’re on the subject of symphony orchestras and professional musicians, I might as well mention the behavior of some of the soloists, something that always has us in stitches. It’s always the performance artist who feels that playing the right notes isn’t quite enough, but must move around almost gymnastically, swaying and dipping, raising their eyebrows, plunging and almost (but not quite yet) leaping out of their seats in order to demonstrate their passion for the music.

 

There’s one in every orchestra and band, professional, community or school, big or small. It’s the musician the musicians seated around them want to hit with a fly swatter.  Audiences and camera operators love them because the performance is static and boring, otherwise.  To the rest of us, they’re pests.  We can’t understand how they even play in tune doing such musical calisthenics or how they don’t break their teeth on their mouthpieces.  For God’s sake, sit still!

 

So, back to the subject at hand.  The Star Twinkle mallets remind me of something else of which Nordlinger wrote about in his essay:  the proliferation of science fiction soundtrack music, and I might add, soundtrack music in general.

 

Nordlinger was searching for the classical music composer genius of this generation, and we all tend to agree that it’s John Williams. The man has been composing scores since the 1950s.  He wrote both theme songs for the TV series, Lost in Space.

 

However, we lower-class musicians are dismayed by the general adoption of the film score genre into the band music canon. Broadway and film musicals meet our approval because the music follows a general pattern and has a melody.  Introduction, theme A, repeat, theme B, repeat, dogfight (when appropriate) and the trio (or third and last part).  John Williams was a smart enough composer to adopt themes, particular in the Star Wars trilogies.

 

There’s the famous (or infamous) Imperial March. There’s the Darth Vader Theme, the Luke Skywalker Theme, and the extremely lush and beautiful Princess Leia’s Theme.  What exactly the latter had to do with the actual character is a mystery.  The last thing I would think of listening to Princess Leia’s Theme is the firecracker space princess who asks, “Will somebody get this walking carpet out of my way?!  Not exactly the soaring of violins.

 

No matter. While you only hear pieces of the themes in the actual film, you can listen to entire themes on the soundtrack.  The Star Wars score is so famous that it’s as iconic as the films themselves.  Playing them, of course, is not as easy as you might think.  Those triplets in the opening march (as the story introduction is crawling into oblivion…) – you know – daaah daahh-da-da-da daah daahh da-da-da- dah dah da-da-da – daaah!! – are about as easy to keep up with as American Pharaoh in the Kentucky Derby.  You wouldn’t think so – but they are.

 

Still, once you get the hang of it, you’re in business. This is John Williams we’re talking about, who knew his themes, and one heck of a famous movie.  However, even John Williams didn’t get it right every time.  His score for the film War Horse seems to have run ahead of him, sending musicians galloping across the musical countryside trying to figure just what it is they’re supposed to be playing.

 

His theme, “Dartmoor, 1912,” from War Horse, earned half a whinny from numerous bands with which we played.  The percussion part was monotonous enough – but we’re used to monotony in percussion.  We’ve played pieces where we counted up to 150 measures before we got to play something, which turned out to be four notes on the bells and two dings on the triangle.

 

Unfortunately, the piece was monotonous and bewildering for the rest of the band as well. It was a number written to accompany a scene on celluloid, to follow a movie’s actions.  There was no other purpose in life or music for it.  It just cantered along, until it went into a long, noisy, senseless gallop and finally collapsed in a heap at the end.

 

That’s the sort of music I believe Nordlinger may have been (rightly) decrying. For better (as in Star Wars, ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan – an excellent score, one of the best ever) or for worse (Williams’ aforementioned War Horse, The Lord of the Rings) films have influenced classical music composition.  That’s ironic since Dvorak’s The New World Symphony  influenced Williams to use its introduction for the introduction to Bruce, the Shark, in Jaws.

 

Disney is another notable influence on contemporary musical composition. The company’s production of animated musicals, where characters sing, greatly enhances its musicality.  You enjoy (well, if you’re a kid) listening to the music, although the current Frozen, like all contemporary music, is rather atonal.  Simple music for simple minds.  That’s the rock n’ roll influence.

 

Nordlinger is right when he writes that music will become musical again when musicians, rather than mathematicians, compose music again. Or at least, people with good hearing.  If someone doesn’t do something about the volume (we could barely hear a note of Williams’ score in The Force Awakens) of music, we will not only have a tone-deaf generation, they will be totally devoid of hearing at all, and that is when the music will truly die.

 

As for Nordlinger’s “The Year of the Percussionist” while we percussionists do not ask for any such honors, we certainly hope audience will have more respect for us and our job after reading this.

 

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Published in: on January 12, 2016 at 9:15 pm  Leave a Comment  

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