Teaching Percussion: An Ensemble Approach
Tired of trying to get the percussion section to “play with the group?” Well if they can’t play musically as a section, you’ll never get them to play musically with the group.
Training beginning percussionists in a public school setting is often a challenge since most instrumental music teachers do not have a broad background in percussion. Often music educators have had a semester of percussion in college where they have been exposed to all of the instruments of the percussion family. As with other families of instruments, these methods courses tend to be focused on teaching the technical aspects of the instrument and rarely have time to include musical considerations and an understanding of balance within the section. The same problem occurs when training percussionists in a private setting since this is often a one on one situation without the opportunity to experience playing in a section. So how do we train young percussionists to listen to each other and balance the sounds within their section and then apply that understanding to playing with the band or orchestra?
The legendary performer, author, teacher and businessman Vic Firth and I had often contemplated this problem. After much discussion we formulated the concept of developing a series of individual teaching methods that had the added attribute of being able to be played together in any combination. The goal was to create beginning - stand alone - methods for snare drum, keyboard percussion, timpani and accessory instruments with the unique attribute that every line of music in each method could be played with any or all of the other books, thus creating an individual method series that was also a duet, trio or complete ensemble method. We felt the methods should include etudes and technical studies but should also include solos and other performance material conducive to teaching musicianship. What resulted was the Firth/Feldstein Percussion Series, which we believe accomplishes the goals of individual as well as group instruction.
Technique must be taught and developed, but technique alone will not develop musical performers or a musical section. In this article, I will discuss four concepts of ensemble teaching that will help all percussion sections become musical additions to performing organizations.
1. Develop the understanding that most percussion instruments are available in various sizes and are constructed from various materials.
2. Develop the understanding that most percussion beaters are available in various sizes and are constructed from various materials.
3. Develop the understanding that various areas of each percussion instrument can produce a different sound.
4. Develop listening skills.
The first concept, Develop the understanding that most percussion instruments are available in various sizes and are constructed from various materials is an often over looked fact with percussionists. Seeing a part written for snare drum is a strong hint of the type of sound the composer/arranger wanted, but just playing the part on any snare drum would not be correct. The nature of the composition will indicate weather the drum should be shallow or deep, tuned loose or tight and use wire or gut snares. For example a Sousa style march snare drum part should be played on a deep drum with gut snares and a fairly loose head, while a contemporary band composition would more likely be played on a narrow, tightly tuned drum with wire snares. The size and construction materials make even more of a difference when parts are written for other percussion instruments such as triangle, tom toms and cymbals. For example: if a triangle part is being played with an orchestra bell part or flute part one might want a high pitched instrument to blend with the other sounds. In that case a smaller triangle might be in order. If the part was with timpani or low brass, a lower pitched, larger instrument might be the correct choice. Picking the correct instrument for the part implies that having one triangle or one suspended cymbal probably won’t give you the flexibility to create the correct sound to enhance the overall musical outcome.
The second concept: Develop the understanding that most percussion beaters are available in various sizes and are constructed from various materials goes hand in hand with the first. If we go back to our snare drum example, a deeper and probably larger in diameter snare drum should be played with a larger stick with a bigger bead or striking surface to produce its characteristic sound and a narrower tightly tuned drum might be played with a lighter stick with a smaller bead or tip. Suspended cymbals can produce a wide variety of sounds. If a suspended cymbal roll is in a legato passage you might want to play it with soft yarn marimba mallets. If it is a rhythmic passage you might want to use snare drum sticks.
The third concept: Develop the understanding that various areas of each percussion instrument can produce a different sound is also an outgrowth of the first two concepts. Let’s look at our contemporary band composition. We have chosen a narrow snare drum with wire snares and have tuned it fairly tight. We have chosen a pair of sticks that will extract a great sound without being to big so as to hamper any vibrations of the head. Now the part calls for a roll that starts very softly and gets quite loud. Understanding how the various areas of our drum head works can help us play this part more musically. Every drumhead vibrates the most at the rim and the least in the center. It is therefore easier to play a soft sustained sound near the rim. So start the roll with the sticks on the head near the rim and move towards the center of the drumhead as you get louder. The same is true of a suspended cymbal. It vibrates the most at the edge and the least in the center or cup of the cymbal. To play a roll with a legato passage we have already chosen the yarn mallets, now we would know to play it near the edge of the cymbal where it vibrates the most. The rhythmic passage that we are going to play with the snare sticks would be played near the cup of the cymbal where it would vibrate less.
The fourth concept, Develop listening skills, is a must for every musician. The very nature of percussion instruments makes them produce sounds that tend to be loud. This often tends to have the percussionist only hear their own part and not how it fits with the others in the section. To overcome this problem, have each percussionist play their part alone while the others listen and watch their parts. By doing this, everyone knows what everyone else is playing. Then add the other instruments one at a time so each musician can listen to how their part fits and how they come together to form a whole.
So lets put the concepts together in sort of a checklist to help you remember the four basic ideas.
1. Choose the instrument that is the appropriate size and construction.
2. Choose the appropriate size beaters constructed from appropriate material.
3. Choose the appropriate area of each percussion instrument to produce the desired sound.
4. Listening intently to everything you, your section, and your ensemble is playing.
If you keep these four concepts in mind, and have your students practice as a percussion section in an ensemble situation, they will develop a musical, well-balanced approach to playing in any performance situation.
About Sandy Feldstein
Sandy Feldstein combines a wealth of knowledge and success in both the business and musical aspects of music publishing and music education. He holds a doctorate from Columbia University and his early experience in education includes six years as Professor of Music Education at the Crane School of Music, State University of New York at Potsdam.
A prolific composer/arranger/author, Mr. Feldstein has published more than 600 musical compositions and books in all educational areas. His works are used daily by thousands of students and performers. ASCAP has recognized his excellence by granting him an ASCAP Standard Award for Composition every year since 1964. Mr. Feldstein was also the 2005winner.
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