Crash, bang, wallop – the joys of percussion

I have reached a point with my score whereby additional parts have been added, and others have been edited or deleted. Yes, my 2 weeks summer break has been spent glued to this project like my life has depended upon it.

And to give me some distraction from the up and coming horror that is score layout (I can’t even begin to think about this right now), I realised whilst completing the above that I was lacking in percussion. By a long way. After all, there was only timpani. As one instrumentalist kindly said to me – ‘it’s a little sparse in the drums department’. Understatement alert.

So, for someone who has little interest or knowledge in percussion, how on EARTH did I go about starting this task? Good question. By this point, having worked through the score in some depth, I had started to ‘hear’ what was needed along the way, which was at least slightly helpful.

I then literally stumbled across this YouTube video, which walked me through – and gave top examples – of various definite and indefinite pitched orchestral percussion instruments:

From this video alone, I realised the instruments I wanted to add to my score:
Glockenspiel, bass drum, side/snare drum, cymbals and tambourine. Nothing spectacular but it would be enough, I hoped, to enhance what my score was already saying.

But then came the technical bit; I wasn’t sure how to notate the percussion, and with my already burgeoning score, I was concerned about throwing a further 5 or 6 staves at it.

After some deliberation and ‘chat’ with some fellow students, it was decided (in the context of me having a slight panic attack over available space in the score) that I would keep the timpani on a separate stave and the same for the glockenspiel. The side & bass drums, cymbals and tambourine would then be notated on one 5-line, dedicated ‘percussion’ stave, with suitable ‘voicing’ and labelling of each instrument.

And so whilst trying to conform to standard drum mapping notation, where instruments played by the hands would have note stems going up, and those played with the feet to stems going down, I ended up putting the two drums with stems down. This breaks convention but meant that there was suitable differentiation between the parts.

After working out how, it was then a question of playing the score steadily through and really ‘hearing’ the piece in a different way. With the YouTube video fresh in my mind, I knew that I wanted the glock as I needed something ‘tinkly’ to add lightness to various sections. I also knew from watching the video that I really needed to add the bass drum to add weight to the timpani at various points.

I already knew that I needed a side/snare drum for the regal section of the Queen of Hearts, but as I played through the score, there were more sections where it really did just ‘work’. The tambourine was an inspired thought that I had specifically with the hookah-smoking caterpillar in mind. I already had an ethnic feel to the instrumentation in this section, and the video highlighted that the tambourine had arabic origins. As soon as I heard it played, I knew this was the right sound to go with the caterpillar, and I’m delighted with the new dimension that it has brought.

As I type this post, I haven’t yet completed adding all the percussion into the score, but hope to have this completed by the end of this week. I then need to evaluate the whole score again after a few days ‘clear’ from it, otherwise I cannot truly hear what I have achieved so far.

Once I am happy with each part and the feel of each section, I will then start working on the layout of the score, which as you’ve probably gathered by now is something of a nemesis of mine. I truly don’t know quite how I am going to resolve the issues I have but will take advice from friends who use Sibelius more than me!

Youtube clip:
How to Listen to Music 4: Orchestral Percussion Instruments, by Joseph Hollings,  29 July 2012

Unknown. (Unknown). Guide to Drum & Percussion Notation. Available: Last accessed 21 August 2016



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s