From 7 to 4; my ‘new look’ percussion

This exercise has taken a HUGE amount of thinking about and many evenings of worry and stress, but I ‘think’ I’ve cracked it.

Following the feedback that I had from my tutor about reducing the number of players needed for the percussion parts, I initially froze; I couldn’t think about how I was going to achieve this. At all. Total brain shut down.

After some time, I realised that the only way I could determine how to reduce the number of players down from 7 was to understand what was actually going on and look carefully for opportunities where the parts didn’t coincide (and therefore provide opportunities for re-allocation).

So – the first stage in the process was to write a list of the percussion instrument cues. This consisted of writing down each instrument and the bar number it enters within. I worked through the entire score and where there were overlaps and more than one instrument playing, I highlighted it on my list. This then gave me a sub-list which showed me the parts that couldn’t be assigned to one player.

Once this was done, the next important part of the process was to embrace the idea of removing the drum kit but retain the rhythm and sound created by it. On reflection, a drum kit in a chamber orchestra piece isn’t the most conventional of inclusions, but what this exercise proved was that the Mad Hatter section needed a comical element, and this percussion part added a welcome change to the texture. I am currently unsure about using the orchestral bass drum as an alternative to the kick drum of the kit…I may update this blog at a later stage with my final decision.

The drum kit part was very simple, only consisting of kick/bass drum, side drum and hi-hat. These lines could easily be recreated with the orchestral bass/tenor drums, side drums and cymbal, maybe even by keeping the hi-hat?

So – in order to lose the kit, I needed to analyse what it did where and consider if I had the equivalent instruments available to execute them instead. From mapping out all the percussion cues, I knew where the kit played and what else was playing, too.

Predominantly, the drum kit played with the timpani or the glockenspiel. I had already decided to leave the timpani part alone, leaving it to a dedicated player. Equally, I wasn’t at this point ready to give the glockenspiel player anything else at this stage, although my position on this changed and I was glad to keep an open mind about this.

The analysis revealed that the kit plays at the same time as the bass and the cymbal at bar 532; great news, though; they play in unison with the kit, both in instrumentation and rhythm! So, this section would be easy to edit because these weren’t actually independent lines.

The next part of the drum kit, the hi-hat, plays on its own at bar 554. Again, easy to replace OR keep as it is if I’m to retain the hi-hat.

At bar 561, the entire drum kit plays and this is the busiest section for other instruments to cover the 3 parts of the kit. However, no other percussion plays here, which again makes this easy to edit across to other parts.

The mapping exercise highlighted various cues following this main section where various parts of the kit play, but again, they proved easy to edit because other instruments are available to cover the parts suitably.

The conclusion I came to was to reassign the 7 individual parts (timpani, glockenspiel, drum kit, tambourine, cymbal, side drum, bass drum) to 4 players, which means that for 3 of them, they will have to cover more than one instrument. The new structure now looks like this:

Player 1: Timpani
Player 2: Hi-hat & Cymbals (currently written for 2 independent staves but I’m going to combine them onto one 5-line stave to save space on the score)
Player 3: Tambourine & Glockenspiel (I soon realised that these parts didn’t overlap and so could be shared)
Player 4: Side & Bass Drum (I eventually combined these onto one 5-line stave, too)

Once all this had been worked out, I then had to face the wrath of Sibelius. Learning new things in software is great and usually triggered by a live project such as this composition.  However, when you just want to be able to ‘do’ and ‘achieve’ something without spending literally hours pouring over manuals and forums, it does become an extremely frustrating and tedious task.

In order to re-score the existing percussion parts to other players, I had to add the separate parts in, i.e. staves for the cymbal, tambourine, side and bass drums, alongside the existing timpani, drum kit and ‘percussion’ lines that I already had. It was then a question of just copy and pasting the relevant notation from original lines to new lines. Once this was complete, I could then delete the obsolete parts and then bracket together the staves that would be played by each percussionist.

And once I had scored the parts for the cymbal and hi-hat throughout the score, I realised that they could both be scored onto one 5-line drum kit stave, so these parts had to be re-done. This was a far more economic idea, though, and helped free up some page space.

I found this drum notation chart which is very useful to refer to:

(Taken from

There were a few conventions I needed to remember to adhere to when I wrote two parts on one stave, such as making sure stem directions were correct, especially when two different parts were playing at once. I also needed to ensure that when two parts were being represented on one stave but perhaps not playing (off-beat, alternate rhythms) I needed to make sure I scored the respective rests.

In the fullness of time, once my attention has completely moved on from the presentation aspects of my score, I can get round to some more compositional aspects (which I can’t WAIT to do as editing is not my strongest forte!). Once THIS has been completed, I hope to be able to hide empty staves to try to rescue the amount of paper used in this project…I can’t deny that the prospect of hiding empty staves doesn’t fill me with dread because having tried this before, it put me a lot of trouble, but I am willing to give it a go! Watch the proverbial space!


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