Rethinking the percussion

Following my tutor’s feedback following the submission of Assignment 6, this has formed part of recent work that I have grouped under ‘presentation’; to be honest, I’ve deliberately saved this for last before progressing onto compositional elements because this part daunts me!

My tutor made the following comment about the percussion in her feedback:
‘You also need to specify how many percussion players you need in total; the list makes it look like you need 7, which is disproportionate to the rest of the orchestra. Can you combine several of the instruments into a single part?’

Of course, she’s completely right. To list 7 percussionists for a chamber orchestral piece is a little overkill. But equally, how do I know how many players I need???

Percussion is most definitely NOT my bag. I put so much effort into it for my last assignment that this aspect of the feedback has thrown me because I wasn’t exactly within my comfort zone before, and THIS has totally thrown me. However, not one to be put off, I decided to contact a friend of mine who is a percussionist, albeit amateur, and she was kind enough to lend her thoughts to my score in its current ‘state’:

“Hi Amy,

Here are my thoughts – I’ve just written down everything that’s come into my head. I hope it makes sense! I’ve just listed my comments by page with a few thoughts at the end. I’ve also noted a couple of places where you haven’t included dynamics – I realise you haven’t finalised your score yet so are likely to add these in anyway, but I thought I might as well just mention everything I think of in case it’s any help!
p.16 I would note how loud you want the cymbals to be played here.

p.17 The glockenspiel overlaps with the side drum so definitely two players needed!

p.23 If you want a large orchestra bass drum and a pair of crash cymbals, you will need two players here. 
However, you could consider using the kit player to play the kit bass drum and a suspended cymbal instead. We often use a suspended cymbal instead of crash cymbals when there aren’t enough players. But if you want a very loud sound for both then stick with the crash cymbals 
and the large bass drum – I couldn’t see the dynamics. Also, the bass drum is normally notated in the bottom space of the stave (an F if you were in treble clef)

p. 26 bar 186 I would add dynamics for the cymbals – do you want them to get louder with the rest of the instruments?

p. 27 bar 198 You need to put the bass drum in the bottom space of the stave as before. Again, you could have a kit player doing this. It depends how loud you need it to be (you need to add dynamics here).

p.28 bars 201-202 if you want crash cymbals you need three players here for the Percussion line; however you could use a suspended / ride cymbal and have the snare drum player on both snared drum and cymbal.

p.46 bar 349 and p.55 bar 421 add dynamics for tambourine

p.47 bar 359 add dynamics for bass drum

p.57 bar 436 make it clear what kind of cymbal you want – presumably a suspended one for the trill

p.58 in bars 444-445 that run of notes for the timpani is slightly unusual – I’m not sure that you will be able to tune four timpani drums to those notes (well, you may be able to if your orchestra has more than one drum the same size, which I have seen before, but I don’t know whether it’s usual). It might be worth asking your tutor whether a typical orchestral set of timpani
would have the ranges to be able to tune four drums to those pitches at the same time.

p.63 – similarly to above, you usually only have four or five timpani and retuning them can be done quite quickly, but watch out in fast passages e.g. moving from the five notes in bars 476-478 to a quick series of lower notes in bar 479 looks a bit tricky to me. I would check with your tutor how doable they think it is for a professional player.

p.65 when the kit comes in at bar 484 you need some dynamics. I think if you were to split the instruments up here you would need three players for that part, because only one person could play the cymbal part standing up – they would need to hold the cymbal with their hand and then 
release it for the open sound, so you couldn’t play both cymbals and side drum together here. An orchestral bass drum may be a bit boomy but a professional should be able to make it sound like a kit bass drum if that’s what you want.
p.72 bar 532 if the bass drum is on a five line stave it should be in the bottom space. Remember to add dynamics :). I think you need to have a crotchet rest on the top line in front of each cymbal crash rather than two quavers.
p.76 bar 554 – I think the symbol you’ve used here is for a ride cymbal but I wondered whether you want a duller, not ringing, cymbal sound here, as you would get if you kept your foot on the pedal on a high hat? I think this would be harder to create away from the drum kit, as I think you’d have to hold the cymbal in one hand and play with the other, but a professional should be able to do that OK.
Looking back through my notes and thinking about it all I would go for a kit player, a timpanist, a glockenspiel player and a cymbal/side drum/tambourine player, and a bass drum player. Or, if you were happy for the cymbals, bass drum and side drum to be played on the kit (if you want crash cymbals or a big boomy bass drum sound it obviously wouldn’t work, but otherwise it should be fine), you could move those onto the kit part. The kit player could also pick up and play the tambourine. From a player’s perspective, there are a lot of bars rest in the piece and any opportunity to combine the parts is worth doing. But ultimately it depends on the sound you want.
If you don’t have a kit player, the cymbal or side drum player could also play the tambourine – I don’t believe that clashes with either of those.
I actually think that because of the way you’ve written the drum kit part, it makes sense for it to be played on a kit, but it really boils down to the sound you want. It will probably sound a little lighter with a kit, perhaps evoking more of a musical theatre feel to it. Professional orchestral players should be able to make all of the separate instruments sound very similar to a kit if they’re very good. But it may not quite flow the same way that it would with just one person playing all of the parts. I’m imagining it would sound a little heavier on each part. It would be interesting to write it both ways and get a group of people to try it out and compare the two. Of course some purists would probably think the kit shouldn’t be used as it traditionally isn’t part of an orchestra, but personally I think it’s up to the composer!
Apart from that, I would generally say it’s looking good. Just be clear whether you want the player to use a pair of clash cymbals or a suspended cymbal, and watch out that the dynamics are present at every percussion entry. Timpani can be retuned but not always very quickly so watch out for using lots of notes quickly in succession – obviously the better the player the quicker they can do this, so your parts may be fine, but I’d possibly see if you can ask an expert about those bits.
One final thought – you could think about using a mark tree to represent Alice falling rather than the glockenspiel in bars 151-152; I think the movement of the mark tree is a bit more evocative of falling – if that’s what you want to do of course. I just thought I’d suggest it in case you wanted to consider it. Obviously I don’t know what the music sounds like so it may not work at all!”
Elaine Goodall

HOW good is this feedback? I’m all for helping myself. I realise this course has been and is totally all about self-directed learning, but I totally see the value in reaching out to friends and colleagues who know about instruments that I don’t play for guidance and advice. And hey – I may choose not to follow her advice…(I more than likely will, though).

I’ve also found a good website which gives an example of a typical grouping of players:
http://andrewhugill.com/manuals/layouts/percussion.html

I will feature a more in-depth post about how I eventually tackle this task. I’m going in!

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