“Microtude” is an etude in the traditional sense, in that it targets a specific musical skill to be developed within the framework of a broader performance piece, complete with a beginning, middle, and end. Most percussionists are familiar with technical etudes (studies that target specific techniques, e.g., snare drum rudiments or four-mallet permutations), but in preparing to write “Microtude” I saw the need (and opportunity) to address a different kind of skill: developing a percussionist’s sensitivity to sound and timbre.
I like to tell students that a percussionist’s primary responsibility isn’t to “keep the beat” (just ask any orchestral or chamber percussionist), but rather to curate sounds. I think the metaphor works very well; after all, an art curator is responsible for not only going out into the world and collecting meaningful items, but also returning home and deciding which items to display when, and in what combination.
“Microtude,” then, is an etude that develops a percussionist’s ability to define and control the exact quality of sound(s) produced at any moment. It is the performer’s responsibility to experiment with stick/mallet options, playing spots, stroke speed, etc., in the pursuit of finding, and consistently reproducing, the desired sound quality for every note. I chose to use a tin can and a clay pot because they are easy to obtain and are both capable of producing a wide range of sounds if the performer takes the time to explore them. I have also given performers the added responsibility of finding, or “curating,” a sustaining sound of their own choosing. Performers should let the musical context and their own artistic sensibilities dictate which sound(s) to use.
Helpful hints for learning “Microtude”
I have found that using the backs of two rattan xylophone mallets gives me the greatest measure of control over balance and tone, whether I’m tapping, scraping, or using dead strokes (drumsticks, on the other hand, give me a slightly more satisfactory tone when tapping the instruments, but the severe loss in tone quality when scraping them is too much for me to allow). As for my personal “sound of choice,” I combined two different sounds: some small, high-pitched Indian bells I recently purchased, and a set of snail-shell wind chimes that I made for myself. I think the delicate (almost distant) metallic tinkling of the bells on top of the “wet and earthy” snail-shell sound creates a satisfying combination that brings out certain colors in the existing timbres of the tin can and clay pot (similar to how spices and seasoning bring out certain flavors in food). Here are some other, more specific tips:
• Measure 1: The sticking indications are given with the assumption that the performer will set up the clay pot on the right and the tin can on the left. However, this is not the only possible option, and if one were to find a different arrangement (e.g., placing the tin can behind the clay pot), other stickings might be more appropriate.
• Measure 6: It is important to use a dead stroke on the tin can while playing the open accent on the clay pot. As a listening exercise, try playing that “chord” with different combinations of stroke types and playing spots. I think the best one is the one I wrote, but you may disagree with me!
• Measures 7–11: I think this is the most difficult part of the etude, as the performer must be able to play with complete control while doing two different motions and maintaining a good balance between the instruments. I have found that in order to produce the proper sonic balance, my tin can scrapes require a much gentler motion than my clay pot scrapes. I use an up-and-down motion to scrape the ridges on the side of the tin can (make sure your tin can has ridges), and a forward-and-back motion to scrape the side of the clay pot.
• Measure 13: Here, I change my scraping motion on the clay pot from forward-and-back to up-and-down, similar to my tin can scraping motion, in order to produce staccato scrapes.
• Measure 14: To produce the long-sustaining tin can scrape, I use both mallets to scrape up and down continuously, offsetting my right hand by about an inch so that there aren’t any gaps in the sound (see the video of my performance for a demonstration).
I hope you enjoy playing “Microtude” and use it not only as a stepping stone to developing a sensitive ear towards sounds and timbres, but also as a gateway to the endlessly rich world of curating them. I look forward to watching video postings of this piece and seeing/hearing what performers come up with!
Dr. Brian S. Graiser is a contemporary percussionist, composer, and teacher, and is Adjunct Instructor of Percussion and Marching Percussion Director at Sam Houston State University. His musical exploits are highly diverse, although he takes pride in being at the forefront of advocacy for extended-range vibraphone, including his DMA Project, “Concerto No. 1 [Lulu]: Creating the World’s First Concerto for Four-Octave Vibraphone.” Dr. Graiser is a member of PAS and BMI, and his compositions are available through Keyboard Percussion Publications, Alfonce Productions, and self-publication (distributed through Frontier Percussion).