“Martian Postcard” is a challenging intermediate rudimental snare drum solo that incorporates more than half of the 40 PAS International Drum Rudiments. I call it a “postcard” because the solo is no longer than a minute and a half, and the piece is Martian because its foundation is the driving 5/4 rhythm from the “Mars” movement of The Planets suite by Gustav Holst. If you aren’t familiar with the piece, you should stop reading this article right now and find a recording! Besides informing your interpretation of this solo, The Planets is one of the most influential works of the 20th century, and “Mars” has one of the most rock ’n’ roll endings in the history of classical music. With the current wave of renewed interest in Martian exploration by NASA and several private enterprises, I don’t think it’s entirely ridiculous to hope that I might one day receive a video message of someone playing this piece from the surface of the Red Planet (or at least from within a protected habitat).
In writing “Martian Postcard,” I wanted to strike a balance between traditional and modern rudimental/marching snare drumming, while still creating something that is musically satisfying. Performers at all levels, even beginners, should be selective in choosing the projects in which they invest their time, and perhaps the most important thing to consider is what musical rewards they will receive for their efforts. I feel that the primary purpose of an intermediate musical work is to teach the performer something (a concept, a skill, a technique), and being fun to play and/or listen to is an added bonus!
Of the 40 PAS International Rudiments, 27 are found in this piece. For the performer’s convenience I have labelled each rudiment’s first appearance and provided sticking when appropriate. The performer must first be able to play all of the incorporated rudiments with relaxed, fluid motions; if you find yourself unable to play something at tempo without tensing up and “muscling” your way through, you should slow things down, isolate the fragment of music that is causing you difficulty, and figure out how to play that fragment while remaining relaxed. Here are a few additional, more specific tips:
Measure 1: Clearly define your dynamic levels, starting at the very beginning. Most of the growing dynamics in the piece are terraced, rather than linked by crescendi, and if you don’t have your softest and loudest levels already determined in advance, you will likely play yourself into a corner with no more room to grow.
Measures 4–6: Be very deliberate about which notes are accented and which are unaccented; your hands may naturally want to add accents at the beginning or ending of certain rudiments, but doing so will disrupt the piece’s slowly-building intensity and take away from the significance of the accents that are intended.
Measure 9: The temptation will be to ignore the inverted flam taps and play them as normal flam taps, but don’t do it! This is one of the trickier rudiments, but at this speed you should be able to develop some fluidity through that passage.
Measure 11: You may be accustomed to thinking of the 17-Stroke Roll as having the duration of a half note, but as you can see here, that isn’t always the case. This roll (and all the other rolls in this piece) are played with a triplet skeleton. If you count up the strokes, you’ll realize that you haven’t been lied to; this is a 17-Stroke Roll, despite being longer than a half note.
Measures 25–26: The challenge in this passage is to keep your diddle speeds well-regulated. Think of it like a car switching gears; each change is an abrupt and complete new rate of speed, rather than a smooth accelerando or ritardando.
Measure 28: This is an instance where I chose to use traditional rudimental swing drumming notation, rather than a modern marching style. The measure in question looks like this:
But it could also be rewritten (and should essentially sound) like this:
The important thing is that the music continues to flow smoothly and without interruption. Try playing the measure without the grace notes, then find a way to fit them back in without changing the rhythm.
Measures 31–32: Here is another example of traditional swing drumming notation. The section looks like this in the music:
But using modern notation, it could also be rewritten like this:
As before, the important thing is to keep the tempo steady and to fit the ornaments around the rhythm without any push or pull. Try playing just the “check pattern” (the triplet skeleton rhythm of the roll without any grace notes) in order to figure out the underlying rhythm of the passage in time, then add the diddles and grace notes back in.
Measure 35: Hopefully you took my earlier advice and listened to a good recording of The Planets, or at least the “Mars” movement. If you are familiar with the ending of “Mars,” you know exactly what is going on from measure 31 to the end of the piece. Use Holst’s music to inform your decision about how to play the roll under the fermata in regard to its length and character.
One final performance note: The given tempo of the piece (132–144 bpm) is indeed the appropriate range to consider. Don’t worry about pushing it any faster; you might be able to play it at 152 bpm after a full night’s sleep, a hot shower, a great breakfast, and a nice long warmup, but the music will sound too rushed to be correctly understood by the audience (especially the last three lines). Similarly, playing the piece at 120 bpm might make some of the trickier spots easier to play, but the rolls will be too open.
I hope you enjoy playing “Martian Postcard” and are able to use it as both a vehicle for developing your playing skills as well as a satisfying and effective performance piece! I invite you to post recordings of yourself playing this piece (and all other pieces written by members of the PAS Composition Committee for Rhythm!Scene) on YouTube and other social media. Maybe one day, someone really will play this on Mars!
Dr. Brian S. Graiser is a contemporary percussionist, composer, and teacher, and serves as the 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 the extended-range vibraphone, highlighted by such efforts as his DMA Project "Concerto No. 1 [Lulu]: Creating the World's First Concerto for Four-Octave Vibraphone." Dr. Graiser regularly tours and performs with his wife, Alaina, as the Reflect harp+percussion duo. He is a member of PAS and BMI and his compositions are available through Keyboard Percussion Publications, Strikeclef Publishing, Alfonce Productions, and self-publication (distributed through Frontier Percussion).