Have you ever been caught in this situation? You are playing snare drum or bass drum in band or orchestra. It is a loud, bombastic section that ultimately gives way to a quiet and more serene passage. You need to grab the tambourine in preparation for the next section, but it is upside down! You must spend the next few moments trying to figure out how to turn it over without it jingling all over the place, but unfortunately, your efforts are overmatched by gravity.
As percussionists, we contend with a lot of noisy instruments. We often don’t have the luxury of holding one instrument for a whole piece, like a wind or string player (but we do have more fun!). As we switch from one instrument or implement to another, carelessness can lead to unintended noises that can detract from a piece of music. However, with a little forethought, we all can avoid being that percussionist bumping the thunder sheet during an ensemble silence.
First, consider how you pick up and lay down instruments, mallets, and sticks. Always use mallet trays to reduce the amount of noise sticks make. You do not need anything more than a music stand and a black towel to help absorb extraneous sounds. Avoid setting mallets on instruments as they can easily roll off or make extra noise, and use trap tables for instruments like tambourines, crash cymbals, claves, etc. Unless the composer specifies, do not set instruments on top of other instruments. For a larger table or heavier instruments, use a folding tray or keyboard stand topped with a piece of wood with some cushioning foam or carpet. In addition to how, consider when you pick up and lay down instruments, mallets, and sticks. Especially with noisier instruments, try to do this during a louder section of the piece. That way, if any extraneous sound is made, it will be hidden.
Mark your music to remind you of upcoming instrument or mallet changes.Padded mallet trays and trap tables can help you avoid making noise when changing implements or instruments.
Spatial awareness with instrument setup is also critically important. Make sure your instruments are not crammed next to each other, unless you are playing multiple instruments from the same position. This will reduce the opportunity to accidentally bump one instrument with another or with yourself. Often, percussionists must share limited space at the back of the stage, so be considerate and cooperative in your setup to avoid competition over the space and instruments. Percussion is just as much about choreography as about making music. Have a game plan and write notes in your music telling you when to go where and when to pick up what. Often, it is beneficial to prepare an instrument, mallet choice, or tuning change many measures in advance, when the music allows you to do so with minimal noise and distraction. It may seem silly at first to write these kinds of directions, but midperformance, it can be easy to forget or diverge from the best plan of attack.
Finally, make extra copies of music if needed. The last thing we need to worry about is shuffling pages of music back and forth to different instruments. Having multiple copies of music already set in place where they are needed will get rid of a visually distracting and potentially noisy variable.
As with most anything in life, playing percussion is about preparation. It is easy to forget about these seemingly minute details when worrying about an upcoming solo pianissimo snare drum roll or a wicked-fast xylophone lick. However, a little care goes a long way, and taking into consideration things like when and how instruments and sticks are picked up and set down can greatly improve your total performance. The last thing we want to do is minimize the intended effect of a piece of music with unintended distractions. With a little planning, we can not only sound good when playing, but sound good when not playing, too.
Dr. Alexandros Fragiskatos is Assistant Professor of Instrumental Music at Missouri Valley College. A proponent of contemporary music, he has commissioned, premiered, and performed new works across the U.S. and Europe. Alex plays percussion and drumset for musical theatre, and also plays steel pan, having directed the Arizona State University Pan Devils Steel Band while earning his Doctor of Musical Arts degree in percussion. For more information about Alex, visit fragiskatospercussion.com. R!S