Experiment. In the era of COVID-19, this has been our directive. It has pervaded all aspects of our lives. As a musician and educator, I’ve taken comfort in this directive. How do I teach online? How do I share music with others? What can I make of this sort of artist retreat that I didn’t sign up for? Experiment. After all, this is a setting we all share. While there is always a risk of failure that comes with experimentation, our shared situation seems to come with a license to fail. How bad could it be?
The thought of teaching a percussion ensemble online was baffling to me. Chamber music is defined as music made in a room with people. I sulked. I went through all the stages of grief. I was ready to give up. How can I expect any of my students to make music? They don’t have marimbas. They may not be able to make a lot of noise even if they did.
It occurred to me that this lack of resources was precisely the advantage of our situation. In fact, this air of experimentation was inherently linked to the beginnings of the concert percussion ensemble: Roldán’s quijadas, Varèse’s sirens, Harrison’s clock coils, Cage’s tin cans, Beyer’s indeterminate instrumentation, Russell’s suitcase. None of this work had precedent. It was simply work that people had to do; and as my friends in Buenos Aires say, “We do what we can with what we have.”
As we approach the centenary of our tradition, it is good to be reminded the nature and history of its beginnings:the anecdotes of Bonnie Bird on the first all-percussion concerts of John Cage and Slonimsky on the premiere of “Ionisation,” the radical instrumentation, notation, and scores, and the scrappiness of the early performances.
We are fortunate to live in a world with curriculum-based school percussion ensembles and their semi-annual programs. It will be exciting to return to them when things settle down. But we must remember that there was a time before percussion ensemble was normal. And we have experimentation to thank for that.
Eric Shuster is director of the Salisbury University Percussion Ensemble and head of the percussion area at Salisbury University on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where he has served since 2011. Eric performs with the Buenos Aires-based percussion ensemble Tambor Fantasma and the percussion duo Steady State with his brother, Tim. His materials and creative exercises developed for percussion ensemble during COVID-19 are available at sites.google.com/view/percovid.