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    Pity percussionists?

    It was late at night and the band had been practicing several difficult passages for what seemed like hours. As the rehearsal came to an end I decided to ask the band play the entire piece one more time. This would give members the chance to play some of the easier passages they clearly enjoyed. It would also help to put the harder sections we had been focusing on in their proper musical context.

    “Play it just the way you would in front of a live audience,” I told them. Unfortunately, it did not happen quite like that. As the music approached the final bars and the band began a crescendo, I looked towards the percussion section. A cymbal crash that would bring the piece to a climax was imminent. But the band's lone percussionist was nowhere to be seen.

    “Toman, Toman!” I yelled above the din. Toman, who at that very moment was sprawled out on the floor enjoying what must surely have been an extended nap, staggered to his feet as the vital moment approached.

    Hitting a cymbal almost a beat too late, Toman threw the entire band into confusion. Drums rolled in all directions and the cymbal provided an appropriate encore as it hit the floor.

    It is easy to neglect drummers.
    It is easy to neglect drummers. Despite the tremendous expansion of the role of the percussion section in modern music, it is still probably true to say that – in comparison the brass or woodwind sections - most composers still write in percussion parts as an afterthought.

    In fact, there are so few certainties associated with the percussion section – and the parts written for them can sometimes be so boring - that I often wonder why anyone would want to join the section. No-one seems to know for sure how many instruments it includes. And few such instruments have an agreed set of playing techniques. And to add insult to injury, most musicians (apart from long suffering percussionists!) can't even name an orchestral piece specifically written with the percussion in mind.

    The very name of the section is subject to debate. Very few percussion instruments actually "percuss" – that is, strike (from the past participle of the Latin verb percutere). Many instruments we normally think of as belonging to the percussion family may be more accurately regarded as concussion instruments. In other words, they are shaken. The increasingly popular maracas is an obvious example. Then there are the instruments of friction (eg castanets) to consider.

    Perhaps we should drop the term “percussion” entirely, and follow the practice of jazz musicians by referring simply to the “rhythm” section.

    Percussionists like Toman often lose out.
    Percussionists like Toman often lose out when it comes to music education. The current drummers in Medan's Brass Band Jenderal (featured elsewhere on this website) are familiar with the notation of basic rhythmic patterns, for example. But they can barely read the treble clef. 
    Sadly, many young players also still seem to accept the popular assumption that the percussion instruments they use only have one or two possible sounds. Is it because their band directors – myself included – have failed to open their eyes to the possibilities? The answer, I think, is yes. The reality is that percussion instruments can be struck, shaken or scraped in a wide variety of ways according to the requirements of the music.  
    Composers do write pieces for secondary and college level bands that include more interesting parts for percussionists. But they often call for the use of instruments (chimes, miramba, timpani etc) or different types of sticks that only the better equipped bands actually possess. Most well-funded college-level bands in Singapore would have no problem. But what about bands in less developed parts of Asia or Africa? 
    One reason BBJ's Indonesian percussionists only know how to play the snare and bass drum, for example, is because - until very recently -  they were the only instruments available to them. 
    There is a limit to substitutes.
    What can be done? One lesson BBJ has learned in Medan is to be a little imaginative. Wood blocks, for example, can be handmade. And when the music calls for a tambourine, a toy rattle can sometimes work as a substitute. But substitutes can only go so far. A bass drum is a poor substitute for a timpani section in a brass or wind band version of Handel's Haleluyah Chorus (see the free scores section of this website). Nor does it work very effectively in a piece BBJ is currently (June 2010) rehearsing – a stirring arrangement of “Joy to the World” written by Salvation Army composer Ray Steadman-Allen. 
    Hopefully, things will improve. Current plans to overcome the percussionists ignorance of the treble clef in BBJ involves teaching them to play the second hand glokenspiel I bought for the band earlier this year. 
    But what of other percussionists in the developing world who play in bands that lack such a sponsor? Their lot is an unenviable one. Rarely given the chance to shine on their own instruments, most seem fated to spend their musical lives accompanying others. 
    Pity percussion players? I do.

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    Many people believe that musicians are more moody and prone to suicide than other professionals, and that - as a result - a greater percentage of them end their lives in mental institutions or are fated to live emotionally tempestuous lives. Musicians are also commonly suspected of being over sensitive to criticism, having delusions of grandeur and other neurotic traits.

    The statistics fail to bear this out, although it is possible to find enough examples to make the case in front of those unfamiliar with Western musical history. Like actors, politicians and others obliged to face the public on a regular basis, musicians probably have their fair share of emotional problems. However, such problems do not constitute evidence of neuroticism.

     Musicians probably have their fair share of emotional problems. 

    Beethoven was known for his moodiness, but this was probably closely related to his growing frustration as he began to go deaf. Among the famous composers, only Schumann and MacDowell ended  up in mental institutions. Musicians probably have no more suicidal impulses than the rest of the population. But should a prominent musician decide to take his life, it is likely to get a good deal of publicity.

    Perhaps the most morbid suicide was planned by the pianist Alexander Kelberine, who arranged his last concert programme to consist only of works dealing with death. He then went home and took an overdose of sleeping pills. Schumann jumped into the Rhine, only to be rescued by a fisherman. Rezso Seress composed Gloomy Sunday, a work that was once banned in Europe because it triggered a wave of suicides by young people on Sundays. Seress himself committed suicide by jumping out of a window. The vast majority of musicians, however, die of causes that reflect the state of medical knowledge in the particular historical period in which they live.

    Some musicians certainly had sad lives. Mozart, perhaps the greatest of the composers in the Classical Period of music, died a pauper. The pianist Chopin, a Polish nationalist and tormented lover, was terrified of large audiences. He died of tuberculosis when he was 39. Bizet, a French composer who died when he was 36, was beset by crises of self-confidence and emotional upheaval. Unlike Chopin, his works only achieved widespread recognition after his death.

     Wagner had the emotional maturity of a spoilt child. 

    George Gershwin only had a short life, but it was a good one. He died of a brain tumor when he was 39 after a rags to riches story that made him one of the most well known composers of popular music in  the United States.

    Others lived long and had much success, despite treating others abominably, including many of their friends. Wagner considered himself a genius as a playwright, poet, stage director, and philosopher as well as a composer, and was not shy about letting others know it! Although not particularly handsome, his personal magnetism was such that he had numerous affairs, usually with married women, despite the fact that he was married himself. His biographers describe him as having the emotional maturity of a spoilt child, complete with tantrums if he could not get his way. He died at the age of 70, widely acclaimed as one of the greatest composers of his time.

    The pianist Franz Liszt's dashing good looks enabled him to have numerous affairs with many woman. He died of pneumonia at the age of 75. Contrast this with the fate of Schubert, who was short, fat, bespectacled and naturally shy. He died of syphilis at the age of 31 after his friends encouraged him to visit a brothel. Those who knew him well described him as having a warm and friendly nature. Somehow, it doesn't sound fair.

     The life of J.S. Bach must have been very boring. 

    The majority of musicians now and in the past lead fairly quiet lives. Edward Elgar, a largely self-taught musician, rose from humble origins to become the first English composer in 200 years to gain international acclaim. He had a stable marriage, and was regarded by many as a typical English gentleman. He died at the age of 77. Sergei Rachmaninov, the Russian composer, also had a good life despite being out of step with his country's politics and music. He died at the age of 70.

    The life of J.S. Bach must have been the most boring of all. He spent almost his entire life in the same small region of Germany where he was born. And nobody took much notice of him either. It was not until about 80 years after his death that his works attracted the attention they deserved.


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