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Top 10 Mistakes When Writing for Percussion

young sabrina

Top 10 Mistakes When Writing for Percussionby Sabrina Young

10. Indicating the wrong mallets for an instrument.

Brass mallets on vibes? Try a hammer on a violin!

9. Writing the glockenspiel part as heard.

You shouldn't have to climb a ladder of leger lines to read a glock part. Keep it in the staff.

8. When in doubt, adding more suspended cymbal.

This is a huge mistake made by arrangers. Yep, cymbals add automatic intensity to a piece, but so can a bass drum roll, a rousing hand drum part, exciting mallet licks, or a hundred other combinations. Well-written percussion parts stand out in the band and church repertoire.

7. Better means more complicated, right?

This is my main mistake. A percussion part can be simple enough for a middle school, but it is the ability to use the different tone colors of the percussion palette properly that indicates a maturity in writing, not that impossible part for the timpanist that has them playing timpani, gong, crash cymbals, and triangle in the span of two beats.

6. Never trust Band-in-a-Box to write the timpani part.

This is a big one seen at the church orchestra level. Most churches have two timpani, if any. Although a professional timpanist with five timpani can easily execute complicated chromatic passages, many timpani parts look like a mirror of the brass line, with no thought to the breaks in each timpani's range, the glissando effect that occurs when switching pitches, or the range available when only two timpani are available. Research timpani ranges and arrange for two middle-sized timpani, since not every church will have the large 32". Also, amateur timpanists are used to playing I, IV, and V fundamentals, and not much else.

5. Leaving a series of dashes for the Rhythm part.

Now this is ok, as long as there are breaks to indicate fills, tempo changes, groove changes, etc. But when it is measure 1 to the end straight dashes, it is pretty obvious that the rhythm part was a pure afterthought.

4. Requiring a catalogue's worth of percussion instruments.

You want to get a percussionist angry? Ask them to pull out two of every instrument and the kitchen sink, then only write one quarter note for each instrument. If you want an instrument, make sure that you know why, and not just to add a "coolness" factor to your composition. If in doubt, add a diagram to your score. Once you diagram out each percussionist's setup, you will see that Carnegie Hall may not have enough room for twelve timpani, eleven bass drums, ten marimbas, nine vibes, eight gongs, seven glockenspiels, six thunder sheets, five golden cymbals....etc. AND an orchestra. A good rule of thumb, if the percussionist can't reach everything in arms length without being an Olympic sprinter, you are probably going overboard.

3. Not giving the percussionist enough time to switch instruments.

Young composers, myself included, often make this mistake. Physically try to crash two cymbals, strike a triangle quietly, and bow a set of vibes with a four mallet grip in a span of a single measure (based on a true story!). As a percussionist, I have had to invent all kinds of interesting hand grips to accomodate badly-thought-out percussion parts. There is the 2-xylo-2yarn-1triangle beater grip, the lefthanded two timpani mallet while the right hand has a double bass drum/gong mallet grip, the horrendous use of that mounted cymbal on bass drum, etc. In the end, your composition will suffer, because the percussionist will be so focused on juggling instruments, that musicality will suffer. Splitting the part between percussionists is the easiest thing to do.


2. Writing for an octopus.

Yes, percussionists are good at playing more than one instrument at a time (ex. Tamborine and suspended cymbal, for example), but be sure that the part is doable. Mark one optional, to ensure that the more important part plays through. As a percussionist, it is almost a badge of honor to cover as many instruments as possible, just for bragging rights, but be sure to remember that, at least currently, the Homo Sapien only has two arms.

1. Never asking a percussionist:

Trust me, after having a good chuckle, a percussionist will definitely help you create a great part worthy of a great composition.

The bottom line: If you can write an intriguing, well-thought-out percussion part which truly showcases the talents of the performer within the context of your composition, you have accomplished something that not many composers and arrangers have done. Good Luck in future endeavors!

Percussively Yours,
Sabrina Young


Anonymous said…
Sabrina -

". . .Physically try to crash two cymbals, strike a triangle quietly, and bow a set of vibes with a four mallet grip in a span of a single measure (based on a true story!). . ."

Was I the one that did this? Kidding aside, thanks for the wonderful reminders.

:-) Clare Shore
Anonymous said…
Nope, the work happened in grad school and was by a student composer who played piano. First performance I did everything myself. Second, we had a second percussionist. :-)
Nathan Lee said…
To be honest, I didn't know some of this, and I'm a percussionist. (Among others)
Nathan Lee said…
The main thing that surprised me was the implication that there are very few percussionists in professional ensembles. At my school there is usually at least three, and five sometimes.
Thank you so much for your comments Nathan! Usually the number of percussionists needs to be at least four to cover most standard parts. Think bass drum, snare drum, mallets/toys, and timpani. In most professional ensembles, only the percussionists actually needed for a work are hired, and since many professional orchestral ensembles (or even choral ensembles that hire instrumentalists) do not always play modern music, many times you may find that a single percussionist has to cover more than one role or they simply opt for a timpanist. In any case, growing up we always had between 5-10 percussionists in the high school band, which of course, meant some of us were pretty bored. Thanks for your comments! :) And keep drumming!

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