12 Ways to Expand the Percussion Palette

Nearly every piece that comes a Percussionist's way will consist of the following:

A run-of-the-mill SNARE DRUM part

A BASS DRUM part which plays monotonously on beats 1 and 3

A MALLET part (usually bells --ouch--- or xylophone) which mimics the woodwinds

And a TIMPANI part which copies the tubas or basses

Oh, and let's not forget the CYMBAL part, which consists of enthralling cymbal rolls and exciting CRASHES!!!!

Now, not much can be done for those currently de-composers who had to write for this instrumentation. After all, if the reigning monarch or local cathedral had a set of kettle drums, a military drum, and a couple of metal plates, that was what you had to go with. Writing for the army? Ditto. The Church your patron? Just try incorporating hand drums. Heretics, for sure.

BUT...this IS the Third Millennium. And PERCUSSION has come to mean pretty much anything, yep ANYTHING, you can hit, beat, scrape, blow, whistle, bow, shake, roll, kick, turn on, pull, push, squeeze, rub, snap, etc. In addition, there is an entire electronic realm to explore.

Below I have listed twelve ways to expand you Percussion Palette. There are many more, but this should start you out.

1) Composing an exciting crrrreesscENDOOOOO!
Instead of the typical snare drum/timp/suspended cymbal roll(s) followed by a loud CRASH of hand cymbals, try an intricate mallet or hand drum part that increases in rhythmic complexity and volume and ends with a gong/extra large bass drum hit. And while a timpani roll is an exciting thing, ending it with a rhythmic figure accented by other percussion instruments echoed in the winds gives it extra bite.

2) Experiment with other MALLET intruments.
The marimba is an extremely underappreciated instrument. It has a broad range that can provide lulling or exciting ostenatos, mimics the xylophone in the upper register, is reminiscent of an organ with its chord capacities, and can provide a wonderful melodic line. The versatile vibraphone can be jazzy or spacey, haunting or biting, metallic or organic. Chimes are often a much more suitable instrument for many glockenspiel parts. And remember, percussionists can also play toy pianos, electronic keyboards, bass marimbas, harpsichords, etc. Just research the ensemble you are writing for and make sure you are writing for their capabilities.

3) Compose ALTERNATE percussion parts.
Not all ensembles will have five timpani, a marimba, two gongs, brake drums, and a shekere. Always have alternate percussion parts for any work you write. Small community ensembles will have only the bare bones (SD, BD, CYM, BELLS), while most college ensembles have a kitchen sink sitting in the percussion closet.

4) Become a closet percussionist.
Look around your house, garage, or local band room. Start beating and shaking different noise producers. You will be amazed at the melodic capabilities of car brake drums, the thunderous nature of a metal sheet, what cellophone on a mic sounds like, etc.

5) Listen to ethnically diverse music.
My drum instructor opened my eyes to ethnomusicology. It amazed me how different cultures used percussion, from the polyrhythmic complexities of an African High-life and intricacies of gamelan, to the sparse cymbal color to Buddhist chant, and the driving beat of the Irish hand drums. Spend a week listening to authentic world music, and then write. You will never be the same.

6) Go to a percussion ensemble concert.
Check out the rehearsals, talk to the performers, and then enjoy the expansive possibilities of percussion.

7) Study scores.
Grab a box of percussion ensemble scores and recordings. Look at percussion concertos (Darius Milhaud, Husa, etc.). Check out how the parts are written, how they intersect. Immerse yourself in idiomatic contemporary percussion writing. Then try writing a short percussion quartet as an exercise using what you saw.

8) Look at percussion catalogues.
Although I am not much for endorsements, you have to check out Steve Weiss...the wholesale of percussion. Go through every section and become familiar with the different instruments.

9) Become a rhythm-master.
Percussion is about rhythm and color. Get past the boom-chick, boom-chick two-stepping, and start throwing in polyrhythms, odd meters, rudiments, complex groupings, etc. Composers have a tendency to write much like the instruments they play, so if your main instrument typically has the melodic line, simple rhythms, or is only the accompaniment, you may have a difficult time expanding your rhythmic vocab.

10) Incorporate RUDIMENTS into percussion parts (snare, bass drum, timp., etc)
These are something like a percussionist's scales, and include all types of rolls, drags, flams, paradiddles, etc. (YES, these are REAL words with a REAL correlation to REAL percussionists!) Vic Firth has kindly provided an entire website dedicated to the 40 primary rudiments.

11) Great Substitutes for Snare Drum.
Roto toms, bongos, tambourine, temple blocks, piccolo snare, toms, cowbell, shekere, cabasa, woodblock, agogo bells, high hat, high-pitched brake drums, snares-off snare drum, a deep military drum, deep floor tom, congas, timbales, tar, bohdran, djembe. Also, check out different sticks and beaters

12) Explore the electronic side of percussion. There are crazy things being done with MAX/MSP, Jitter, controllers, MIDI, multimedia, live electronics, the Internet, etc. that involve percussion. You may not be able to apply these things today, but become familiar with 21st century electroacoustic composition.

So the next time I run into an exciting percussion part that kicks my chops, I hope it has your name written all over it!

Happy Composing!
Sabrina Pena Young
Intermedia Composer and Percussionist


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