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Too many parts, too few players

It’s a common problem in high school percussion sections: too many parts and too few players. Inevitably, that crucial triangle roll or that thundering strike on the bass drum will never be heard. But with careful thought, the most important parts of the percussion score can be played. The key phrase here is “careful thought”. Someone has to go through all the percussion parts and decide what to play and what to scrap.

If a score, for example, calls for snare and bass drums, crash cymbals, suspended cymbal, tam-tam, triangle and wood block, and there are only two percussionists, you’ve likely got some planning to do.

Let’s say our hypothetical percussion score is divided over three parts. It’s not unreasonable to imagine that our two percussionists would simply pick up parts one and two without even checking to see what needs to be covered in part three. So they’re likely unaware of climactic cymbal crashes in the third part.

Designate a principal percussionist

In cases like this, you may want to designate a “principal percussionist” to go through all the parts, figure out what is absolutely necessary to play, and make sure those parts are covered. It may involve writing the odd cymbal crash or tam-tam note from part three into part one or two, or noting where to move from part two to part three to play off that score for a number of bars.

The resourceful percussionist might decide to cover a second part, or most of it, by taking some well-considered musical liberties. For example, by suspending the triangle from the music stand and playing the crash cymbal part on a suspended cymbal, he/she might be able to catch most of the “crash” cymbal notes without sacrificing an important triangle passage.

Your principal percussionist will also have to consider the stage setup – where the instruments should be so players can move unimpeded from one to the other.

Preparing the percussion roadmap can be crucial to the success of performances. In professional orchestras, playing a “pops” concert – with loads of instruments and “toys” written on parts without any clear indication of who’s playing what – is the principal percussionist’s nightmare.

So designate different principal percussionists for different pieces. It is extra work and responsibility, and the degree of preparation and thought behind it should be evaluated and considered in an overall marking scheme. It benefits your students by exercising their organizational skills and forcing them to make important musical decisions. It will benefit the rest of your class too: with the members of you percussion section knowing what to play from day one, your rehearsals will run much more smoothly.

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