4.4 Keeping the Percussion Section on Your Side

David Lewis. Freelance Percussionist 

One could argue that mastering the art of conducting originates at the podium; learning to understand ‘your stuff’. There then begins a long journey to familiarise yourself with the performers and their instruments – perhaps you might begin by those closest to you, scraping and plucking metal strings under tension. Moving outwards we discover otherwise sane people applying varying amounts of pressure and moisture to pipes with holes in. Further still we find the most recent additions to the orchestra, yet curiously using the most primitive techniques, the percussion. ‘Instruments to hit’ being the direct translation from the Welsh ‘offerynnau taro’.

Remember we are always playing unfamiliar instruments

Proper care of us evolutionary throwbacks starts from a position of understanding. Most other performers take to the stage with a cherished piece of precision machinery, perhaps handed down from a long line of virtuosi, possibly the most valuable item they own. For the percussionist, they may have never played today’s instrument before, or at least not this example of it. It might be in a poor state of repair or unsuitable for the task at hand (I was once provided with two pairs of timpani instead of a set of five for a performance of the Overture to Candide – with no hope of reaching the high notes these had to be put down the octave). 

We are always on the move

Furthermore, while other players remain seated among one or a few instruments, the percussionist may have to move several feet past many, changing equipment as they go, perhaps even moving from an instrument which speaks slowly (such as a tam-tam) to one which takes no prisoners (such as a woodblock) or from unpitched to pitched with a key signature which is long-forgotten at the start of the line. Imagine trying to play the famous French horn solo in The Firebird but having to walk to your seat quietly from a distance with little time to spare. Programmes of popular classics with lots of different styles, even with impeccable organisation, can be stressful and challenging. Depending on the orchestra the percussionists may receive fewer rehearsals. Copies of music are often much further away from the eyes of the percussionist and sometimes shared which makes it more of a challenge to achieve a good line of sight. 

Think about the logistics

The conductor can greatly help all this by understanding that an entry might be missing because the player was unable to get to the instrument in time or were not made aware that they had to play it or that the means of playing the instrument had been relocated by another performer. There is also great benefit in allowing sufficient time between movements and when restarting a rehearsal from a certain place in the piece. Between the announcement of “Let’s go from figure X” and playing, the percussionist might have to change position in the orchestra, swap sticks, turn a page, ask a colleague to move and look up to see the preparatory beats. The timpanist might need to change pitches on some or all of their drums. 

A suitable strategy for saving time would be to stop the rehearsal with more than one thing in mind to say to the orchestra. Go through the longer ones first, then announce the starting point then say the shortest one while we gather our tools of the trade. This approach is preferable in the same way that saying “Counting before Y: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 bars” is better than a pause followed by “Let’s go from 11 before Y”. 

When performing a piece with lots of changes of instrument (such as The Chairman Dances by John Adams), a complete uninterrupted run of the work is essential because in the gap we might unknowingly correct an error in our approach (such as a missing page turn or leaving an instrument where a colleague isn’t expecting it) without realising our mistake until the concert itself. It’s rare for a run through of a piece like this not to reveal a problem of this nature. Try to differentiate between cases where the percussionists are the cause of a problem or the most apparent symptom – if the entire orchestra has lapsed slightly in tempo this problem can only be solved by everyone speeding up together, not by the percussionists ‘breaking ranks’ and hoping that others will follow. When working with a rhythm section the rest of the orchestra must listen to them and fall into line; the groove-based players cannot be expected to adjust seamlessly as a unit.

We are musicians as well

It is generally a sound approach to treat us like any other musician when making a request. We have all the usual adjustments available to us, including but not limited to: dynamics, timing, accents, note lengths and for many instruments, pitch. It is dangerous territory to request different equipment, especially in front of the orchestra. Asking for harder sticks is akin to suggesting that the mouthpiece is in the wrong place on the brass player’s lips or that the strings should use a different part of their bows or the oboist might benefit from a change of reed. Such interventions can only be suitable if you play the instrument in question and the orchestra are amateurs or students with whom you have developed a healthy rapport. Imagine for a moment that we don’t produce the sound with sticks and ask for more clarity in the rhythm. Alternatively, speak to the player privately – being able to converse with the conductor one to one and reach solutions and a better understanding is safe, rewarding and flattering – I think this should be done more. 

Use the expertise available to you

It is worth cultivating a small group of trusted friends who are an expert in each instrument. A lot can be gained by calling them and discussing your upcoming projects. This can create inspiration, set your mind at rest and avoid gaffes such as not giving a player a stand up after a great performance of a well-known piece of repertoire for their instrument. This particular ‘banana skin’ can also be avoided by consulting audition lists for each instrument and seeing which examples occur regularly.

Consider us in your rehearsal planning

The main role of the conductor is to provide the framework and support to make the individuals and collective result sound at their best. This can be done, not only by helping musicians directly, but also by holding others to account, for instance if a section is letting the tempo or intonation slide it might be inconveniencing another member or members of the orchestra and the conductor is required to step in. Beyond this there are significant bonuses on offer. Showing that you genuinely value the time of others, particularly if you are working with professionals in a country where musicians are underpaid and side hustles are common, is a worthwhile goal to focus on. If you can re-order the rehearsal (after taking care of the preferences of the soloist) to allow certain sections to arrive late and/or leave early this creates a culture of cooperation and respect which goes a long way toward ameliorating any difficulties. 

We also like to have eye contact with you

Another opportunity is to share joyful moments with the performer. A great example of this is the two loud off-beat bass drum notes in the slow section near the conclusion of the Festive Overture by Shostakovich. They are somewhat of an oddity but nonetheless inordinately satisfying to play. There is no cost to engaging with the bass drummer at this moment with a gesture and a smile since their entry is completely solo and any movement in the trumpets and winds has already taken place immediately before so shouldn’t be affected by this. 

To have a non-percussionist conductor being aware of this entry and sharing the enjoyment amplifies the reward felt when playing it and shows a touch of class. The orchestral repertoire is replete with such moments. Other examples in percussion include the characterful triangle and cymbal notes at the end of phrases in The Dam Busters March, the last handful of loud bass drum notes in the fourth symphony of Shostakovich and the very last two notes of Janacek’s Glagolitic Mass. 

Perhaps a way can be found to show that you are aware of the sustained effort and importance of the timpanist in the long solo rolls in the fifth and sixth symphonies of Tchaikovsky. Often it is the first entry in the piece which can be greeted with a nod and a wink, such as bass drum and cymbals in Bizet’s Farandole. 

In summary, the conductor is tasked with gathering together the orchestral repertoire along with considerable talent and many years of dedication and presenting the finished article. There are positives at every turn and regular, honest, supportive and respectful communication can only lead to the intended result which is content among the performers and the best possible entertainment experience for the audience, without whom the creative process is neither sustainable nor complete.

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