(Over)use of the percussion in modern BB music

Discussion in 'The Rehearsal Room' started by bigcol, Feb 8, 2006.

  1. bigcol

    bigcol Member

    Just wondered what people's opinions are on the use of percussion in contemporary band arrangements?

    I for one am slightly frustrated when we wish to play new music but find ourselves hampered because we don't have vibraphones, xylophones and so on, nor 3 players to play them. I have had to reject a few pieces from one of our soloists simply because it needed so much percussion that was essential to the music. I said to him, rather over the top, to try and pick music that didn't require 2 vibraphones and a marimba, but you understand my frustration.

    I don't mean test pieces or large scale works - they are fair game, but pieces which are aimed at the lower sections or are solos. Percussion is fantastic at adding colour but when it becomes an essential part of the sort of new music which is aimed to a lower section band, the pieces lose so much by not having them go in.

    A recent CD did the rounds from a music publisher and I listened with a band colleague to the music and everyone required a sizeable percussion section. At your average park job or small concert, you just don't have the room to take all the gear with you nor can most bands afford it all.

    I think it boils down to two questions: a) should modern BB music aimed at lower sections be so demanding in the percussion requirements and b) is the copious use of percussion the results of arrangers i) making full use of the palette of colours available or ii) using percussion as a cop-out when they can't think of interesting ways of scoring it for the brass?

    What do people think?
  2. PeterBale

    PeterBale Moderator Staff Member

    This represents quite a dilemma, as has been raised before. If we are to accept percussion as an integral part of the band, then there needs to be plenty for the players to do, or you'll never attract and keep the right calibre of player. On the other hand, there will be problems if a band is lacking the necessary players, and if what is written is not covered elsewhere, then things get very difficult.

    I think one of the problems stems from the fact that the instrumentation on the band has been settled for a long time, and composers and arrangers can be pretty certain that most of the parts will be covered, although there may be a certain amount of cues as a safeguard. With percussion still being a relatively recent innovation, there is a wide disparity between bands, and this seems to apply at all levels. There are lower section bands with 3 or more players, complaining there is not enough for the percussion to do, and at the other end of the spectrum (;) ) there are even top-section bands struggling for players.

    It strikes me that there are some similarities with scoring for the wind band, where there is far less standardisation from one group to another, with copious cues being needed. This ensures that the music can at least be performed, even if it involves a compromise as regards the composer/arranger's ideal intentions. Salvation Army repertoire tends not to use vast amounts of percussion, although this is gradually changing, and we find at Hadleigh with our two players, that it's a question of selecting what is the most important, and concentrating on that, and most casual listeners would probably be unaware that anything was missing.

    There is no easy solution - although cues for key parts could help - but I can't help thinking that it is the percussionist who tend to get the raw deal: I'm certain that if it was the trombone section, say, which had just been added to the band, people wouldn't be complaining that the music sometimes needed three players, they would just go out and locate them, and keep them suitably occupied in practice as well!
  3. brasscrest

    brasscrest Active Member

    In many cases, though, it's not the number of players, it's the cost of all the extra equipment and the problem in transporting it. For example, a few years ago the National Capital Band did a little one-week tour of the Southern US. We had to travel around carrying a gong (and frame) for one item in the repertoire, where it was giong to get struck about four times. It wasn't the extra player that was the problem (just about anyone can be taught to strike a gong properly), it was having to deal with a big chunk of metal. Fortunately we didn't have to actually purchase one, we were able to borrow one from someone else.
  4. BeatTheSheep

    BeatTheSheep Member

    If you talk about arrangements aimed at lower section bands, then they should use less percussion, just as they would use less of the higher notes and harder techniques for the brass. If they don't, no-one will buy it.

    Sometimes lower section bands will buy music really intended for a higher section (and why not?). Is this when the problem arises I wonder? Be careful to read the score before you buy
  5. Accidental

    Accidental Supporting Member

    I think the average higher-section band has the same issues with players and equipment too - just look at this year's area piece!! It all starts getting very expensive
  6. drummergurl

    drummergurl Active Member

    i think its good that arrangers/composers are looking at a wider variety of percussion instruments (makes my life in the percussion section more interesting).. however.. some things should be taken into consideration. its all good and well writing a marimba part for a piece, but how many bands have a marimba?! in all honesty i cant think of one band that has its own marimba. marimba's cost a couple of grand, so no band is going to go out and just randomly buy one. there is an alternative i often use instead of a marimba, and that is soft mallets on a xylophone instead. it doesnt sound as good/nice as a marimba, but its ok. also the whole vibraphone thing.. there arent that many bands who have a vibraphone, they're also expensive instruments, but i can think of more bands that own vibraphones than marimbas. also there have been times where ive substituted a glock instead of a vibraphone.

    some things can be gotten round by substituting one for another. it wont sound as good, but there'll be something there.

    as for players.. every band will struggle for percussion players, no matter what section they're in. then when it comes to test pieces for example the champs section area's this year, requires 4 decent percussionists (not just johnny the extra horn player to ding a triangle every so often), and alot of expensive instruments- vibraphone, tubular bells, xylophone, glockenspiel, timps... if you dont have 4 percussionists, you end up paying someone to come in and play for you, and it all turns out to be a very expensive thing.
    in some ways, i think arrangers and composers should stick to writing for tops of 3 percussionists, with a small variety of instruments.. it would make the bank balance of bands a little nicer. but in other ways, i want more variety, from a playing point of view.

    have i said anything relevant to the topic? who knows!
  7. Naomi McFadyen

    Naomi McFadyen New Member

    What I don't get here dude, is that you say "overuse of percussion in CONTEMPORARY band arrangements".... Yet, you don't mean or include large scale works, which, you're just bound to see a larger use of instruments used in percussion.... etc....
    4th section Nationals in 2001 rings a bell to me... 4 players needed... and many bands who used brass players to fill in the extra parts.... it happens at times... all part of the fun :)

    Thing is, when percussion is concerned, whether it be lower or higher section bands, as accidental says, the same issue can come up... and it does come up... It certainly is as far as Journey to the Centre of the Earth is concerned... lack of players, lack of instruments... but bands have to take these things in their stride and do the best thing possible.

    As far as brass band arrangements are concerned, how many pieces to you 1) see "FOR 4TH SECTION ONLY" on it... and 2) ONLY see lower sections play them...

    Top section bands do play the same stuff as lower sections on many occassions, and as said before, many lower section bands will get out music that *is* really meant... no, *aimed* for top sections; but that's a healthy thing to do...

    Yea, the higher section the bands are in, *maybe* they have the instruments and the players to go with it.... but what does that matter so much? If you don't have the gear or players, you either do something about it, or don't play the parts... simple. Most arrangements, if not all, will work and sound fine without the extra tuned percussion, most of the time it's doubled with brass players anyway!

    Also, a lot of bands have shortage of brass players... now, I'm sure you've experienced this, what MD hasnt? If you then have a concert or contest, you'll do whatever you can to fill that brass seat up won't you... same deal with percussionists, and bands also need to see that percussion is NOT an addon to a brass band, but an essential PART of the band.

    Now, I'd rather see that the composer/arranger has thought about the percussion section and given us plenty to do, than nothing at all....

    Btw, I don't think I've ever seen a piece needing two vibraphones...... which piece are you referring to? and there isn't that many pieces that require marimbas... and I wouldn't worry, hardly any bands have there own marimba... thats usually down to the lucky percussionists who have there own!

    a) should modern BB music aimed at lower sections be so demanding in the percussion requirements

    I dont think you mean modern brass band music.... I think you're just referring to the arrangements being done in this, the 21st century.... and yes, I think it should be more demanding... we need something to play as well you know....

    Incidentally, if I started a thread saying I thought that the cornet section was being overused, I'd be slaughtered :p

    and b) is the copious use of percussion the results of arrangers i) making full use of the palette of colours available

    Yes... absolutly.

    or ii) using percussion as a cop-out when they can't think of interesting ways of scoring it for the brass?

    Cop-out :lol: .... nah.... they'll use it if they have a good knowledge of percussion... and I think it's about time some people did...

    When I arrange, I will arrange how I want the arrangement to be and sound like... I have no band in mind, just write overall for a brass band... That is what makes something sell, rather than limiting the customers purely based on percussion equipment... It's based on overall standard of the piece only... and as I said before, if you dont have the gear, you dont play the parts... it's not the end of the world, is it.... and vibes can always be put on glock... marimba on xylophone... etc....

  8. brasscrest

    brasscrest Active Member

    But you have to have a target market in mind, or your marketing isn't going to be as effective as possible. If you were to consistently write arrangements that required, say, six trombones, how many bands would see that requirement and pass up your arrangements? Same thing with percussion - if I see a piece that requires three or four percussionists, and I only have two, I'm more likely to look for something else to buy than to buy that particular piece. But if the arrangement can be played with only two (perhaps through the use of appropriate cues in other parts), then you have a larger number of bands that would be likely to buy, and therefore would have the potential to sell more copies.

    The most successful composers (in terms of sales) understand this concept - that a piece written with fewer parts has a larger potential market.

    I find this particularly interesting in terms of test pieces - all of the other sections have a set, standard number of players. Why shouldn't the percussion section be limited in the same way? Suppose you had a test piece that required four euphoniums? I think you'd hear even more screaming and have even more bands withdraw from the contest than with a piece that required four percussionists.
  9. Naomi McFadyen

    Naomi McFadyen New Member

    Brasscrest: I write for 3 trombones, not 6, as there isn't 6 trombone parts in a brass setup ;). Guess I'm safe there eh!... and no more than 3 percussion for concert works... so, my target in *that* respect can be seen in all sections, and as said before, if you dont have the gear, you dont play the part in or find a substitute.... I don't go OTT... But, as I said before, it is overall standard of the piece that says if it is suitable for 3rd or top section, not the percussion equipment in it.
  10. bigcol

    bigcol Member

    Lol as I said it was an exaggeration - us conductors are allowed our flowerey moments now and again!

    I think the point about logistics - getting 3 percussion players, affording all the gear and then getting it to various concerts to play the music.

    I have 2 excellent percussion players at my band but because we are self funding we are limited to what percussion we can afford. Things like pedal timps, xylophones and gongs are just out of our budget, never mind exotica like marimbas and vibraphones.

    And would you really put the vibraphone part from something like Dimitri on a glock? It makes you want a '99.

    It does limit my choices as to what music I can play, so thus ruling out arrangements that feature certain percussion instruments heavily.

    As someone who has spent much time at the back of the band I understand the percussionist's needs too.

    The reason these debates rage is because of a point muted earlier - there is no standardisation of percussion in brass bands. The least you expect is a kit player, but after that . . . the marimba is the limit!
  11. bigcol

    bigcol Member

    PS if i want to play the first few bars of Mac and Mabel, it's going to cost the band £3-4k ;)
  12. Naomi McFadyen

    Naomi McFadyen New Member

    I think you're over exaggerating when you say about you being limited on what you can play.... theres LOADS of pieces out there that you can do... and having conducted a 4th section band myself, with 2 players, I can assure you that everything I say about leaving out or substituting works fine.

    Another thing you could and should consider, seeing as you seem so passionate about this issue, is to use a keyboard for vibraphone parts if you can't leave it out... I think that would be ashame on the percussionist and band, but it's better than not playing all the music that you have in your library at all.

    Fund raising.... get some ideas together and have a "percussion appeal" or something... all money you raise from concerts or other events, put towards getting some nice gear for your 2 percussionists to play.
  13. Naomi McFadyen

    Naomi McFadyen New Member

    Big Timp roll.... kit fill.... leave the xylo out... works fine ;-)

  14. tsawyer

    tsawyer Member

    Unfortunately, that's not always the whole story. I had a conversation with a composer years ago who had written two parts, with so much on them that you needed more than two players. He had done it for exactly your reason - to make it more appealing to lower section bands. But what he'd really done was written two unplayable parts, leaving the poor percussionist with some rewriting to do.

    (Some percussion parts are truly terrible - I've just played Peterloo Overture, where I got a nice booklet with all four parts in on four staves. Which meant I had a turnover every 24 bars, meaning the nine pages of continuous snare drum was impossible to play...but that's another topic.)

    There seems to be a recent trend in top section percussion where pieces need four or more players. It wasn't like that ten years ago, when most pieces were only written for three at the most. Cloudcatcher, New Jerusalem, Blitz, Paganini Variations, Cambridge Variations etc - all three players. Recent pieces need four as standard, sometimes more - Tristan Encounters, The Night To Sing, Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, Rienzi(!), Chivalry, Harrison's Dream etc. Why the change? The movement appears to be struggling more for drummers now than we were ten years ago, is that because the requirements seem to have gone up from three to four?

  15. brasscrest

    brasscrest Active Member

    That's why I said "can be played with only two". There are plenty of examples like that, where the number of parts supplied and the number of players required are different.

    I think that you're exactly right about the requirements going up in the past few years - and that's not just in contest music.

    Remember, up until around 1960 percussion was not permitted in contests at all!
  16. Steve

    Steve Active Member

    Percussion is a wonderful thing and completely changes a piece of music. Obviously it is the composers choice to score their parts how s/he wants as that is the effect they believe creates the right ambience. However I think it would be common sense for them to write an abreviated percussion score that can be used by 3 or less players and will not be penalised by adjudicators.
  17. bigcol

    bigcol Member

    I'm not anti percussion -=- far from it! I love playing in, playing for, conducting or just listening to bands when there is loads of percussion going on - mint.

    There has never been a better time to pick music as now - loads of new composers and arrangers bringing out stuff cheaply and there is still plenty to be found in the archives.

    As for substituting/leaving parts out - can I play devil's advocate and cheekily ask if it is ok not to play these parts/instruments, then why put them in in the first place? Just to keep Perc busy? ;)

    TIMBONE Active Member

    When I was having composition lessons at the RNCM, and reading countless books on the subject, there was a clear message about the use of percussion. This was, unless the percussion was a feature of the composition, it should be used wisely and discreetly, otherwise it could take over and lose it's effectiveness. I must admit that because of this, I underused percussion in my earlier attempts to compose or arrange music.

    The introduction of percussion as an established part of the brass band has been very beneficial in it's developement, it does add resonance and brightness. I do wonder however, if at times it can be overused and, as I was taught, take over and loose it's effectivness.

    If I may just mention something which I do myself. Most of the time I write two parts. In most cases, if there were three players, it could be shared out so that they all have a part to play. I may sometimes write a third part which is optional, this does not mean that it would not add something, it just means that it could be missed out. I have done an arrangement which features the percussion, including a 32 bar solo for timps and kit, but this also has a third part which is optional. There is also a part for two timps, as some bands do not have three.
  19. bigcol

    bigcol Member

    Tim - I had a feeling you'd have something imaginative yet pragmatic to say on the subject - agree 100%.
  20. Anno Draconis

    Anno Draconis Well-Known Member

    :clap: :D Very good!

    This is a great thread, one of the most interesting I've yet read on tMP. Since I dabble in amateur composing/arranging, I'm always wrestling with this very problem. Often I'd like to have loads of percussion, I regularly wish I could write for multiple gongs, crotales, 5 timps, etc - I was blown away by the percussion "windows" in Gaia and for sheer spectacle in terms of the amount of gear on stage I can thoroughly recommend James MacMillan's Veni Veni Emanuel.

    But the fact is, I have to think about the bands I'm writing for. I did a couple of arrangements for Blackley and at the time, they didn't have a percussionist at all. There was therefore no point me writing 3 complex perc parts, or even one complex one. As far as I can tell (and I've played in or conducted a few bands in different areas) most bands below 1st section can muster 2 percussionists at most, usually a kit player and a "generalist" who may or may not be able to tune pedal timps. Therefore if I'm writing a concert piece I'll generally write 2 parts, easily playable by 2 reasonably competent players, with only one critical part at any one time; e.g. a glock part doubling sop or a timp part doubling basses adds colour but wouldn't ruin the piece if left out, whereas a "rock" arrangement without a decent kit part would just be odd. This probably means that occasionally, percussionists have a bit of a dull time of it in my pieces but it also means that there are less decisions to be made about what to leave out. Plus I'm a bit of a fascist about using synths to duplicate the sounds of instruments like the vibraphone, I'm afraid I just don't like it.

    I've mentioned this before - to really play it properly Divertimento for last year's 4th section areas needed 4 percussionists in the march (or 2 plus 1 really nimble one), unless some or all of the bass drum part was played on a pedal drum (which sounds cack in a march). This is because (like Images) it was originally written for a double band. I wonder whether the selection panel actually looked at the perc parts in any detail?. I'm sure it would help bands (especially in the 3rd and 4th section) immeasurably if the number of percussionists was fixed like the number of brass players is; maybe 2 players in 4th-2nd section, 3 in 1st section and 4 in Championship?

    I do think there is occasionally a tendency amongst some modern composers and arrangers to use percussion thoughtlessly as an effect, to add colour to an otherwise unremarkable score. Well written perc parts can be the making of a piece from a listener's point of view (the finest example to my mind being Dances and Arias) but they have to contribute more than just extra noise.

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