Getting Organized. We all aspire to it. We know it will make our jobs easier. We know that our students will learn more quickly and become better performers. Then, if we are successful by May, a new group of students shows up the following year and we will start all over again. Few, if any of us ever achieve the ultimate, organized percussion section year after year.
The following are some suggestions to help reach the goal of maintaining an efficient and well organized percussion section. The results are directly proportional to the persistence of the teacher. The good news is that in the end, less rehearsal time will be spent setting up and searching for instruments, and more time will be spent making music.
Neatly arranged and well maintained equipment sets the tone for the rehearsal and the year. Show the percussionists where the instruments should be placed at the first rehearsal, and insist on that “set up” for each rehearsal throughout the school year. Keep this instrument arrangement, or floor plan consistent in the rehearsal room and on the stage. The students and the director will quickly see where everything is, or isn’t, and waste a minimum amount of rehearsal time if only one “set up” is used.
The following basic instrument arrangement works both in the professional world and the college or public school setting. This diagram will cover the majority of the literature and eliminate the need to switch instrument positions during rehearsal and performance. I have found that leaving the stands set up, storing and securing only the snare drum, cymbals, bass drum mallets, and small instruments (tambourine, triangle, wood block, etc.) while covering the larger instruments, makes for a quick set up at the beginning of rehearsal, and consistently organized section.
The percussion section can be arranged differently, depending on repertoire requirements and the preference of the band or orchestra director. However, if percussionists always start with a basic instrument arrangement, they will know where to move, if the music requires fast instrument changes. This will also reduce the amount of time spent searching for instruments before rehearsals. A standard method of organizing the section will also ease the transition to new ensembles either in college, community groups, or at state festivals.
If space is available, place the percussion section in the back of the band or orchestra, with the bass drum and timpani next to the low brass. The ensemble rhythm will be much more precise and balance will be easier to control. When the section is on the side of the ensemble, the percussion is typically too prominent, as young players have difficulty playing softly on
inherently loud instruments.
Inside the Section
“Bookend” your section with the bass drum and the chimes. Percussion performance is very visual, and the section can use peripheral vision to help coordinate entrances. If movement between instruments is required, a clear pathway between instruments is essential.
Timpani typically play with the tubas and low brass. Placing the timpani as close to these instruments as possible will improve ensemble rhythm and intonation.
Bass Drum and Cymbals
Bass drum and crash cymbals work as a team. Place them next to each other for better ensemble and balance. The bass drummer can help “conduct” the section on tutti entrances.
Cymbal parts are often written with crash and suspended on the same page. Placing the suspended cymbal between the bass drum and crash cymbal players will allow either player to cover the part if fast changes are required.
Place the drum set as close to the center of the band as possible for good ensemble balance and precision.
For music involving drum set style parts, placing a suspended cymbal to the right of the snare drum and a high hat on the left, will allow the snare drummer to play the music with a more convincing “feel.” Only two players (bass and snare) need to coordinate the part rhythmically. Adding small hand percussion parts (tambourine, triangle, cowbell, suspended cymbal, congas) will help to keep everyone busy rather than dividing the drum set part among many players.
Placing the xylophone, bells and the chimes next to each other will help facilitate fast instrument changes. Set these instruments behind, or near the upper woodwinds since composers typically orchestrate these two groups together.
Vibes and marimba are used less often, usually in slower and less rhythmic passages. If there isn’t enough room in the front row, they may be placed in a second row behind the other mallet instruments.
Most people are right handed, so setting the chimes up at a 45 degree angle to the conductor will allow the majority of performers to strike the chimes with the strongest hand, and see the conductor, music, and the instrument.
Although placing the chimes at the downstage or right side of the section may obscure the audience view of the player, if the instrument is in the middle of the percussion section, the performers will not be able to communicate visually, and will have to navigate around the chimes when moving about the section. The musical advantages far outweigh the staging concerns.
In this era of shrinking arts budgets, new equipment purchases are rare, and repair budgets small. Invest in your percussion section as much as possible!
The Trap Table
(What to do with all those little instruments)
Constructing a padded trap table is a simple and inexpensive task which will save many organizational headaches and repairs to small instruments that fall on the floor from wiggling music stands. If the instruments are kept on the floor, they may be accidentally kicked or stepped on. Simple insistence that sticks, mallets, and instruments should never be placed anywhere but the trap table, will go a long way in creating an atmosphere of respect and care for your percussion instruments. By placing the instruments on sturdy, padded, waist high table, better ensemble skills will be developed by keeping the player’s eyes and ears on the music and the conductor, instead of near the floor, chasing the instruments and sticks.
Simply take a 1/4 -3/8 inch thick piece of plywood and glue or staple a piece of carpet on top. Check the custodian’s room at the school or a band parent who has recently had carpet installed. Thin foam rubber and cloth works also. The padding will eliminate noise from moving instruments during performance and will keep the instruments protected. A folding bell stand or a waiter’s table (used in restaurants) works nicely as a base for the table. In a pinch, two chairs placed back to back will also work to hold up the table. The padded top of your bell case can also be used as a tray table.
Padded stick trays may be made by placing carpet samples or hand towels on music stands. This should be used for sticks and mallets only, not heavy instruments. Surely the local carpet dealer would like to help the school music program by donating a few discontinued samples to the band instead of the dumpster. Think of it as recycling for a good cause.
Speaking of recycling:
Making use of everything available, with little or no money.
Hose clamps are great for drum and cymbal stands that have been stripped as a result of over tightening. Attach the proper diameter clamp on the upper portion of the stand, and it will hold as well as the manufacturer’s thumb screws did. Hose clamps are removable and do not leave adhesive residue like duct tape.
Old portable blackboard stands make wonderful gong racks with a little bracing and a piece of sturdy conduit attached to the top. Simply remove the old blackboard surface and attach the tubing across the top. The end fittings can be purchased from the plumbing department at the local hardware store for a very small cost.
Old blankets or quilts make great keyboard instrument covers. If a band parent is particularly good with a sewing machine, a few stitches and seams on a blanket can transform it into a form fitting instrument cover.
Don’t throw away those replacement timpani head boxes. If you don’t have head protectors or drop covers for your drums, make circular discs out of those cardboard boxes. Cloth or felt glued on Masonite is also an inexpensive way to make drum covers. By labeling the discs with the drum sizes your percussionists will learn how to identify the drums correctly.
Percussionists are musicians like everyone else in the band.
Every percussionists should own a complete set of concert mallets and sticks (see suggestions below) and carry them in a stick case. Other instrumentalists have to purchase or rent their instruments. It doesn’t make sense that percussionists only invest in a $5 pair of sticks and carry them to school in their back pockets.
Sticks and mallets owned by the school need to be stored in cases or cabinets, not left on the instruments where others can get to them. The band director’s office is a good place to keep mallets such as bass drum or tam tam beaters and chime mallets if storage in the band room is not available. The extra effort in collecting mallets after rehearsal will result in much less stress and confusion at festival and concert time.
Plastic sandwich bags and rubber bands make great timpani mallet felt protectors.
Set aside money from fund raising, or charge a small fee to percussion students, for replacement heads. Heads like reeds, wear out.
Cases for drums are essential. Nothing causes more damage to percussion instruments than moving them in car trunks or rental trucks without cases. All of the other instruments in the band and orchestra come with protective carrying cases, why not percussion instruments?
Mallet instrument companies do not design instruments to be used on the football field. Only recently have some manufacturers begun to build “marching band/field use frames.” If mallet instruments are to be used on the football field, it is a worthwhile investment to place the frames on heavy duty carts with over-sized wheels. The cost of these frames is minimal compared to the cost of new instruments.
It has been my experience that the most successful band and orchestra programs have employed many of the ideas I have mentioned, for their percussion sections. Perhaps some of them will make the next school year run more smoothly for your program. I know if I follow my own advice, I’ll have a good year as well. Good Luck!
John R. Beck has been a member of the artist-faculty at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts since 1998. He is a percussionist with the Winston-Salem and Greensboro symphony orchestras, Brass Band of Battle Creek, and the Philidor Percussion Group. Mr. Beck served previously on the faculties of the universities of Utah, Colorado, Nevada, Florida State, and UNC-Greensboro. He has authored articles for The Instrumentalist, North Carolina Music Educator, Percussive Notes, Yamaha Education Series CD-Rom, and The Zildjian Educator. An active member of the Percussive Arts Society, he currently serves as vice president and has appeared as a clinician at several PAS international conventions.
A former member of the United States Marine Band, Mr. Beck performed regularly with the National and Baltimore symphonies, Washington and Baltimore operas, and the Theater Chamber Players of the Kennedy Center. He has toured the United States as a xylophone soloist with the Marine Band, Jack Daniel’s Silver Cornet Band, Brass Band of Battle Creek, and the New Sousa Band. While living in Washington, D.C., he recorded and performed commercial music on drum set and percussion with touring Broadway shows, jazz and “Top 40” bands.