Hammers and Sticks

Hammers and Sticks

A couple of years ago I became fascinated with music for piano and percussion. Because the piano is essentially a percussion instrument, this seemed like a natural extension of an already good idea. And like so many musical projects that I have loved and launched, I simply jumped in before I really thought about all the details, e.g.: How easy—or difficult—would it be to tour with a truckload of percussion instruments or to fly across the country with a suitcase full of chimes and crotales? How long would it take to set up for rehearsals and concerts, and how long would it take to tear down? How challenging would it be to get the balance right in each new hall? (Who are these percussionists anyway, and how do they live like this?)

Well, happily, it was a (mostly) great experience, and the project, Music for Hammers and Sticks, has been one of my favorites, resulting in many concerts with great players and a recording of seven new works. Even now, I contemplate programming more music for piano and percussion. But then I pinch myself and hit the gong hanging near my piano until I come back to my senses. While solo piano can be isolating, adding percussion can be very complicated. Still, I really love the sounds, and having done this project I learned a great deal, in addition to working with some really terrific composers. Here are some ideas, if you are contemplating writing or programming this fabulous music:

Consider the number of large percussion instruments you are writing for or programming (including a piano or multiple pianos) and how those instruments will be transported, borrowed, or obtained, if your piece goes on tour. A five-octave marimba requires at least the back of a Volvo, and if you add a vibraphone or timpani or any other large equipment, then you should own a truck or be prepared to rent a van. Transporting these instruments across country is expensive and usually requires professional movers and insurance policies. Other artists in other cities may be willing to loan you their equipment, but it may come with lots of strings attached. Having a decent piano in the hall when you arrive is generally a given, but whether it has been tuned and serviced recently is another matter.

Think about the spatial set-up and acoustics of the combination of instruments for which you are writing. Will all of your instruments actually fit on the stage? Will the performers be able to see and hear each other? This sounds like a no-brainer, but recently in a Music for Hammers and Sticks concert in Chicago, the logistics of the hall and the stage created problems none of us could have anticipated. The concert took place in a beautiful old building where the stage had been built with modular sections. The piano was on a raised platform and could not be moved out of the cups that held the wheels in place. The percussionists I was playing with were on different raised platforms, which only fit together with my platform in a certain configuration. The stagehands could not move the piano down to the floor, and I looked pretty silly towering above the other players on a raised stage. Plus, there were other people playing on the program, and their space needs had to be considered. In the end, the configuration forced us to play with the lid of the piano lowered or we would not have been able to see or hear each other for important cues. All the wonderful effects written for the piano by the composer were muted and could not be heard clearly above the many percussion instruments. Balance between all instruments is tricky, but with different pianos and different acoustics in each hall, it is particularly challenging between percussion and piano.

Imagine the amount of rehearsal time it will take to bring it all together and factor in transportation time, set-up time, and tear down time, in addition to actual rehearsal time, then double it. Having now helped percussionists roll their instruments down the street in major cities like San Francisco, New York, and Chicago, I have a new appreciation for my life as a pianist. While I don’t usually get to choose my instrument when I travel, I know that all I have to do is show up, lift the lid, play, close the lid, and go out for dinner and drinks after. Waiting around for the percussionists to be ready for the reception following the concert is a lonely job. Be sure to bring your work with you or make plans to meet a friend. You can offer to help move the music stands, but your feeble attempts at putting together the marimba will only earn you smiles and comments like, “I’ve got that—thanks.” Focus on placing your piano in exactly the right place (this can take up at least 15 minutes) or on making sure your music is in the right order. Composers can go over last minute details in their score. Please don’t ask for major changes in percussion instruments at this point. Wondering whether the percussionists can substitute woodblock for crotales might be okay, but wondering whether they can play vibraphone instead of timpani at the last minute will not earn you any friends or repeat performances of your work.

I am always amazed though by the number of mallets that percussionists carry around and the many different sounds each one can make. Their beautiful array on a music stand, often covered with an elaborate piece of velvet or fancy cloth, makes me wish I had more doo-dads to display when I play. If I get to hit or ring something when I perform, then I get very excited. This happened recently in a work I commissioned last year, which required me to play a small percussive instrument and earned me several lessons from the percussionists. (More cowbell!) Still, I did have a nice piece of velvet and a stand for my stick. Over the years, I have played crotales, woodblocks, tambourine, cowbell, drums, Chinese gongs, and toy piano while playing the modern piano—sometimes at the same time. Adding instruments to the piano takes the term “extended technique” to a whole new level.

Why do I do this? Because it is fun. It is definitely more complicated than playing solo piano, but the diversity of the experience is worth it. Besides, everyone knows that percussionists are the coolest members of the orchestra because they have the most toys. It makes sense that I’d want to play with them. I think composers feel the same way.

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3 thoughts on “Hammers and Sticks

  1. rtanaka

    Seems like you’re not the only one — I’ve been working with a pianist right now (Danny Holt of the pLAy Ensemble who has a whole kit for himself that combines a drumset setup, some xylophones (inside the piano) along with a whole array of things. It’s pretty amazing how he can keep track of everything going on, on top of being an excellent piano player.

    Do piano techniques apply to percussion techniques and visa versa? I play piano but I never had the opportunity to do percussion so I’ve always wondered about that.

  2. mdwcomposer


    At this point, do you differentiate between pieces you might take on tour and those you probably won’t when you first discuss a percussion+ project with a composer? I’ve been in several situations where I’ve asked that question (do you want to tour with this or not?) and it has turned out to be crucial to the kind of piece I write. Of course the most obvious in this context is the type and size of the percussion setup, but sometimes knowing that performers have a variety of performance spaces, limited run-through time in a hall, etc. influence musical choices I make in how I put a piece together.

    Maybe this is a related aspect to one of your earlier posts about how programs fit together. Forces and spaces are another factor in programming.

    Related subject (and from personal experience), I have to say percussion + organ is also a great sound but is a total nightmare to put together. First, you have to find an organ where the console is close enough to the pipes to make ensemble playing even possible. Then the placement of everything has to include room for the percussion instruments (loved your description of the stage on different levels with an immovable piano). Sightlines are sometimes merely a nice-to-have. It’s also nice when the organ actually has the sounds close to what a composer calls for (organs are the ultimate non-standard instrument).

    But the real fun begins when you (or in this case, me) and the percussionist not only struggle to bring the vibraphone up a flight of stairs from the garage. But then contemplate the narrow stairs with a tight landing up two stories to the organ loft.

    But ultimately, it’s as you say: percussion is a great sound to work with. And percussionists are wonderful people to work with.

  3. teresa

    Wow–organ and percussion–I am glad I don’t have to figure that one out…

    Generally, I always think about programming in the context of touring with the piece. When I did the original Hammers and Sticks program however, I didn’t give that as much thought as I would now (hint: look for a pianist who doesn’t know what she is getting in to…) But really, when I program anything, I like to think that the piece will have a long life and be played in more than one place. Sometimes though, that’s hard to arrange.

    What I should have mentioned in the original post was that I had fabulous percussionists who were very easy-going about instruments and set-up: Peggy Benkeser and Tom Burritt. Without their ingenuity and wisdom, it would have been an entirely different experience.

    And yes–it is a fabulous sound world and I’m always looking for more opportunities to play that music.



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