Playing the Brake Drum: A very short guide to percussion parts for composers who write for band

Playing the Brake Drum: A very short guide to percussion parts for composers who write for band

In the past two weeks, I’ve shared some of my experiences during my two years as a master’s degree composition student, and the lens through which I experienced college life as a student and mostly-composer after spending many years as a professor and mostly-percussionist.

For my third post in this series of four, I’ll turn to a lighter subject but one very near to my heart: percussion parts in band music!

A general sense of flexibility leads to good long-term relationships with band directors.

I have performed in the percussion section of bands, on and off, since the seventh grade. Over a span of 25+ years, this includes performing in a wide variety of groups, from junior high to high school, intermediate and advanced college bands, and community bands. I have seen the worst of the worst in percussion parts, and also some of the best. My experiences working with a variety of bands as a composer have led me to an even deeper understanding of the need for clear and practical percussion writing, and how a general sense of flexibility leads to good long-term relationships with directors—directors who, inevitably, are interested in programming newer music!

As composers of band music, treading the line between “serving my artistic vision of the music” and “let’s make sure the percussionists don’t want to stab me in the eye with a triangle beater” can be daunting. I hope to provide some very practical writing advice for those looking to write for band, as well as for those who may want to fix their major sins and/or minor transgressions ex post facto. I do not propose to offer actual composing advice. This is rather a cut-and-dry guide for percussion scoring in band music, and it is not comprehensive. Books are available to further illuminate percussion writing. There are points and subtleties that I will miss, and I foresee many possible arguments in the comments section, which I welcome, because it shows that composers are actually thinking about percussion instead of writing willy-nilly while thinking, “I’m sure they’ll figure it out!”

I would like to thank my Twitter friends for providing additional suggestions, many of which are included throughout this article.

The full text of Olivia Kieffer's Twitter call for comments

INSTRUMENT PRACTICALITIES

Auxiliary Percussion

A whirly tube

We all hate whirly tubes. They are physically unpleasant and difficult to play, they break easily, and nobody can really hear them unless at least four people are playing them at once and the rest of the band is silent. This advice goes for crystal wine glasses as well; we hate those, too.

No liquids in the percussion section, please.

Anything requiring a bucket or tub of water (a.k.a. water gong or any other thing you’ve decided needs to be dipped in water) is murder on our backs and a danger to anyone who walks on the floor. Waterphones are also unacceptable. No liquids in the percussion section, please.

There are wind chimes, and there is a bell tree. They are different. Mark trees do not actually exist; we just guess whether you actually mean wind chimes or bell tree.

When considering writing for more than eight tom-toms, ask yourself why, then pare it down to four toms.

Brake drums are beastly heavy. They can break your foot if they fall off a trap table. Consider using just one, and suggest it be mounted on a snare stand.

Pitched gongs are lovely instruments but do not belong in band. They require giant stands or multiple trap tables. We play tam-tam. Asking for more than two tam-tams is asking for trouble.

A waterphone photographed from above, which shows the filling port for the water.

A waterphone photographed from above, which shows the filling port for the water. (Wikimedia commons image by Hangklang)

Mallet Percussion

Imagine a percussion section that is bowless, and you will find a sea of happy faces in the back.

Bowing crotales is absolutely the worst. They are round. Challenge: don’t write for bows at all. Imagine a percussion section that is bowless, and you will find a sea of happy faces in the back, and you will never experience that heartbreaking moment when the note simply won’t sound.

Nobody in the history of the world will ever hear the low notes on a five-octave marimba in a band context. Moving a five-octave marimba onto a stage is a backbreaking, two-person ordeal that every composer should have to physically do themselves, over and over again, until they never write for five-octave marimba again. For marimba in general, do not score it during fortissimo tutti sections. We have to use practically diamond-encrusted mallets to be heard, which ruins the bars and sounds terrible.

While vibraphone with motor can sound truly majestic, understand that vibe motors rarely work when we need them to. We have to plug them in, and there are cords to trip over. Many bands own a vibraphone, but not many own one with a consistently working motor.

Timpani

Not everyone owns a piccolo timpano. Take the time to figure out whether you need four timpani or whether you really and truly actually need five. Be aware that you may get a well-meaning roto-tom as a replacement for those high pitches.

Marcato-fortissimo low pitches on 32″ timpani distress the heads something terrible, and make the drums sound like cardboard boxes.

PARTS

It’s rarely the notes that cause percussionists trouble. It’s much more often the careless instrument distribution that is so taxing.

Sometimes a full hour or more of uninterrupted time is needed simply to assign parts.

One thing composers may not completely understand is the important role the percussion part-assigner plays, and how sometimes a full hour or more of uninterrupted time is needed simply to assign parts. Countless times, I have looked at a single set of parts with resignation as I realize how much time it will take to de-tangle the major transgressions just to assign parts among the section players. This is completely unnecessary. We should see a part called “Percussion 1” and hand it to one percussionist. That’s it.

Percussion score? NO! Take the time to make actual parts for a specific number of people. Do not make two players play on the same bass drum, or the same xylophone, meaning: keep one person on xylophone or bass drum the whole time. If you choose to sin and ask the percussionists to load an enormous amount of gear and only play, say, the ratchet once, make it an incredibly special ratchet moment. What we do as percussionists matters, and the schlepping we do matters. Above all, ask yourself, “Am I assuming the percussionists will just figure it out?”  While we are certainly smart enough to figure it out, it’s better for us to spend that time practicing our parts rather than pulling our hair out trying to decipher a careless percussion score.

The schlepping we do matters.

In closing, for any composers who are now feeling the sting of condemnation or are even a bit defensive, I’d like to share the story of the absolute worst percussion scoring I have ever seen. It happened recently, and it should ease your mind. The percussion parts arrived as 14 individual parts. One for bass drum, one for triangle, one for crotales, one for snare drum…you get the picture. As the part-assigner, I was baffled. We had six players, not fourteen. Then, the composer sent a full percussion score. This score simply had a list of instruments on the front, with “Five Players plus Timpani” underneath. The score was 32 pages long and it was, once again, simply instruments stacked vertically. It took me 90 minutes, but I figured out exactly who could play what, when, and where, and there was significant instrument overlap. I shrunk the parts to horizontal (two pages to a page), double-sided printing, and bound them. I had to use highlighters for each person’s part, with arrows pointing to their next instrument change. The thing is, the parts were meticulously notated…a true paradox of care and remarkable laziness.

There is certainly much more to be said about percussion part-making! My hope is that a few of these suggestions will go a long way, and that my words combined with the Twitter posts will illuminate the (often hilarious!) variety of difficulties percussionists come across in our band parts. Godspeed, and good luck!


Olivia Kieffer is a composer, percussionist, and educator from the United States. A native of Wisconsin, her music has been described as “immediately attractive”, “like a knife of light”, and “honest, to the point, and joyful!” She presently studies with Lansing McLoskey at the Frost School of Music at University of Miami, where she is pursing a DMA in Music Composition. She is former adjunct music faculty at Reinhardt University (2009 – 2017), where she taught Applied Percussion Lessons and World Music, and directed the Percussion Ensemble. She has degrees in percussion... Read more »


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2 thoughts on “Playing the Brake Drum: A very short guide to percussion parts for composers who write for band

  1. Jon Corelis

    Thanks so much for this useful article. As a self-taught composer, and one who only rarely has performers to work with, I find such nuts-and-bolts explanations extremely valuable, and surprisingly hard to find in books and web sites dealing with orchestration. I wish there were an article like this for every instrument.

    Reply
  2. Raison

    Thanks so much for such a practical article about paracompositional matters. I must admit to an initial disappointment, though, because one of the most delightful sounds I have ever heard was a chamber work that involved about a dozen brake drums played with the bamboo handles of yarn mallets. Absolutely enchanting, and it was nearly 40 years ago that I heard it–but I’ll never forget it! Mark well, though: *chamber* work.

    Reply

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