20 April 2010

Percussion Instruments in Academic Music

Today the old saying “Six musicians and a drummer” no longer holds true. Percussions, in all their guises, are increasingly significant musical instruments in their own right, requiring the modern percussionist to exercise skills in orchestra, ensemble or as soloist.

The impressive array of percussions, numbering in the hundreds, stems from their being the most ancient of all musical instruments, except the human voice.  But despite their worldwide ancestry it wasn’t until the 20 th Century that performing schools developed and began establishing the traditions of percussion.

Although today it would be impossible to imagine a military brass band without percussion maintaining the rhythmic organisation of the whole orchestra, their use in 19 th Century military and symphonic orchestras was limited to a narrow circle.  Classical composers often confined themselves to using bass and snare drums, and cymbals and timpani primarily to colour the emotional intensity of culminating moments – a rather narrow field of use for such an ancient and diverse family of instruments.

Towards the end of the 19 th Century however composers began to pay more attention to the ability of percussions to enrich the musical palette of an orchestral work.  Tambourine, castanets and other cultural percussions were increasingly used to give pieces ethnic and national colour.  The importance of percussion parts in the orchestra also increased. Bells, for example, were often used in solo parts.  Finally, composers began to write pieces exclusively for percussion ensembles.

As music developed into the 20 th Century both challenges and opportunities increased for percussionists.  The birth and subsequent development of jazz gave renewed impetus to the development of musical performance.  Jazz percussionists invented new playing techniques that later went on to become standard in professional playing.  In brass band performances percussionist numbers created a circus style event, thrilling and exciting in equal measure.

More recently the field of percussion expanded further with the invention of the vibraphone and the growth in popularity of the marimba. Contemporary composers have been quick to utilise these changes and a number of orchestral works now include five or more percussionists whose parts include up to 3 different instruments. Pieces written specifically for percussions are also gaining in popularity and many composers now write solo percussion parts for an ensemble or orchestra.  Works by Nebojsa Zivkovic and Ney Rozauro for marimba and vibraphone are hugely popular, with many more musicians now arranging classical pieces for percussion instruments.

In comparison with other instruments percussion playing is developing incredibly quickly with new techniques improving all the time.  This may compensate for the lack of attention it was paid in the formation of academic music over the centuries.  Given its recent and rapid ascendency one can only now guess to what level of skill the art of percussion playing will reach over the next two decades.



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