The Life of a Percussionist

To those of you who weren’t aware, it was the last night of the Proms which usually calls for those attending the Albert hall to become overly emotional and patriotic listening to some of the great scores written by Britain’s finest. Dambusters is a usual favourite and who can forget the fan’s Jerusalem, which despite its misleading name is unmistakably British.

However when I was watching on Saturday (Yes I am 19 and I really was watching the Proms) I wasn’t singing along at home to the classics, I was thinking about the unsung hero in every Orchestra who always gets overlooked, I was thinking about the percussionist. While other members of the orchestra can fall back on their fellow members, the Percussionist works alone.  His mistakes can not be masked by a chorus of strings or a big brass band. Though the contributions of this musician’s work seem minimal compared to his/her compatriots they should not be underestimated.  Every cymbal clash, every virtuoso glockenspiel solo, every triangle ting; a percussionist is responsible for them all.  Playing percussion on its own is an impressive skill to behold but it is lost in the greater scheme of an orchestra.

It’s sad really.  A percussionist in an Orchestra doesn’t even adhere to traditional percussion instruments, moreover he doesn’t get to use the full array of instruments at his disposal.  Percussion instruments were believed to be the first ever instruments and date back to tribal times.  Imagine being a musician back then; thought of as so inventive by banging two pieces of timber together to create a noise.  Then all of a sudden musical evolution saw the rise of the strings to quash these primitive striking tools.

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Of course Percussion evolved too; the Piano Forte is a percussion instrument but has broken away from its ancestors and managed to assert itself in people’s homes and as heart of the Orchestra.  It’s so loud that it can drown out almost anything, the lid has to be shut for big performances.   The unfortunate news for budding percussionists is that music has naturally been linked to popular culture.  The guitar has mutated into the electric and the piano has managed to downsize to fit into people’s homes.  What both have in common is that they have an appeal to the masses.  Everyone is instantly impressed if one can play either of these instruments no matter how proficient you are.  Playing the glockenspiel on the other hand, well I’m not sure you could get anyone into bed with that one besides pianists and guitarists are deemed to have more impressive fingering.

At this point you are probably wondering why have I not mentioned the Drum kit? Well the fact is that a Drum kit is not part of a percussionist’s armory, they have to make do with bongo drums and the like.  A drumkit is one of the instruments that became popular, like the Piano and seemed to get away from the art of percussion.  So this leaves us with a dilemma for percussionists worldwide.  Do they continue to remain in the shadows, occasionally popping up to make that memorable cymbal crash or do they rebel? I’m sure there are purely percussion orchestras out there somewhere but not as mainstream as a classic Orchestra.  Maybe I’ll be proved wrong and next year while watching the proms will get to hear a symphony of crash bang wallop.

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