Complete Percussionist

Multiple Percussion

By David L. Smith

David L. Smith is an Instructor of Music at Western Connecticut State College in Danbury, Connecticut where he teaches percussion, music theory, and conducts the percussion ensemble. He holds degrees from Mansfield State College and East Carolina University and has studied percussion with John Beck, Harold Jones, Brad Spinney, and Fred Hinger. The author is an active performer in addition to his teaching responsibilities. He is timpanist with several orchestras in Connecticut and is a percussionist with the New England Contemporary Ensemble which is recorded on Desto Records.Multiple percussion playing has become a very important area of percussion performance. The ability to perform on a multiple percussion set-up is necessary for playing practically anything from solo recitals to a Broadway show.Basically multiple percussion means playing on a group of percussion instruments as one instrument. Timpani and the keyboard percussion instruments may be included along with various types of drums. This necessitates some facility on all of the percussion instruments.

Multiple percussion performance dates back to the beginning of the 20th century. The first major work to use multiple percussion is L ‘Histoire du Soldat which was written by Igor Stravinsky in 1918. This work is a chamber piece for seven players. The percussionist uses a battery of thirteen instruments. This set-up of instruments was meant to imitate the sound of a drum-set, although it does not resemble a drum-set as we know them today. Two other works which use a drum-set type of multiple percussion arrangement are The Creation of the World by Milhaud and Walton’s Facade Suite.

One of the earliest, and probably the best known concerto for multiple percussion and orchestra is Darius Milhaud’s Concerto for Percussion and Small Orchestra. This utilizes four timpani, three drums of various sizes, bass drum with a foot pedal and attached cymbal, suspended cymbal, crash cymbals, tam-tam, triangle, wood block, metal block, castanets, tambourine, ratchet, and whip. There are now many concertos for percussion and orchestra probably due to Milhaud’s pioneering efforts.

Multiple percussion as an unaccompanied solo instrument was pioneered by Karlheinz Stockhausen with his Zyklus Nr. 9 for Solo Percussion. This piece requires the percussionist to stand in the middle of many instruments and play around the instruments in one complete circle. Instruments used for this work include: marimba, vibraphone, snare drum, four tom-toms, four tuned cowbells, large tam-tam, gong, guiro, two tree drums with a total of four pitches, tambourine, two cymbals, hi-hat cymbal, and several triangles. This type of unaccompanied solo is perhaps the fastest growing area of solo literature for the percussion instrumentalist.

Performance of avant garde music often requires a thorough knowledge of multiple percussion playing. This author recently performed Passio Avium by Richard Moryl. This is a chamber music work which required an extensive multiple percussion set-up. The set-up included: marimba, orchestra bells, chimes, a chromatic set of crotales, four tom-toms, snare drum, three cowbells, maracas, claves, finger cymbals, suspended cymbal, tam-tam, and bass drum. The problems encountered here and in the other works mentioned (or any multiple percussion piece) will be discussed below.

The biggest problem in multiple percussion playing is the set-up. The player must organize the instruments he needs around him in a way that he can perform on all of them in a relaxed manner. Sometimes, the player must create his own stands or holders in order to facilitate a comfortable set-up.

When a composer suggests a particular set-up it should be tried by the performer, but it is not mandatory to stay with that exact arrangement if the player is uncomfortable. This author has seen several successful set-ups for “standard” works such as Milhaud’s Concerto for Percussion. Occasionally, however, the arrangement of the instruments become an integral part of the piece and must be adhered to very strictly. An example of this is Stockhausen’s Zyklus Nr. 9. The great majority of works allow the performer freedom in choosing his own set-up.

The choice of sticks and/or mallets is another problem the percussionist must face before performing a multiple percussion work. It is often necessary to use double-headed sticks in order to make the quick switches which are so common in this medium. Sometimes the percussionist must resort to a compromise mallet that comes the closest to all the needs for a particular section of a composition where there is no time to switch. An example of this might be playing timpani with xylophone mallets when a few notes are written in the middle of a complex xylophone solo section. Many players construct special mallets to meet the needs of a particular composition. That is probably the best solution to this problem.

Several books are available to the percussion student wishing to prepare himself for this type of performance. An excellent series is the Percussion Solo Series by Sandy Feldstein and Roy Burns. There are three books in this series: Elementary, Intermediate, and Advanced. They guide the percussionist into this area of performance very gradually, giving the player a chance to grow technically and musically. A more advanced book is Etudes for Solo Percussion by Morris Goldenberg. This book has many pieces written by Mr. Goldenberg and several other composers. Several of the pieces are worthy of recital programming. Completion of these books should prepare the student to attempt some of the solo percussion literature available today.

The demands placed on the percussionist today require a familiarity with multiple percussion techniques. The student who seriously works on this area of performance is going to be better prepared for his future in the world of percussion.