(Note: “Tolberg Percussion” is the title I will include on all my posts about percussion. It is a play on words on the German company Kolberg Percussion, which makes highly specialized and incredibly expensive equipment for any imaginable situation. Tolberg Percussion, however, will offer advice to those among us who don’t have $500 to spend on a mounted guiro.)
Here is a sobering fact: to acquire the instruments you need to survive as a freelance percussionist, you are going to spend somewhere in the neighborhood of $100,000. There are biggies, like timpani, marimba, vibraphone, xylophone, glockenspiel, chimes, and crotales in addition to the hundreds of small instruments that percussionists acquire over the course of a career. It adds up pretty quickly, and instruments are only getting more expensive. You know those 4.3 octave Musser marimbas that every music school in the world has? Yeah. They are $10,000 now. (Update 5/14: They are now down to a slightly more reasonable $7,400. Who knows where they will be a year from now.)
It goes without saying that my friends in other fields of the percussion world have different instrumental needs than I do. I have no need to own several $1,000 snare drums for instance, but if you audition for the Boston Symphony, you’d probably be well-served by having a few of those. In addition, since I’m not a marimba soloist, I have no need to spend $15,000 on a 5 octave Marimba One. This post is meant for those intent on pursuing a freelance career.
I can’t speak to what things are like in other cities, but in Boston, you are expected to own the instruments you are hired to play. Union employers do not enjoy paying rental fees in addition to the livable wage, cartage, and doubles that they already work very hard to afford. Moreover, principal percussionists in freelance groups would much rather have a section full of players that can take care of their own instrumental needs.
Here are a few tips for building your instrument library slowly but surely.
Take good care of what you have.
I have a pair of Becker Blues (for non-percussionists, these are widely used xylophone mallets) that came with my very first student bell-kit in 1994. I still have them and I use them all the time. There is no reason why things like xylophone mallets can’t last forever if taken care of properly, leaving you with more money to buy a xylophone. When I got my first drum set that same year, it came with a pair of roto-toms. I did not know what they were at the time, but now I use them from time to time in my professional activities. The second drum set I got in 1997 was a very fancy Pearl kit with 7 tom toms (I really wanted to be the next Neil Peart), and now I have 7 amazing concert toms. I got a set of temple blocks for Christmas when I was 13 so I could play along to The Trees by Rush. Those are the blocks I used last month to play Mathias Spahlinger.
If a deal comes up, take advantage of it no matter what.
In 2007 I was visiting my good friends at National Music in Woburn, MA (if you live in the area, check these guys out). They told me that the price of Zildjian crotales had recently gone up to $1,000. These were run of the mill Zildjian crotales, not the fancy ones they are making now. I told them that I knew of a website that still had them listed for $750 per octave, and they told me to go home and purchase them immediately. I did, and the next month that same site had them listed for $1,000. Earlier that year I heard that a percussion company in Boston was trying to unload some pristine rosewood xylophones from The Netherlands for $1,200. I spent a sizable portion of my NEC post-grad loan surplus on it, and haven’t ever regretted doing so. It was one of the wisest purchases I’ve ever made. On an absolute whim I bought a pair of steel pans for $750. Little did I know I would later need them to perform Harbison, Grisey, and Boulez. In 2008, I stumbled upon a set of chimes on the Central Massachusetts section of Craigslist for $1,200. Most recently I got a 36″ Yamaha concert bass drum w/stand for under $500 also by trolling Craigslist. Sometimes necessity trumps bargain hunting and you just have to buy a new instrument from a dealer, like I have done with my vibraphone and timpani. But when deals come up, do what you have to do to take advantage of it. Instrument purchase loans are available, and are a good option if the interest rate doesn’t cancel the discount.
My undergrad percussion teacher, Pat Hollenbeck, told me once that when I started playing professionally, I’d be playing much more glockenspiel and vibraphone than xylophone and marimba. That has absolutely been true. On that subject, in my professional career, I have never needed a 5 octave marimba. Not once. My 4.3 has done the trick in every situation in which I’ve needed a marimba. If you want to freelance as a percussionist and you have $15,000 to spend on instruments, you’ll get more use out of most other things. I don’t say this to disparage the marimba as a pursuit, and I would quite like to own a 5 octave someday. But unless you are trying to make it as a marimba soloist, hold off on that purchase until you are fairly well established.
Buy what you need as you need it.
I frequently make additions to my instrument collection depending on what a particular job calls for. This doesn’t really apply to the standard instruments, but for smaller, more unusual items, being hired to play something is a good reason to buy that instrument if you don’t already have it. This is how I built up an enormous collection of hand-held instruments, and most recently I had the occasion to purchase a reco-reco, a Brazilian instrument brilliantly exploited in Liza Lim’s Shimmer Songs. I hope I get to use it again someday.
Spend $79 a year on Amazon Prime and buy every piece of equipment you possibly can from them.
The best deal in retail is Amazon Prime, which is a premium service from Amazon.com that costs $79/year, and includes free two day shipping on items that Amazon sells directly. It also includes a Netflix-like library of free streaming video. A staggering amount of percussion gear can be purchased this way at a better price than other online retailers and with free shipping. Believe me, it is well worth the investment.
Remember that you’ll have to move these instruments yourself. A lot.
I own a set of four Adams Universal Series hammered copper timpani. They are among the most affordable professional drums available, and even though they are full-sized copper bowls, I can move them by myself if I have to. Doing so, however, is a nightmare, and I’ve on occasion hurt my back while moving them. I’m thrilled to have the metal bowls, but sometimes I wonder if I should have gone with the fiberglass model, which is so light that each drum can be lifted with one hand. I would never advise buying sub-par equipment for the sake of portability, but one should keep portability in mind when buying equipment at least to some degree.