Tag Archives: Percussion

A Rough Guide to Slide Whistles

This week I’m performing Ligeti’s Violin Concerto with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. The percussion part includes difficult passages for two tuned slide whistles. In addition to the finer points of tuned slide whistle, this article might also help to illustrate the sheer amount of collective effort it takes to put on an event like this. Dozens of musicians will play hundreds of thousands of notes during this concert. Even for me, the slide whistle part isn’t on my top 5 list of concerns. I also have tons of hard cimbalom notes to play. Aside from the musicians, there is also the administrative side of BMOP, raising the money to produce the event and handling all the logistics. All of that makes a few slide whistle notes being sort of in tune a relatively insignificant detail, yet several man hours went in to that task alone.

While spending an inordinate amount of time modifying a slide whistle, I often wondered “Does it really matter if these notes are in tune?” It would make my life a lot easier if it didn’t. But I remembered an experience I had 10 years ago playing Steve Mackey’s Eating Greens, which involves a comparably fussy part for tuned flexatone. I practiced flexatone for three hours to learn the feel of where the pitches were. At the first rehearsal, the conductor made me play the part with in unison with the violins, so in that case the practice paid off. Better safe than sorry.

The slide whistle is typically used as a non-pitched glissando sound effect, but Ligeti writes specific pitches in moving lines, and if that wasn’t enough, he also has the two slide whistlers in parallel fourths. Given that it is written for slide whistle, I seriously doubt the intention is for it to be perfectly in tune, but I at least want to be in the right ball park. So I could either practice the slide whistle until I become so familiar with it that I can navigate the intervals by feel alone, or construct some sort of tuning gauge. I went with the gauge.

This particular slide whistle worked well because of the L-shaped slide. It has a range of E4-C#6, not counting higher notes achievable through over-blowing.

The actual process of making the tuning slide was not difficult, but coming up with the design took some effort. I asked some of my crafty neighbors if they had any ideas, but their suggestions were far too complicated. I ended up with a simple design using a square dowel rod, double sided tape, and gaff tape.

I cut a length of the dowel equal to the length of the slide whistle, drilled a small hole in one end, and attached it to the slide. I also used to small bits of dowel to keep the moving dowel centered on the slide whistle. I attached the two small bits with double sided tape, then gaff taped them all together. I then marked the pitches with black sharpie on white gaff tape. The end of the dowel rod marks the pitch.

The cuts bits of dowel rod. I didn't end up needing the anchor nuts.

The cut bits of dowel rod. I didn’t end up needing the anchor nuts.

Dowels attached with unmarked tuning gauge.

Dowels attached with unmarked tuning gauge.

 

A few shots of the completed tuning gauge.

A few shots of the completed tuning gauge.

 

Making the tuning gauge was somewhat frustrating because the pitch changes dramatically depending on the dynamic. So I guess beware of that if you have to undertake this project.

It occurs to me that the ideal solution for tuned slide whistle would be for the body of the instrument to be transparent with the pitches etched directly on to it. The stopper inside the instrument could then act as the gauge. I was genuinely surprised to learn that Kolberg hasn’t thought of this already with a specially made “Ligeti Slide Whistle”.

I bought a few other slide whistles in preparation for this part. Here’s some info on those.

This one has by far the biggest range (D4-F#6 on the one I have. I’d be surprised that was consistent from instrument to instrument). It is also sounds a bit airy when played loud, as opposed to the Acme which has a more pure pitch.

This one sounds as cheap as it looks. The range is A5-F#6.

And here is a dog slide whistle. It has a one octave range of G4-G5.

 

Flexatone, Vibraslap, Guiro, Ratchet… ugh

The addition of flexatone, vibraslap, guiro, or ratchet to a multi-percussion setup can throw a wrench in the proceedings. Mounting the instruments for easy access with hardware widely available in the US is difficult, and navigating the techniques required for each instrument can make for some awkward choreography.

I recently performed Cells by Hanspeter Kyburz. In addition to tons of hard notes on keyboard instruments, Kyburz threw in the odd vibraslap, bowed flexatone, or guiro scrape, often with less than a second to get from one instrument to the next. Here are some solutions I came up with for that performance.

Guiro

If you see a guiro part in a modern European piece, odds are the composer has this in mind:

It is about three feet in length so playing a long, loud note is easy, and it is simple to mount on a stand.

This is what we usually have access to in the States:

The grooved portion is less than a foot long, so playing anything loud that isn’t staccatissimo is difficult, and your mounting options are limited. Without access to an extra-long Kolberg, my preferred guiro set up is a Meinl wood guiro with a Meinl guiro holder. Pearl also makes a guiro holder but it should be avoided. I like the Meinl wood guiro because it is quite durable compared to a traditional gourd guiro. You can throw it in a trap bag and not worry about it being crushed.

Flexatone

There aren’t a lot of flexatones on the market. The LP models are ubiquitous, but I prefer this Dobani model that I found on Amazon. The resting position of the beaters on an LP is right up against the metal, so it is difficult to pick it up and put it down without making a ton of noise. People often solve this problem either by putting moleskin on the beaters to soften them, or for bowing purposes, by rubber-banding the beaters to the metal. Fuss with that if you want, or just get a better (and cheaper) flexatone. On the Dobani model, the beaters are further away from the metal, so you can pick it up and put it down silently. It is also possible to do bowed glisses without interference from the beaters. The size and range of the Dobani is similar to the smaller of the two LP models.

Dobani

LP

LP products should generally be avoided, if for no other reason than to spite them for building the most poorly designed percussion product of all time:

Worst Stand Ever

Vibraslap

LP vibraslap mounts are completely worthless, yet they seem to be the only ones on the market. They do not clamp solidly to the vibraslap so they need to be constantly fussed with and they dampen the vibration. I found a solution that works very well for mounting vibraslaps:

 

That is a Meinl product designed for mounting cowbells and the like to conga, bongo, and djembe lugs, because I guess that is something people need to do? It works perfectly as a vibraslap mount. They should really market it as such.

Ratchet

This doesn’t have anything to do with the aforementioned Kyburz piece, but could prove to be useful information if you are ever playing Chaya Czernowin’s Sahaf or another piece where you need quick access to a ratchet.

“Whirlybird” style ratchets can be easily mounted to a cymbal stand or clamp.

The common CB ratchet can be attached to a cymbal stand by adjusting the clamp that is supposed to attach it to a music stand (which never works).

Remove that wingnut

Then you are left with this

Then jam it into a stand

Tolberg Percussion: How to Make a Crotale Stand

The DIY ethic is intrinsic to the percussion world. Percussionists are frequently required to perform on readymades rather than “real” instruments, and most proper percussion instruments can trace their origins to crude prototypes using the simplest of raw materials. The lack of an established performance practice for modern repertoire also leads us to find our own solutions for realizing a given piece. And, as I’ve mentioned before, it is expensive to acquire all the things you need. Cheap, homemade solutions can be a lifesaver. Even over a relatively short career, I’ve come up with (and stolen) some ideas that have helped me immensely. Most of them involve a skillful navigation of Home Depot.

This week I’m playing Olga Neuwirth’s Torsion for solo bassoon and ensemble. The percussion part requires crotales, but only three pitches. This is just one of many pieces that only requires a few pitches out of the 2.5 octaves of available crotales, and having all the unneeded pitches can make a large percussion setup more difficult to navigate. With that in mind, I set out to make a stand that could hold just a few crotales.

I started with a standard steel bar from Home Depot. I’m not sure if they have an official name, but they are usually next to the dowels. The length of the bar will be too long, so you’ll need to saw it in two. This can be done with a simple hacksaw. It won’t be the most fun thirty minutes of your life but it will work. Then, make drill marks where you want the crotales to go using a laser level for alignment.

For drilling the holes, do yourself a favor and get a corded drill, not a battery powered one. As you can guess, drilling through a steel bar requires a lot of power and a battery charged drill won’t get it done. The drilled bar will look like this. The larger hole in the middle is for the cymbal stand that will eventually hold it.

Now you are ready to put mounting bolts in the bar. I used three-inch 10-24 bolts since they are compatible with Zildjian crotale wing nuts. Make sure they are three inches long so that the mounted crotale has room to sit above the cymbal stand wing nut. To secure the bolts to the bar, make sure to use stop nuts. This will prevent the bolt from loosening. After this step it should look like this:

Now you need to add another stop nut about halfway down the bolt that the crotale will sit on.

Then put one layer of moleskin around the bolt so the crotale won’t buzz against it.

It is helpful if you can get your hands on the rubber washers that Zildjian uses on their crotale mounts. I happened to have some lying around, but if you don’t have access to any, I’m sure Home Depot will have a suitable substitute. Do not use metal washers. They will buzz. Here it the mounting bar on a cymbal stand with the bottom washers on.

Now you are ready to add the crotales, the top washer, and the wing nut. I made this bar to hold six crotales, and the finished products looks like this:

Since the stand is long enough to hold six crotales, there is room to hang more instrument underneath the crotales without hitting the cymbal stand.

I mentioned above that the original bar from Home Depot had to be sawed in to two pieces, so I used the left over bit to make a three-crotale version.

These little items will make countless pieces much easier to play, and the total cost of the materials for both stands was $25.

Tolberg Percussion: Building an Instrument Library

(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.

Prioritize

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.

How To Make Parts: Developing a Method

Frequently in modern music, parts are not provided with performance materials, thus requiring the performers to construct their own parts. This is most often the case with composers that came of age in the Darmstadt scene of the 1960’s. I wish publishers like Universal Edition and Ricordi would go through their back catalogs and modernize some publications. There are some pieces for which I have the score but that I have not yet programmed because doing so would require having the music re-engraved. And there are some pieces that, barring an incredible performance fee, I would simply refuse to play again if asked because the performance materials are such a nightmare to deal with. I’ve unfortunately come to expect these nightmare scenarios with one of my favorite composers: Franco Donatoni.

I’ve had the score for his Cinis II (for clarinet, marimba, and percussion) for years, but the music is written so large that each oversized page only has three measures of music.

This page is 11x17. Three measures of music. Thanks, Ricordi.

This page is 11×17. Three measures of music. Thanks, Ricordi.

Since I am no wizard with Finale (i.e. I don’t know how to use Finale), I would have to pay someone to re-engrave the music in order to play this piece. Professional engraving would reduce the 35 page score to a part that is 10 pages or less and with workable page breaks. The piece is only 105 measures long, after all.

As bad as that is, the score for Cloches III for two pianos and two percussionists is even worse. The percussion set-ups are so large that both percussionists would need multiple copies of the music spread across several instrumental stations. However, the single score that each percussionist receives from the publisher is so large that it can not be photocopied. And again, the music is written so enormously that each performer has to make a page turn every 10 seconds. Needless to say, the page breaks are not in convenient locations. It would take a talented copyist a week to fix both of those scores and then Ricordi would actually be able to give out workable performance materials for one of the most respected composers in its roster instead of the oversized study scores they currently send out.

In a perfect world, all sheet music would come off the shelf ready to use and performers wouldn’t have to fuss with it so much, but sadly that isn’t the case. It is not uncommon for me to spend more time making my own part for a piece than I do practicing it. The two most frequent problems I have to solve are making a part from a score and binding a part from loose pages.

I recently received the performance materials for Barbara White’s Third Rule of Thumb for percussion quartet, which I will perform at the upcoming Fromm Concerts at Harvard. It is an expertly prepared score. My part (player 2) is enlarged, while other parts are miniaturized in the staves below. Furthermore, only relevant parts are included in full, and other important events are indicated with text (see bar 232).

Screen Shot 2013-03-30 at 2.31.25 PM

My part consists of 15 loose, single sided 11×17 pages. It won’t work well to just have all these loose pages sitting on a music stand during performance. That would increase the chances of the music falling off the stand, and it would make page turns needlessly awkward. So, I’m going to bind the pages together with masking tape. It is a quick, easy, and low-tech way to deal with the issue.

Since the pages are formatted to be turned every two pages, I’ll start by taping two pages together at a time. Here, I’ve taped together pages 1 and 2, and pages 3 and 4:

20130330_144048

In order to set up the bind, I’m now going to tape together pages 2 and 3:

20130330_144252

To finish binding the first 4 pages together, I’m going to fold the pages in half, with pages 3 and 4 facing up, then turn page 4 on top of page three, then tape down the middle for a center bind:

20130330_144452

The finished version of the first four pages looks like this:

20130330_144531

Repeat these steps until there are no more pages. From start to finish, binding all 15 pages together took 15 minutes or so, and now my page turns are all worked out for performance.

In the next post, I’ll discuss my more recently developed high-tech method of part making.

How To Make Parts (part one)

I first realized the importance of page turns when I was a sophomore in college. I was auditioning for a chamber music honors concert with Elliott Carter’s Esprit Rude/Esprit Doux II, and all three members of the ensemble were playing from the score instead of from the provided parts (a wise move with that piece). Since we were all around 19 years old, no one had a better idea than to just tape several pages together at a time and then discard them to the floor when the time came. Before we could finish the last bar, a judge said to us “you can play in the concert but only if you do something about the page turns.” I still see people throwing 4 or 5 taped-together pages to the ground during performance regularly, and it is one of my biggest pet peeves (along with the old fortress of music stands trick that wind players seem to enjoy so much, but really just makes their performance look like watching something download.)

In the decade I’ve spent playing mostly contemporary music, I rarely receive a part or score that I can perform from without altering it in some way. I’ve toyed with various solutions over the years, from cutting and pasting music on to poster board to binding loose pages together with masking tape. In part 2 of this post I’ll detail one of those processes, and later will explain my newest solution which I think is a keeper.

Not to state the obvious, but the best solution to this problem would be for composers, copyists, and publishers to see to it that the parts they give to performers actually work. Every minute I spend making a new part is a minute I don’t spend actually practicing a piece. This is especially important advice for student composers. The quickest way to make an enemy out of someone performing your piece is to give them a part they can’t play from. No one is expecting the next Pierrot Luniere to come out of a conservatory undergrad, but as long as the printed music itself is prepared on a professional level, the experience should be positive. This first of three posts on this topic will address common pitfalls of music copying.

1. Don’t use landscape layout

For the life of me, I can’t comprehend why so many composers insist on using landscape (horizontal) page formatting. It causes many problems:

  • Landscape layout necessitates more music stands. If using ledger sized paper (11×17), one sheet occupies the space of the entire music stand. If in portrait layout (vertical), two sheets of ledger paper fit on one stand.
  • It is easier to move one’s neck and eyes up and down than it is from side to side.
  • Landscape layout puts the extreme sides of the music further away from a stationary performer.

(Update: John McDonald wisely pointed out that landscape format works well for piano parts, since the piano’s built in music stand isn’t tall enough to support portrait layout in most paper sizes.) 

2. Insert page breaks in convenient spots in the music

Don’t worry about leaving half of a page blank or inserting a completely blank page if that is what it takes to make the page turns work. In the last month I have played pieces by students and professionals alike where no thought whatsoever was put in to the page breaks. I wish I didn’t have to state the obvious again, but:

  • Musicians can not turn pages in the middle of a rapido passage.
  • Percussionists can not turn pages in the middle of a roll.
  • Page turns should be avoided during dramatic pauses in music.

3. Mind the gaps

I’m referring here to the distance between staves. This can make the difference between legible and illegible. I recently performed a 35 page part that easily could have been around 20 pages if not for the 40% negative space per page. A later post will address Berio’s Circles, which contains more blank paper than any piece of music should.

4. Consider whether or not performers should work from parts or scores

Factors that determine whether a performer would perform from a score include the size of the ensemble and thus the amount of music possible on one page of full score, and whether or not a piece will be conducted. When dealing with complicated music for small unconducted chamber group, I prefer to play from a score with my line on top and the other instruments miniaturized below. If performers prefer scores, you should still prepare different page breaks for each musician if necessary.