The Shepherd's Crook
of the American Brass Band Association
February 2001 (Revised 2005,2013)
Percussion in the Brass Band
( Personal Experience of the editor,
This edition is essentially a reprint of an earlier
article written for the Shepherd's Crook in 1996. Times have changed; percussion discussions haven't. Either you agree or
disagree with what is herein, but certainly no arguing points are intended. The writing is based not on opinion as much as
experience as a percussionist, and a brass bandsman.
Percussion in the Brass Band setting is frequently overdone.
This came about when percussion instruments were over-marketed. The influence of the drum and bugle corps on the style of
modern marching bands also increased numbers in the percussion section. There has been a plethora of new writing for all sorts
of exotic percussion; from dried bones of antelope, to melodic turtle shells to tubular chromatic metals.
resulted has been a widening gap between the cohesiveness of the side drummer and his blend with the bass drummer. Subsequently,
the musical shading and blend of the brass band suffers.
The most prominent criticism of all competing bands at a recent
event was a lack of maturity and sensitivity in the percussion section. To artistically shade a brass band, the best of both
bass and side drumming is necessary. Truly great brass bands have outstanding sensitivity and maturity in miniscule percussion
sections. These consist of one, two, or three percussionists at most. It has also been our experience to hear mediocre brass
bands try to improve themselves by adding a larger battery of percussion. This ploy usually provides an experience au contraire.
More is not better in the percussion section of a brass band.
The percussionist should develop an approach tailored
to the brass band in which he performs. A metal side drum of medium depth, with gut snares and a rapid fire snare throw-off
is ideal for most concert settings. A suspended triangle and a suspended cymbal for mallet rolls are frequently utilized in
the repertoire for brass band. Either the side drummer or the bass drummer easily manages both. The triangle is mounted on
the music stand by a clip and is struck with a metal rod (in preference to the drum stick).
A well-tuned marching snare drum with a good throw-off snare can often
be utilized in concert brass bands to good advantage.
The ingenuity of the percussionist comes to play in brass bands.
Both the side drummer and the bass drummer should be adept at all instruments in the section, such as triangle, suspended
cymbal, mallets, and simple melodic percussion parts. (Orchestral bells are plenty). A variety of medium to soft mallets should
be available to handle subtle bass drum and suspended cymbal rolls. There are situations when one drummer will have to simultaneously
cover both bass drum and side drum parts. (The old one-handed side drummer trick!)
We suggest a bass drum of the scotch type with one cymbal mounted on the shell. The second cymbal
is held in the spare hand of the bass drummer and is utilized for playing cymbal crashes. One hand plays the bass drum; the
other augments the cymbal part. The left knee is utilized in muffling the bass drum in this setting.
produces a better blend and is more easily controlled than playing cymbal crashes on a suspended cymbal. Bass drum mounted
cymbal playing is an artistic technique. If mastered, it will add a great deal to what can be handled by a two-drummer section.
The average brass band has two drummers, the bass drum part taking precedence over the cymbal part, even in marches. This
is perhaps more true in the British and New Zealand traditions, although these bands are now utilizing cymbals (hand held)
more and more. The tendency is away from the trap set (drum kit).
The smaller scotch bass drum is all that is needed even in the highest-grade
brass bands. Concert bass drums are nice, but bulky to move and tune. This must be considered when purchasing an expensive
concert bass drum. More is not better. The scotch bass can be placed on a folding char and played with sensitivity. If a cymbal
mount is used on the bass drum, a firmer stand will be required.
The scotch bass drum can be utilized in combination
performances, where there are both concert and marching segments. A concert bass drum seldom suffices for marching. Intonation
of the scotch bass drum must be attended to. If properly tuned, a great supporting role to the low brass blend will be provided.
Bass drummers utilize two-mallet playing to perform rolls that would
normally be done by timpani. This adds to the fullness of the low brass blend if done with symphonic sensitivity. A third
percussionist may be added, but is not absolutely necessary.
What Pitch? Various pitches have been utilized for tuning bass drums,
but the secret in tuning is; use what works for the band at hand. You should immediately know in rehearsal if the bass drum
intonation properly blends with the brass band. If it does not-change it! The time to tune the bass drum is during rehearsal.
It is only during rehearsal that the blend can be evaluated.
Two-mallet rolls on the bass drum are important in brass
band work, especially in the absence of tympani. The side drummer or the bass drummer can perform them, as the score necessitates.
My first cymbal playing experience in a brass band was met with stares
of disdain and misunderstanding by all players as well as the conductor. It was only later after more experience in the band
and a lot of listening that I realized cymbals were not utilized in the British and New Zealand traditions as they are in
the United States bands. When cymbals are utilized they can be electrifying, but quite shocking if overdone. The use of cymbals
in brass bands then, is to be subdued and sensitive. Cymbals should not be loud or boisterous as in many American marching
and concert bands. A third percussionist is frequently utilized to play hand held cymbals in brass bands on the march.
the brass band becomes more sophisticated in repertoire and grade, tympani and melodic percussion parts can be added to the
concert band repertoire. Three percussionists are the absolute maximum in our opinion. The third should be fully trained in
melodic as well as tympani performance.
Tympani parts are not solos! More often than not, tympani are too loud.
This criticism abounds at any contesting event for concert brass bands. Again, in percussion, more is NOT better. Two good
players should be able to cover about 95% of parts scored for brass band percussion. Three players should cover 98%. Four
or five players will probably cover about 85 % of the scored parts because of confusion. Organization in the section is a
must, and one percussionist should be designated to allocate parts in complex scores.
Maximum percussion strength
for a contesting band is three. Side drum, bass drum, and a melodic/tympani player are recommended. (Third percussionists
play hand held cymbals on the march.) More than this and you are asking for problems. There is nothing more disturbing to
a conductor and to an audience than percussionists running left and right behind the band in an attempt to justify their presence
on stage. Tacit means at attention! Cool calm professionalism is the desired image and sound provided by the percussionists
in top brass bands. Adjudicators are very sensitive to these issues, as well as interpretation and performance of the percussion
Now to a controversial issue: the trap set, or drum kit as it is called in some circles. Our opinion is that
it has absolutely no place in brass bands. If you are marching you cannot use it. If you are in concert, the bass drum of
a trap set cannot be utilized to reinforce the low-brass blend. Mallet rolls so necessary in supporting blend cannot be performed
on the bass drum of a trap set. If you are performing dance band music in your brass band, perhaps your musical direction
is towards that of a stage or jazz band and not in the tradition of which we are speaking. If this is the direction your brass
band is taking, you can be guaranteed that confusion will abound within your organization.
Although some brass bands
are utilizing trap sets today, it is my opinion that they are short-changing themselves on blend. A compatible side and bass
drummer will add more shading than any trap set. Eventually the drummer and other band members tire of tearing down and setting
up trap drums. Subsequently the traditional side drum and bass drum combination is our recommendation.
the opinions on trap sets in brass bands will run from one extreme to the other. One recounts the Boston Pops Concerts with
the trap set playing Glenn Miller’s Favorites. It not only sounded and looked out of place, but also failed to accomplish
what it set out to do. It does not enhance the blend of the players. The trap set was superimposed on orchestral instruments
in an attempted simulation of an entirely different genre of music. To the sight and ear of the listener, it did not achieve
its purpose. This is the same futility one perceives upon hearing brass bands attempting to discourse percussion via trap
set in what would have been an outstanding musical performance.
There is no pretension when one utilizes the side
drum, bass drum, and suspended cymbal (or Scotch Bass Drum mounted cymbal) for specialized scoring. The thing that is missing
in trap set playing of marches is the bass drum part. The dull thud produced by the trap set bass drum does not resonate,
and therefore cannot add to the low brass blend.
This wraps up our discourse on brass band percussion. We welcome
your comments and questions pro and con as well as your experiences. This brief writing bears no footnotes, as it is based
entirely on the experience of the author.
The Shepherd's Crook
Newsletter of the American Brass Band Association
Spring 2001 Edition (Revised 2005,2013)
American Brass Band Association