The Shepherd's Crook
Newsletter of the American Brass Band Association
Percussion in the Brass Band
Is based on Personal Experience of the Author/editor
and has no bibliography.
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.
What has 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.
This technique 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).
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.
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.
As 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 parts.
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.
We realize 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.
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.
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.
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
American Brass Band Association