Playing Percussion: Life in the Back of the Band
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Playing Percussion: Life in the Back of the Band

It's quite different back here.

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Playing Percussion: Life in the Back of the Band
Percussive Arts Society

People often make fun of percussionists. To be fair, we’re easy targets. One thing wind players enjoy saying is that playing percussion is infinitely easier than playing a wind instrument. After all, how much effort could it possibly take to hit a triangle or a bass drum? Admittedly, they have the first part correct. Being a percussionist is, I think, generally more simple than playing a wind instrument. However, there’s more that goes into being a percussionist than most wind players realize. It’s more difficult than most imagine it being. I decided that I should write an article about life in the back of the band…so here it is, from me to you.

IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: I am not making fun of, nor am I casting shade at, anyone that I know or who is in any of my University’s music groups. Please do not get offended. *Insert sudden shift to narrative mode here.*

I walk into the Band Room to set up our entire section. It’s a pain, but it must be done. As I do, I see you all sitting there in your chairs. In a way, I envy your ability to sit instead of having to stand through an entire two-hour concert. On the other hand, though, I enjoy running around the back of the band. I think sitting for that long would drive me crazy. My favorite percussion parts are those when I get to run back and forth across our section. It’s a lot of fun.

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Oh, we got a new song today! I suppose that means I have to hand out parts, since I’m section leader. Let’s see, the first step is to see how many people we’ll need for it. 1, 2, 3…crap. We need seven. I wish we had more than five players. I guess that means we’ll be pulling people from the band, at least one of them probably being a flautist, since we have entirely too many flute players.

The new song isn’t the first one on the schedule for today, though. First, we have to play this snoozer song we’ve been playing since last semester. I’m sure it would be beautiful if I actually played. Please excuse me while I sit on the floor and do NOTHING for the first 95 measures of this piece that I’ve heard way too many times. I’ll try to focus enough to not miss my one triangle note.

Oh, good, we finally finished that song. I thought we’d never get past it since the conductor had to keep stopping to get the trombones balanced with the rest of the band. Next up is a good song, one I legitimately enjoy. I get to play mallets (my favorite), and it’s a fairly difficult part. HECK YEAH!!! I also have about three measures to run across the section for these four bass drum hits. Challenge accepted. But now I need to catch my breath. Just give me a minute…wait, I have to play crotales now? Like, right now?? HELP.

Crap, now we’re playing the new song. I’d better tell the conductor that we need two more people…yep, a pianist and a flautist. Wonderful. I’d better make sure they get easy parts. Alright, now I need to set up my stuff. I need four toms, and I also need to make sure I have the right bass drum mallets, and—yes, pianist, what is it?

Pianist: “What do I do?”

Me: “See this list of instruments at the top of the page? You play all of them.”

Pianist: “Wait, what? How do I do that?”

Me: “By looking ahead in the music and running from instrument to instrument.”

Pianist: “But I can’t even read the music! There are too many things happening on the page, and I can’t tell what’s what!”

Me: “You’ll figure it out. Ask me later, and I’ll help you.”

Yes, we’re talking during rehearsal. And yes, we do it all the time, even during concerts. After all, we have to communicate on the fly if we need instruments moved or things handed to us mid-song. No one seems to care that we’re never professional, so we never are. I guess it’s a mutual understanding.

At this point, the band has started rehearsing the song. I’m not even set up yet, so needless to say, none of my parts are being played. Also, those timpani are horribly out of tune. I’ll have to fix the gauges on those. Again. And the flautist isn’t playing. Why isn’t she playing? There’s a lot on the page, but she’s just playing bass drum. I hope she gets it. Maybe the snare drummer will help her out.

The song ends. I just finished setting my stuff up for it (having dropped a cymbal in the process), and we’re moving on to the next song. Needless to say, I’m irritated that I set everything up for nothing. Also, I play snare drum for the next song, and I am quite bad at snare drum rolls. Let’s see how this goes…

*I fail epically.*

We end with a song we’ve played for a full year already. The rehearsal for this song is pretty standard: I’m bored of this song, the freshmen are trying to learn parts that everyone else in the Symphony already knows, and the flutes are more out of tune than they should be for a song they’ve been playing for such a long time. I hear you from back here. I also see that clarinet player making fun of half the band. It’s quite amusing. Crap! He distracted me, and I missed my entrance. Whoops. It wasn’t an important part, anyway. Why is it even here? Do composers even know how to write percussion parts? (Answer: Most don’t.)

Yay, we’re done with rehearsal! It’s time to get FOOD!!...Or at least, it would be, if I didn’t have to put all of the instruments away. Dang it. I guess I’ll put everything away.

But it’s only because I love being a percussionist so much.

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