The field of percussion is a vast one. Being a percussionist means being involved with a variety of musical styles, and sometimes being willing to experiment; for instance, dipping a chime note into a bucket of water – you (probably) won't see a violinist doing that! For the non-percussionist composer, writing for percussion can be an exciting endeavor, or a daunting deed. I can offer some insights on what I, as both a composer and a percussionist, consider when writing for percussionists. Of course, this is not a definitive article intended to completely demystify the minds of percussionists, and I am certainly not claiming to speak for all percussionists; however, in my experience, there are a few things that composers tend to be grateful to hear, and a few things about which percussionists tend to complain. Some of these suggestions may be most applicable to younger composers, but I hope that at least a few of the concepts I talk about are helpful to the majority of readers.
Tl;dr: Let's talk about writing for percussion!
LOGISTICAL CONSIDERATIONS – K.I.S.S.
Logistical considerations may seem like an odd choice to begin with, but this is, in my opinion, the most crucial element to writing for percussion. Percussion composition can fall into the same danger as when writing for electronics: the available sound options are near-infinite. Composers (particularly younger ones) often ask me how to know which instruments to write for, and when to stop adding instruments. Each piece is different, but one thing that is important to consider is the setup, both in time and spatialization.
When writing for any instrument, it is crucial to consider the experience of the musician. Pieces that make performers angry will likely not receive second performances. This is doubly true in the percussion world, because we have to set up all of those instruments. The amount of time loading/unloading, setting up/tearing down, and transporting instruments often dwarfs (dwarves?) the amount of time spent performing on them. It can be a real bummer to spend 90 minutes setting up and tearing down your gear to only play it for a 10 minute piece. I believe that it is the composer's job to ensure that those 10 minutes are really musically worth it – that every instrument on the stage is used to it's full potential. A part for three differently-sized triangles can be really cool and musically effective; that same part on top of 6 tom toms, 4 cymbals, a kick drum, bongos, and a vibraphone is going to be frustrating. At a certain point, you have to reign it in somewhat. Again, I am not here to definitively proclaim the gospel of gear, but I would like to suggest a solid philosophy that helps diminish the number of rage-inducing instrumentation demands, and that is to ask yourself one question: “Is there an easier way for me to get the same effect?” If there is, please consider incorporating that method – we will be very appreciative. Can you get different enough triangle sounds by using different sized beaters, in lieu of setting up different triangles? Do you really want us to roll on a ride cymbal, or would you rather we just use a large suspended cymbal? Or, even more extreme, could this marimba part be on the vibraphone that is already set up (or vice versa)? Do we need two octaves of crotales, or would one octave be enough, with octave displacement? There are a lot of different ways to go about it, but spending a bit of time (especially in the earlier parts of the process) considering the scope of the instrumentation can go a long way with your performers.
Speaking of scope, it is also quite helpful to consider the way the instruments will be setup, both individually and as an ensemble. In many of my percussion ensemble pieces, performers share instruments, which distributes the load of setting up more equally. If performers are sharing instruments, however, they must be located near enough to obtain or move to the instruments within the time allotted. When I work on a piece involving percussion, I always have a piece of paper nearby to jot down the setup. It helps me visualize it from the conductor's angle, as well as the performer's angle, and head off any potential situations where what I write is either undoable, or requires a lot more gear to be brought in. I can also envision how a performer will move around her instruments, and better head off potential trouble spots that may arise from switching instruments or stations.
Tl;dr: Do you really need 8 brake drums? Only you can answer that question, but if you do need those instruments, it is imperative (from the performers perspective) that you make the setup time musically worth it. Also think about how they will move from instrument to instrument, as well as switching out mallets and beaters. Erring on the side of simpler setups and less instruments will be greatly appreciated.
This bit may be a bit more of my personal philosophy, but I think it is important for composers to hear, and that is that we are not just producers of novelty sounds – we are musicians. By this, I mean, we play Bach, we have solo repertoire, we phrase and shape lines. We are not just a hodge podge collection of sounds (although we wear that hat quite well), but also capable of carrying thematic material and integrating with ensembles as an equal member. Even something small, like a woodblock, can be written to convey a musical line, single-pitched though it may be. I run into a lot of pieces that have little moments of “ding......block.......cymbal.............scrape.....soft tam tam note.....etc.” and go no further than that. By no means are these wrong, and they can be quite effective, but I would invite composers to also consider how a percussionist can be as important melodically and harmonically, and not just rhythmically or texturally. Even percussion concerti can sometimes fall into this method of treating the percussion instruments as a myriad of sounds, and less as a cohesive unit. Again, this isn't wrong – but I feel that it is important for composers to examine the breadth of musicality available to a percussionist when setting out to write a piece that includes us.
Tl;dr: The days of percussion as a toy or novelty are, thankfully behind us. Let's keep moving forward in the way we incorporate percussionists in the ensemble.
To thoroughly discuss percussion notation would be beyond the scope of this post, but there are a couple of general guidelines I would like to bring up.
Consistency is the most important aspect. Unless there are an abundance of instruments (15 or more), each instrument should get it's own line or space on the staff. Regarding a setup for a player that uses different types of instruments, the following guidelines can be followed: drums can be normal noteheads, arranged in the staff; cymbals are x noteheads, arranged near the top of or above the staff, except tam-tam which should be on the bottom of the staff; accessory instruments can fit almost anywhere, and use diamond or triangle noteheads. Single instruments, like the triangle or tambourine, can be placed wherever; instruments with multiple units, such as the temple blocks, can be arranged on lines or spaces. For example, if you have a part with, say, 4 tom toms and 5 wood blocks, the tom toms would be best arranged in the spaces, using regular noteheads, with the woodblocks on the lines, notated with diamond noteheads. It is absolutely imperative that once an instrument is designated to appear on a certain line or space, that it does not change for the rest of the piece. Middle C does not change for other instruments, and where our snare drum is notated should not change either, at least within a piece. Likewise, Middle C does not suddenly become F, and where our snare drum is notated should not suddenly become suspended cymbal. It can be very helpful to have a key at the beginning of the part; I have included several examples here:
Nails Key Shades of Green Key
Regarding duration, unless there is a specific reason to write otherwise, I encourage composers to default to “filling up the quarter note.” For example, instead of an eighth note followed by an eighth rest, just write a quarter note. For most instruments, we can't really affect the duration in a noticeable way, and notating this way helps us read the music more accurately. For some, such as cymbals, timpani, glockenspiel, etc., we can stop the sound, and composers should decide if they think we will perform staccato quarter notes differently from staccato eighth notes, and notate accordingly. Sometimes, we won't have time to dampen any notes, and in those situations composers should default to filling up the beat. For marimba, fill up the quarter note, except in the case of dead strokes, which can be notated either way. Don't worry about ties with most instruments; place a rest on the downbeat and we will be good. Example A is better than example B. Example C looks better than either, since we are used to reading music from a five line staff normally. Example D is better than example E.
EDIT - Some percussionists, upon reading this, have mentioned that they prefer to see what other instruments are seeing. Players may perform a staccato eighth note and a staccato quarter note differently. I would like to encourage composers to think about duration when notating for percussion, and to try to simplify as much as possible, without sacrificing musical intent.
Regarding tremolo notation, please do not use the standard tremolo notation, where a four beat tremolo would be displayed as two consecutive whole notes separated by three slashes. Instead, stack all of our tremolo notes vertically (as you would normally notate a chord in, say, piano music) and add the tremolo marking to that. This greatly helps with readability, and is what we are used to seeing. Example F is better than Example G (even though Example G is the standard for every other instrument.)
Lastly, some orchestration books and notation programs encourage the use of symbols in parts. I assure you that we will spend more time trying to figure out what the symbol means than if you had simply written the words out. I like to write instrument changes enclosed in boxes, as that alerts the performer visually of an instrument change (see Example A above.)
Tl;dr: Be consistent with your notation – instruments should stay on the line or space to which they are assigned initially. For drums, woodblocks, tambourines – almost always fill up the quarter note, unless you have a good reason not to. For cymbals and triangles, notate space where you want us to dampen, fill up the rest of the space. Tremolo notation should be stacked, not separated. Never use those silly symbols included in notation programs – we're drummers not monkeys (most of us can read!)
Percussion and composer friends – please feel free to add your thoughts below!