Fresh Works for Percussion Ensemble

Mike Lawson • Repertoire • November 16, 2011

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Over the past 15 years, the repertoire for percussion ensemble has increased exponentially. The variety and diversity of current composers, themes, and instrumentation are truly fantastic. It’s a wonderful time to play percussion music! With this expanded quantity of choices, though, comes the question, “Where do I look to find what’s out there?” The classics are always quality selections to play, but how and where does one find the newer literature? How do you know if it’s worth the effort to perform? The purpose of this article is to provide educators with starting places and pieces to begin the journey into this newer repertoire world.

Along with these recommendations, I tried to take into consideration an array of ability levels, instruments used, and number of players. While not all of these works are brand new, they were selected because they are not played very often and might be “new” to you.


“Thunder on the Bay”

Scott Harding
C. Alan Publications
Difficulty: Easy
Duration: 4:30
Players and instrumentation: 6-? – bass drum, shaker, metal clank, wood click, high drums played with hands, low drums played with sticks

This piece is designed for the younger ensemble. The instrumentation must have at least 6 players but can include as many as you want beyond that by doubling parts. Instrument substitutions and flexibility with repeated sections mean you have lots of options with how you want to organize the piece. While the work falls into the Easy category, Harding does a nice job of keeping it interesting and retaining lots of musical elements – just because it’s easier doesn’t mean it’s not good!

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Chris Cockarell
Row-Loff Productions
Difficulty: Easy
Duration: 2:58
Players and instrumentation: Three – concert snare drum, mounted cowbell, 2 suspended cymbals, small concert bass drum, mounted tambourine, chimes, high pitched tom, 2 jam blocks or temple blocks (high and low pitched)

This piece is excellent for the younger trio. It’s got a cadence-type feel to it and has plenty of accents and dynamics to keep it challenging without being overly hard. I really like that composer chose to not “keep it simple” and composed quite a bit of variety and musical elements to make it wonderful to the ear yet enjoyable to play.

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Lynn Glassock
C. Alan Publications
Difficulty: Medium-Easy
Duration: 6:00
Players and instrumentation: 7 – marimba (4.3 octaves), vibraphone, chimes, bells, timpani, 2 suspended cymbals, tambourine, triangle, temple blocks, woodblock, claves, 3 tom-toms, 2 snare drums, bongos

Lynn Glassock has been writing great percussion ensemble music for years and this piece is no exception. It represents his idiomatic writing for the genre and his ability to always get the ensemble to be the most musical they can be without their technique getting in the way.

The piece opens with a majestic section followed by a syncopated melody on the marimba which is supported by the other mallet instruments. The middle section features all the players on wooden then headed instruments. The end of the work brings everything together while building to the final climax. It’s a great concert opener or closer.

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“Overture for Percussion Toys”

Grant Cambridge
Honey Rock Publishing
Difficulty: Medium-Easy
Duration: 5:00
Players and instrumentation: Ten – wind chimes, temple blocks, tambourine, ratchet, triangle, castanets, finger cymbals, maracas, guiro, vibra-slap, agogo bells

Finally, a piece just for the “toys” or accessory instruments of the percussion section. No longer are these just used for color, they are the main substance for this composition with each one carrying an important role. The performers must give special attention to how their instrument contributes to the musical statement. Layering of instruments, in addition to rhythmic motives that go between all the players, makes up a majority of the work.

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Jim Casella
Tapspace Publications
Difficulty: Medium-Easy
Duration: 4:00
Players and Instrumentation: Eight parts – glockenspiel, xylophone, 3 timpani, triangle, ride cymbal, hi-hat cymbals, temple blocks, snare drum, 4 tom toms, suspended cymbal, bass drum, small shaker, 2 additional toms

“Technology” is written for eight percussionists of intermediate to beginning skill levels. Based on a “techno” groove, this will appeal to both the players and the audience and it’s really fun to play. I like the piece because it is accessible, yet it teaches the students to listen and still use a great deal of dynamic contrast.

Some parts are written to feature more advanced players (snare, toms, timpani), while other parts are more elementary for less experienced players. This works well for any group since there is always an array of ability levels to any given ensemble.

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“Ballet for Bouncing Balls”

Montgomery Hatch
Tapspace Publications
Difficulty: Medium
Duration: 3:00 (or longer)
Players and instrumentation: 5 – 3 large basketballs, 2 small basketballs, 4 handballs

This one deviates from “normal” instrumentation. The idea of utilizing basketballs as instruments with some theatrics came to the forefront with the group “Stomp” and has continued since that time. But, Montgomery Hatch does a fantastic job of writing a quality piece that doesn’t copy those ideas but presents this entertaining and engaging concept in a fresh way.

There is room to explore the theatrical element and the score contains suggestions for staging. “Ballet for Bouncing Balls” is an all-around wonderful piece and well worth looking into for concert performance.

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“Bombasticus Cachophonosaurus”

Axel Clarke
Bachovich Publications
Difficulty: Medium/Medium-Advanced
Duration: 8:00
Players and instrumentation: 10 – high snare drum, medium snare drum, 8 tom-toms varying from small to large, high and low surdos (or smaller bass drums), medium and large bass drums

This higher-end intermediate level work incorporates a large number of players and a common instrument set-up. It’s in an A-B-A form and includes sections of melody driven development with variations and antiphonal accompaniment. What’s great about this piece is that it’s fresh, creative, and written well while still being a good challenge for the percussionists to play.

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Akadinda Trio

Emanuel Sejourne
Honey Rock Publishing
Difficulty: Medium-Advanced
Duration: 3:00
Players and instrumentation: 3 – 1 marimba (all 3 players play the same instrument)

Sejourne’s work is inspired by the mallet music of Uganda and is accessible to both performers and audiences alike. The piece has lots of polyrhythm and though no one part is extremely hard, concentration is required of each player to make sure that the parts line up correctly. In spite of this polyrhythmic theme, “Akadinda Trio” still grooves!

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David Reeves
Tapspace Publications
Difficulty: Medium-Advanced
Duration: 3:45
Players and instrumentation: Eight parts – glockenspiel, chimes, xylophone, 2 vibraphones, 2 marimbas (low A), 4 timpani, 2 bongos, 2 congas, 4 log drums, 4 cowbells, 4 brake drums, temple blocks, 4 concert toms, 3 double-headed toms, concert bass drum, 4 cymbals (splash, china, sizzle, 18″ suspended)

I love the sounds and contrast in this work. The instrumentation contains fairly standard “western” percussion instruments found in the typical high school band room. Each player has a pitched instrument and four non-pitched surfaces.

Though the piece is not intentionally programmatic, the title does imply somewhat of an unusual gait to the overall rhythmic structure of the music. It has lots of dynamic contrast as well as timbre possibilities from the ensemble so it’s a great piece to work on these characteristics with your students – traits they need whenever they play. “Crosswalk” has a great energy and drive while maintaining a slight minimalist feeling that helps the contrast really stand out. It’s one that keeps you guessing what comes next.

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“County Clare”

Bela Fleck/arr. David Steinquest
Row-Loff Productions
Difficulty: Advanced
Duration: 3:16
Players and instrumentation: Six parts: xylophone, 2 marimbas (3 players), vibraphone, bass guitar

Steinquest’s mallet ensemble arrangement of Bela Fleck’s piece is exciting, up tempo, and engaging to listen to. Each part has it’s own challenges and the addition of the bass guitar fills out the ensemble nicely.

Not only will each performer need to intricately learn his or her part, but the piece really comes together when all the parts work together with good timing, balance, and blend. Smooth phrasing is the key and that’s always a paramount challenge for us percussionists, so this piece will not only be great to play but it will enhance your students’ abilities to make music.

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This list represents a starting point to see what’s available in the ever-growing world of percussion ensemble literature. Please continue to explore and see what might fit your needs for repertoire; you never know what you might find!

Dr. Jeffery Crowell is an associate professor of Music and coordinator of the Wind and Percussion Division at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where he is the director of Percussion Studies, as well part of the award-winning Jazz Studies area. He is active throughout the United States as a performer, clinician, adjudicator, and educator with recent performances in South Africa, Argentina, Uruguay, and at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.




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