Percussion Ensembles Are A Hit!

Mike Lawson • Features • May 8, 2019

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The April SBO editor’s “Perspective” addressed the fact that the vast majority, perhaps 80%, of students are not involved in their school’s instrumental music programs.

It stated in part, “Music makes lives better for students, and we applaud music in their lives, whatever it takes to get them there. That includes embracing new programs that bring music into the lives of students in that other 80%.” With these words, SBO delves into the relatively new world of percussion ensembles.

In the 1950s, this school woodwind instrumentalist, frustrated that neither his elementary or junior high (middle school) offered marching units and opportunities, took up tenor drum to be able to join a local drum and bugle corps that did march. A drum and bugle corps was the only percussion ensemble of that time. At that same school and time, a marimba virtuoso was relegated to performing at school assemblies and as a sort of variety act at the music department’s occasional concerts. Today she would have headed a highly regarded percussion ensemble like the Science Hill Percussion Ensemble from the Science Hill High School in Johnson City, Tennessee.

This disparity in both opportunity and support was noted by a few percussionists and music educators at the 1960 Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic that led to the founding of the Percussive Arts Society in 1961. These founders envisioned an organization that would, “bring up to date the judging standards for percussion and drum solo and ensembles, stimulate interest in solo and ensemble competition and improve the level of percussion teaching.”

Now with a mission of inspiring, supporting and educating percussionists and drummers, the society has a worldwide membership over 5,000 organized in 78 chapters with 50 chapters in the United States. Perhaps their most significant activity is the annual Percussive Arts Society International Convention (PASIC) which is the largest gathering of percussionists in the world. The accomplishments of this society and other advocates were evident at SBO’s coverage of the 2017 Florida Marching Band Championships that found this writer dodging the various participating band’s percussion units as their mallet instruments, mounted on wheeled platforms, charged the competition playing fields. These percussion ensembles frequently were the stars of their school’s band performances.

The 2018 Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic featured the Science Hill High School Percussion Ensemble from Johnson City, Tennessee, which drew the attention of SBO. This group forms our focus on percussion ensembles in the music programs in/our schools.

This was not the first honor for this group. They previously had been selected to perform at more than one PASIC. Every one of these events base their invitations on an application and audition process. It is notable that the members of the Science Hill Percussion Ensemble make their decision as to whether they will apply for a specific event, not the director. Student-centered planning (see SBO April) and democracy is built into this ensemble’s character and they have actually voted to either proceed or decline from applying to some events!

This group first was formed in 2004 with the arrival of their new associate band director, Dan McGuire. A former student who was a part of that first year Science Hill Percussion Ensemble is Ashley, now a medical technician. With a husband that plays guitar and a 4-year-old son who enthusiastically enjoys music, she reflected on the value of the percussion ensemble experience:

“Being part of the percussion program was one of the highlights of my life. We weren’t just a team, we were family. We were with each other day in and day out for hours at a time. But at the end of the day we truly cared for and about each other.”

She continued, “Our director, Dan McGuire, shaped the program into what it is now by believing in us and our talent. He gave us the opportunity to try new things, pushed us when we were slacking and cheered us when we overcame obstacles. He gave us a confidence in ourselves that some of us may not have otherwise ever had. As director, he saw us both as students and as peers sharing a love and passion for music.”

Why does all this matter? It is important that a high school with less than 2000 students in grades 9-12 in a city of 67,000 can produce and support a music program that includes the Hilltopper Marching Band, concert band, symphonic band, wind ensemble, jazz band, and now two percussion ensembles.

With a 70-year history, the Science Hill traditional bands have accumulated hundreds of awards. The music program and its band boosters also produce a fall invitational marching band competition. It is also noteworthy and important that their percussion ensembles would achieve a level of national notice and recognition in such a relatively short existence.

One of the challenges of percussion ensembles is the wide diversity in instrumentation.

Unlike a symphony orchestra or even a concert band, there are dozens of ensemble formats. Instruments may include the traditional band and orchestra bass and snare drums, crash cymbals, tympani, bells and xylophone. Formats may include only “keyboard instruments” such as marimba, xylophone, vibraphone or only the drum (battery) family of snare, timbale, bongos. Almost any percussion instrument from around the world may be included.

Because of this wide diversity in format, the composition and arranging of music becomes a challenge. In response, a number of music publishing houses have come into existence both to drive and supply the percussion ensemble population. For the most part these publishers were founded and staffed by individuals with an active role as percussionists. Likewise, a number of composers and arrangers with active percussion experience are providing the body of new works.

Nathan Daughtry, with C-Alan Music Publishers described the challenges, which he categorized as “overwhelming,” and how they are addressed in this new genre: “There are really three major elements that need to be addressed in the composition and arrangements for percussion ensembles. These include the instrumentation, the number of musicians and the difficulty level of the music.”

In the case of C-Alan they work to four instrumentation groupings (keyboard, battery, a mix of keyboard and battery and ethnic), three sizes of ensembles (less than six, six to nine, and ten or more) and three levels of difficulty.

Many of the music publishers that supply the percussion ensemble music serve as outlets for literally hundreds of percussion composers and arrangers. Daughtry’s view is that the percussion ensemble format has literally exploded in schools over the last 10-15 years. This growth is in part due to moving the role of percussion from the traditional format as incidental and non-melodic to the focus of both. In response to this growth, the music publishers also provide method materials.

Jim, one of the founders of Tapspace music, amplified some of the challenges to school music programs wanting to include or grow percussion ensemble components.

“One of the main challenges is that there is no standardized model for orchestration,” he says. Commissioned works are tailored to the personnel and equipment available, knowing that other ensembles simply may not own that much or type of equipment. These are expensive instruments that may not fit into the school or the student’s family budget. Physical space is another consideration that has budget implications. These are large instruments.”

He continued, ”The larger, more ambitious programs are starting to program ‘percussion orchestras’ which produce an even broader range of timbral frequencies and mood. There are also new percussion instruments and sounds being invented. To composers, all of this is exciting and fun!”

Row-Loff Productions president, Chris Crockarell, rounded out the music publishers’ perspective by pointing to percussion music that is “educational, yet fun and entertaining…and PLEASING to the ear…music that is focused on festivals, holidays, novelty, Latin and more.” Like the other publishers, Roll-Loff produces music for the exciting and wide range of the percussion ensemble world.

While SBO addresses the methods, mechanics and the success of groups like the Science Hill Percussion Ensemble, the lasting life accomplishments of this group may be best summarized in the comments from the mother of a new freshman percussionist in that group.

“I’m impressed with the character of all the ensemble students. They have helped my son with his attention and focus to achieve better grades. It has helped him learn to work as a team and that everything in life isn’t easy…you have to work hard to enjoy results. It was an awesome experience for the group to perform in Chicago at the Midwest Clinic. The Percussion Ensemble has been especially helpful for my son to have a great group of friends. I know they get aggravated with him sometimes, but they still look out for him, guide him and encourage him. My son is a freshman with autism.”

She later added, “Also as an example of the character of these kids…when school was just starting back in August my son was having his birthday party and invited the drumline. I was nervous that not many would come since he was a new freshman. I was impressed that fourteen came and one of the Seniors even wrote a hand-made card with encouraging words about band camp…and my son’s future!”

Consider the reality that these students, with their character and work ethic along with their sense of group cooperation and discipline just may become your congressmen or even your president some day!

Specialist Sources of Percussion Ensemble Music

The following publishers offer specialty percussion music and other materials.

• C. Alan Publications

(336) 272-3920

• Innovative Percussion, Inc.

(615) 333-9388

• Ox and Lamb Percussion Publications

• Row-Loff Productions • (615) 885-6351

• Tapspace •

(503) 288-6080

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