In Progress

As I mentioned in the other entry I posted today, I’m working on two pieces right now.

One is a “true Grade 4” piece, I hope.  That basically means it’s “good high school level,” but I’m probably making it more difficult than that, just because I always underestimate difficulty level.  The piece, commissioned by Stuart High School in Falls Church, Virginia, looks like it’s going to be All-Out Happy And Sparkly.  (That’s not the title, by the way.)

The other piece, for Deer Path Middle School in Lake Forest, Illinois, should be a “true Grade 3,” or maybe even a Grade 2-3.  It’s most definitely for young players.  The idea for this one came from AEJ (of course).  She said that she thinks that if you’re a percussionist, there would be a cool realization the first time you found out that percussion isn’t just snare drum and glockenspiel, but it can be anything that some idiotic composer (my words, not hers) asks you to hit.  The idea with this piece is to do just that — show young percussionists that part of their job is finding stuff that composers ask for, and figuring out how to make it sound like music.  One thing I’m using is a metal cheese grater, like this one —

Oops, sorry – that was one of the first images to come up on Google.  No, more like this one:

So I have the student scrape it with a metal spoon.  It’s like a hillbilly guiro! — well, if hillbillies were all about fresh-grated cheese.  Let me tell you: metal cheese grater + metal spoon = not a subtle or pretty sound.

I also want somebody in the percussion section to hit something with a hammer.  As Ben Lorenzo — a UT conducting student — told me the other day, if he was in middle school, he’d want to hit stuff with a hammer.  But what?  I love the sound of a bell plate on top of a brake drum (I use this in almost every piece now), but it’s surprisingly hard to find a bell plate or even a good substitute — and that’s for college players.  What can I ask middle school kids to hit with a hammer?  Any other “found percussion” ideas?


Josh Stickney says

If you look at the Symphony for Youtube, Tan Dun has the LSO percussionists hitting the inside of tires. It makes for a cool affect.

Fosco! says

Oh my god! Jonathan Lipnicki will be grated to ribbons! Noooooo!

Alex says

This is a little unusual but if you shake a large piece of plexi glass it makes an awesome noise.

Courtney says

The ol' hammer on a break drum is a definite classic. Also, nylon tip sticks on the bottoms of old paint cans and coffee cans are fun. Also done triangle beaters on.... anything - trash can lids, metal pipes etc. basically any metal on metal is great fun!

Mark S. says

Mahler hammer!

Best percussion instrument ever.

You could try a chime mallet on a snare drum, snapping a rubber band on a bass drum, or perhaps rolling a cymbal on a flat bass drum.

You could try bowing the chimes as well.

Also, if you have a piano, you can have them press the sustain pedal, and do a glissando with something like a pencil, or a triangle beater, on the two lower sets of strings (not keys), and that creates a really neat effect

aaron says

clave resting on a bass drum hit with another clave


anvil from the shop room with hit with a really big hammer

Brandon says

Have them take a sledge and ram it into the biggest gong they have....I say if you can't think of anything subtle, just write something as loud and obnoxious as possible. Works everytime ;).

Robyn says

I love, love, LOVE it when you post about the music you're working on. The very first time I read your blog was when Dick and Cheryl Floyd pointing me in this direction to read what you had posted about your process as you were creating Undertow.

In the meantime I've come to enjoy your posts on food, home remodeling (NICE job, by the way), and Christmas decorations. But most of all, I love the posts that give a little hint of what goes on inside your head when you're working. I'm fascinated by the creative process.

Thanks for sharing it!

Benford says

How about they hit the band kids that fail....

Just kidding!

Or am I?

Emily says

Last year when UT played Rouse's "Wolf Rounds" I had a part for a large plywood board played with two hammers - lots of fun (choppy, too). Probably my favorite "found percussion" part was from Thom Hasenpflug's Euonymus Alatus, when I played three salsa jars (I used rosewood xylo mallets); we premiered that piece at PASIC in 2006. I've also played "jar with pebbles" and "cymbal with skewer" in a Chris Deane perc. ens. piece. Auto springs are loud and different-sounding, and easy to find or get. Metal chains sound cool in various sized tin cans, or in metal mixing bowls. I imagine that a hotel pan, hung on a rack, would make a great hammer target. As far as effect sounds go, some standards include the cymbal on pedaled timpani trick; using bows on gongs, cymbals, etc., to make an awesome screechy sound; chime scrapes, which are very loud and fun to play, especially if you use brass bell mallets; and the water gong, which has always been a personal favorite (probably too messy for middle schoolers though). The ribbon crasher, while technically a percussion instrument, is one of the best sounds EVER, and stacking a china splash or EFX cymbal on a smaller crash cymbal makes a great trashy sound. Zildjian used to make something called an Earth Plate, basically a cymbal that hasn't been hammered, that are clanky and piercing - I think Sabian still makes something similar (Sound Plate?).

Non-metal options include anything made from wood, for instance the Lang marimbas used in So-Called Laws of Nature, or from PVC - you can cut PVC pipes to specific lengths to achieve specific pitches and then play them with sticks (marching snare sticks will help with projection). Flowerpots and other "china"/clay instruments like mugs are becoming common. Using maracas instead of sticks on almost anything is neat and Tony Edwards recently came up with a pill-bottle maraca stick that is really effective. Pouring something like pebbles, coins, or nails into a headed tambourine is kind of a cool effect, and by the same token, hitting a bass drum with rice on the head is an interesting variation. You can lay chains across vibes to make the sustain rattle. Metal pipes are fun to play and also to play with, a la handrails that no young percussionist can resist hitting. What about a metal water pitcher or coffee pot? Trash cans are fine but sort of stock, and it might get pricey for a middle school to rehearse with them if the players destroy them in the process (tin cans are less expensive to replace). I wonder if corrugated metal sheeting, like for roofs, would sound any different than a standard thundersheet - I've never tried it but I'd be interested to know. Anytime you combine metals (using finger cymbals to play vibes, crotales to play bells, maybe a cowbell to hit a gong...) you're going to get new and interesting sounds.

We have a lot of random stuff up in the studio (6.222) at UT. We keep it around to play Cage, Crumb, and other assorted crazy perc. ens. pieces. You're welcome to come explore any time.

Speaking of loud... you should stop by some time when we're rehearsing Xenakis' Peaux. Six people playing unison rooftop hits at ffff in a low-ceilinged room = earth-shaking.

Emily says

Oh yeah, I forgot: oxygen tanks.

Alex C says

Whatever they used to make the laser sounds off Star Wars. Its a hammer hitting an antenna wire, but for the life of me I have no idea how you could get an antenna in a concert hall...

Kasey Warren says

Here's some ideas:

- Usualy a school's percussion section has a case full of wistles, you could get everyone to blow a different wistle at the same time.

- A timpani with maraca mallets (they shake when you hit the drum. I saw CSU do this in one of their pieces.

- A klaxon, like in "Traffic" by Thomas Doss.

- A rain stick

- You could hit the tubes of a marimba or a vibraphone.

- You could "Blue Man Group" the percussion section and get some one to play on pbc pipes.

carey says

Here's an article on Savage Aural Hotbed, a local band who will play anything as an instrument:

Also the director of our CD label is an environmental sound artist/instrument maker who made a bunch of instruments with kids this past summer:

Ethan says

Hit the backside of the divot in the middle of a big gong with a soft mallet. It's pretty cool.

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