I can’t seem to keep from getting stuck playing percussion in the most random of situations.
And I’m bad at it!
As a non-percussionist, you might think that something as “simple” as whacking a drum or banging a chime is trivial (percussionists don’t think this, of course, but those violinists and violists furiously sawing away on passages of mind-numbing difficulty might think otherwise). However, I quickly discovered, after being tasked with playing gong or bass drum on a number or two, that while playing bass on a piece is akin to sending the audience subliminal messages, playing a percussion instrument is more like standing on top of a building with a megaphone and screaming into the street. Not subtle, and all eyes are on you.
I was hired to play with a quite prestigious new music ensemble (no names–I don’t want their grow popping up on Google with this story tied to it). I tend to really enjoy playing new music, and no more so than with this group. They were musically tight and picked driving and exciting repertoire. Not a lot of slow-moving 45 minute soundscapes for them–they played groovy stuff by modern composers and had quite a following.
Anyway, one of the pieces I was playing, in addition to being one of the most technically challenging things I’d ever attempted, required me to play… chimes! And I wasn’t just covering the chime part for a missing percussionist–the composer actually specified that the bass player (for who knows what reason) also play the chimes. In fact, the chime part was written as part of the bass part!
To make matters worse, the composer had written the chime part in this very rhythmically complex way, requiring me to almost never actually play on a beat, but usually on the third triplet or fourth sixteenth note of a bar… and almost nothing else was happening. Also, there was very little time for me to put my bow down and move over to the chimes to play this part.
After getting the part in the mail a few weeks before the first rehearsal, I called the conductor up, trying to clarify why a percussion part was “accidentally” written into the bass part, I found out that not only would I in fact be playing the chimes, but that I had to go pick up said chimes from Leroy’s house over on the wrong side of the tracks. I did so on my way to the first rehearsal, trying to figure out how to fit all that chime paraphernalia in with my bass and stool.
After getting set up at the rehearsal hall, I plotted a course from bass to chime, making sure that I would be able to play my bass, dong those chimes, and see the conductor the whole time. I quickly learned just how hard it was to control how loudly or softly a chime rings. When my first chime moment came, I tried to get all suave with it, just grazing the chime and making some sort of beautiful pianissimo sound. No dice–
the conductor look up at me quizzically, not hearing the note at all. I resolved to make the next one louder and ended up making this startlingly huge sound, causing much laughter among my colleagues and more than a little embarrassment for myself.
After the “real” percussionist on the gig bemusedly gave me a miniature master class on chime technique, and did a little better on subsequent rehearsals, though I still had the sense that all eyes were on me and that every little thing I did came out much clearer than to which I was accustomed.
Though that was certainly my biggest moment as a percussionist, it wasn’t the last time I would be called upon to play something back in the world of mallets and drums. Each time, it feels like epic failure followed by a little improvement and ending up as a thoroughly mediocre experience. Nothing like trying to actually play some percussion in a concert setting to giver you a whole new respect for the art of the drum, mallet, and chime!