By Adam Groh

Lately I have kept coming back to one particular thought about percussionists… Why don’t people know more about the music they are playing? As in, there have been so many instances where I’ve seen a person play a piece without knowing anything about the composer or how the piece was conceived. Maybe this is an issue with other instrumentalists too, but I wouldn’t really know it. All I know is that we, as percussionists, are trying to gain legitimacy and defeat the perpetual label of “just drummers,” and we can’t even say three words about who wrote the marimba piece we’re working on… even if the composer happened to win a Pulitzer Prize or is one of the leading performers and pedagogues in our field.

Now that I think about it, I did see something interesting at school the other day that relates directly to this whole topic. There was a flyer up for a young artist competition, and, in addition to the playing portion of the event, there was the requirement that each person be able to speak for a minimum of three minutes about the repertoire that they are performing. Obviously, whoever organized this competition has seen the same deficiencies that I am noticing, but still, how sad is it that we have to warn people in advance that they need to be able to deliver a short statement about the pieces that they have spent months or years practicing and performing? Very sad.

I don’t think it’s necessary to talk at length about why it’s important to know about the music you’re playing. We can all agree that an effective performance must be an informed performance. If you’re an orchestral player you have to know the difference between playing timpani on a Mozart symphony and a Wagnerian opera. Knowing the differences comes from having a large collection of knowledge that is derived from studying music theory, history, performance practice, technique, knowing musical styles, and listening. To be able to play all of the styles in the orchestral repertoire, you need to know how they differ and what you can (and should) do to make the appropriate adjustments.

The best way to develop this knowledge is to do a lot of listening and studying far in advance. Doing this while you’re a student is the perfect time. Many teachers are incorporating listening assignments into their curriculum, and that’s a fantastic idea. Whether it’s an assignment or not, as you listen to pieces or watch videos of performances online ask yourself the following questions. Your answers to these questions will help you create a database of knowledge about music from many periods and composers.

1) Who is the composer? When were they alive and where are they from? What things influence their music? Are they known for working with folk music, chance operations, technology, manipulating classical forms, or something else? Does this composer have a significant place in musical history and why?

2) When and where was this piece composed? What traits are inherent in music from that time and place? Should it be light and bubbly or intense and heavy? Is the piece programmatic (if so, what is the program)? What was happening in the world during the time the work was being composed? Did those events have an effect on the composer that influenced the piece (ie Shostakovich and Communism)?

3) What kind of ensemble is the piece scored for? Is it a chamber orchestra or a large orchestra with many extra players? Is it a chamber group of only a few players? How does the instrumentation support the overall effect of the piece?

4) Who is the performer on the recording you have? Is it a major symphony orchestra? Is it a well-known soloist on that instrument? Is it an ensemble from a college or university? What do you know about that group, person, or school? What else have they done? Do they teach or perform somewhere else? How did they achieve notoriety?

5) How is the piece constructed? You don’t need a full, in-depth analysis (although that wouldn’t hurt), but have an understanding of the overall form of the work, as well as things like harmonic regions, motivic elements that are manipulated throughout, or, if it is a twelve-tone work, the prime rows/pitch sets. Understand what the composer is doing throughout the work.

6) What issues/techniques must the performer confront when preparing the work? Does this piece require extended techniques? What skill level is required for performing the piece? Is it intended for advanced professionals, beginners, or somewhere between the two? What sections of the piece are especially challenging and why?

7) Why are you playing this piece? If you’re a student who was assigned the piece for your lessons or in an ensemble, ask yourself why your teacher would choose this for you, or why the director would feel this work is important enough to require 80 students to learn it? What makes this piece interesting? Why is it worth learning and performing? What is it’s historical significance? Why choose this piece over something else?

If you can answer all of these questions you are on your way to building a catalog of data that will be invaluable as you progress through your career. Go through this process with everything that you play and you will develop a much deeper understanding of percussion and music as a whole which will make your performances much more effective and informed.

Adam brings up some great points in this article. What kind of research do you do before playing a piece? What questions do you ask your students about the works they are playing? How else can we make sure we are better informed artists? Leave your thoughts below.

Originally posted on DrumChattr on November 24, 2010.

Dave Gerhart
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