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Timpani & Percussion - Part 3

Its use with the modern Brass Band –
by Dave Griffiths

Dave Griffiths continues his series of articles on the art of percussion playing, with the responsibilities of the Principal Percussionist.

See also: part 1 | part 2 | part 4

The Responsibilities of the Principal Percussionist

I believe that a brass band, or for that matter any other large group of musicians, comprised of many different people can be a complex and frequently difficult-to-understand entity. Over 28 musicians - all having good backgrounds in the study of their particular musical instruments; all having differing amounts of experiences as well as differing views on what constitutes “beautiful music” - are brought together for one common purpose, the performance of music - the brass band, or for that matter any other good musical ensembles is perhaps one of the highest achievements of human civilization and at its best, it is worthy of imitation in every other field of human endeavour.

Each musician in a band plays his or her individual part, but the result is frequently music that can transcend and elevate, ideally lifting the performer outside of the self and into a higher realm of awareness or consciousness. To the extent that this happens for a performer, a sense of well-being and fulfilment is made possible. That’s one of the best parts of being a musician!

However, the first premise of this article is that the highest level of music-making and self-fulfilment occurs when a performer assumes for himself or herself the responsibilities of: 1. determining what musical goals to pursue and: 2. deciding which path to follow to achieve those goals. Furthermore, each performer must eventually go through a process of self-discovery in order to achieve the personal confidence and skills that will empower him or her to handle those two responsibilities!

In a music college it is the job of the teacher to guide the student in the discovery of his or her own strengths and weaknesses in order to help the student to achieve the ability to think and act for him or herself. Eventually a music student will hopefully find him/herself leading a section in professional ensemble. In a professional symphony orchestra for example, it is ideally everyone’s job to be responsible for his or her own music-making and to help to create an atmosphere in which others can do the same. More often than not this can be accomplished simply by encouraging or allowing others to be themselves, rather than by suggesting, or in extreme cases even dictating that certain parts should be played a certain way. If the responsibility for each performer’s own musical self-fulfilment is not acknowledged, and if it is relegated by any performer to someone else, say to a conductor or to another musician, then personal and musical problems caused by a lack of fulfilment are sure to follow for that performer.

Therefore, principal players in an orchestra should not and cannot be responsible for the music that is made by others in the same section. To put it more clearly, it should not be the job of a principal player to supervise over the performance of the other musicians or to tell others how to make music, even if - in fact, especially if - other musicians choose to follow a differing technique or aesthetic.

However, the responsibilities of a principal percussionist in a brass band, is in some ways different to that of a section principal of a professional orchestra/ensemble. Amongst other things, his/her section might include players of different technical and musical levels and therefore may need at times to supervise the performance of the section in order to achieve the most desirable results.

I am in favour of believing that essentially, the job of trying to influence the music-making of others belongs only to the conductor, although it must be said that the best conductors are those who also strive to allow performing musicians to be themselves - to create their own music - whatever it may be (sometimes a little more easier perhaps with championship status bands compared to a lower section grade band with players of less experience). It takes a very secure person to do this. Allowing others to discover and follow their own paths is one of the rarest and yet most powerful skills that can be harnessed to motivate others. It is a skill that does not come naturally for most people, and if it is acquired at all it is usually only as the result of much experience and many mistakes.

Just to be clear, it is not being suggested that in order to assume the responsibility for one’s own music-making, a performer must ignore or even argue with a conductor who wants something different from what the performer wants. It is still necessary for musicians in any ensemble to be flexible enough to embrace any idea that a conductor may express.

In the normal course of any pursuit - including the performance of music - there are times when questions arise and when it seems that the easiest solution is for a section member to seek the advice of the section principal, one should learn to ALWAYS encourage or allow the seeker of advice to find his or her own answer, as apposed to dictating.

Therefore, it is proposed that the two most important responsibilities of any musician, whether a principal player or not, are the following:

1) to know or at least try to find a solution how to answer your own questions, and

2) to acquire and continually refine the skill to be able to encourage others to answer their own questions.

The most important thing is to know how to learn, and to realize that learning ideally never stops, because what works on one occasion may not be what is required on the next. One of the best ways to develop the skill of learning is to just ask yourself questions. The raising and answering of questions yourself is one of the oldest of techniques for encouraging the process of learning.

But asking a question is only half of the equation; the other half of the equation is going through the process of answering the question yourself. By asking someone else for the answer to your own question, you are in effect merely attempting to avoid the process of obtaining the answer yourself. You may succeed at receiving a response from another person, but you also may not be learning because the answer is not your answer. An answer that works for someone else may not necessarily be the best answer for you.

As for developing the skill to be able to encourage others, one of the best techniques is to simply listen to what others have to say and to then respond with either an appropriate question such as “What do you think you should do?” or an encouraging statement such as “Do whatever you think is best”.

How does all of this relate to being a principal percussionist? Well, in every band and in every percussion section there are regularly a number of routine house-keeping tasks that must be done in order to prepare for and to present a performance. These routine tasks continually cause questions to be raised, such as:

* How many percussionists will be required for each piece?

* Are the printed parts legible and complete?

* Which percussionists will play which parts in each piece?

* What percussion instruments will be required for each piece and for each percussionist?

* Are the instruments in good playing condition or will some of the instruments require repairs or adjustments?

* How will the required percussion instruments be obtained and transported for each rehearsal and concert?

* How will the percussion instruments be arranged on stage for performance?

Essentially, the responsibility of the principal percussionist is to ask and to answer such questions. The way in which they are answered will be different for each principal player. However, it is important to remember that every player in the section also has the responsibility of raising and answering the same questions, if only in order to prepare his or her own part for a performance.

In some bands principal players may feel that they must answer not only their own questions, but also all of the questions of anyone in the section. In other bands principal players may wish to assign the responsibility of answering certain kinds of questions to each person in the section. Or, some principal players may devise a forum (such as a meeting before a first rehearsal) in which the responsibility for answering questions is shared jointly.

However, regardless of which method is used to determine the answers to those routine questions, it is the responsibility of the principal player to encourage or to allow the other musicians in the section and in the band to be responsible for their own music -making and thereby for their own sense of fulfilment. The surest sign of whether or not the principal player is succeeding in these responsibilities is the degree to which the principal player and the other musicians in the section are having fun and are continuing to enjoy the process of making-music.

Becoming a Better Musician – Options for Percussionists

Striving to become a better player is something that all musicians no matter what level of proficiency they may be on their chosen instrument should always strive for. By setting yourself small goals, perhaps with a date to achieve them by will help to broaden your musical horizons and technical abilities. With a clear constructive programme of practice good results will follow. It is also important to be true to yourself. Know your limitations and stick to doing what you do best. By that I mean you don’t have to have the technique of Buddy Rich on the drum kit to be a good drum kit player. Know what resources are available to help you achieve your goals and use them! And always be prepared – know the music and know what is expected of you…”if you fail to prepare, then you should prepare for failure!”

Below are a set of important self-evaluation pointers which I have used in my own development programme to help make me a better percussionist. Read through them and think about the relevance to the points to your own situation:

Have a Plan of Action

a) If you are still a student, find a good teacher - one who motivates you and with whom you enjoy learning; if you are an experienced performer, seek colleagues who are fully committed to the same musical interests which inspire you, and then share experiences (e.g. go to their performances).

b) Find the time to go to concerts or listen to recordings, especially by performers who play the kind of music or to the level to which you aspire. Meet the players and chat with them, get to know them and make sure they get to know you.

c) Every time you perform, consider it to be the most important thing in your life - do your best to make it as good as you can.

d) Try to keep music-making fun - remember what it
was about music that you liked when you first started to play.

e) Listen to your teachers, to colleagues in your band, to audiences, to conductors/managers, to students, to everyone until you clearly understand what they are saying; then listen to your "inner voice" and decide what is the best action for you to take.

f) When you know what you want to do, ask yourself "what steps - small or large - can I take right now to move me towards my goal(s).

Develop a positive attitude in all interactions with others

a) Have as a goal to do the best you possibly can, even if it's not perfect.

b) Be respectful to EVERYONE with whom you interact - colleagues, students, audiences, stage crews, concert hall assistants, managers, EVERYONE - always assume that they also want to do their best.

c) Be positive; rather than telling others about your personal problems, be prepared to offer solutions when asked.


a) Most people today change jobs every 3 to 5 years. However, opportunities are everywhere. Having the skills to be flexible, having the ability to listen to what one's market (the other people one serves) is saying, and having the creativity to make changes to serve one's market better - these are the best forms of job security a person in any field of work can have today.

b) Continue to develop new skills - musical and

* Leadership skills - presenting a positive and supportive attitude to others.

* Listening skills - the ability to assess the effect of one's actions on others by asking them, and listening to what they say. This is marketing.
* Public speaking/PR skills and advocacy for music and your band. This is promotion.

* Financial skills - the basic ability to understand and use budgeting, accounting, and financial analysis. This is financial management (this might not apply to your work with a brass band).

c) Try to think in general terms (i.e. the big picture) - "to play all positions and win as a team."

Dave Griffiths

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