“What do you call a person who hangs around musicians? The drummer.”
You’ve probably heard similar jokes many times before such is the figure of fun that drummers and percussions are often positioned as in the eyes of the public.
When it comes to gauging musicality and talent, people tend turn to more melodic instruments such as the violin, saxophone and guitar, for prime examples of virtuosity and skill. After all, these instruments often enjoy the most prominent lines and placing within arrangements.
Even for listeners more inclined to shy away from the obvious headlining leads, they’re more likely to champion double basses, tubas or oboes as evidence of their superior musical analysis than single out the guy at the back occasionally thumping the timpani.
The percussionist rarely enjoys much attention, at least not on par with the perceived front-end instruments of an orchestra or ensemble.
The percussion section has suffered from an unfairly poor rep for years, but with the emergence of more and more role models playing percussion to an exceptional standard, perceptions could soon change. Will we be seeing young people in the future rushing to the marimba before they reach for more melodic choices?
Virtuoso percussionist Colin Currie (pictured above) has highlighted the increasing number of opportunities for his fellow rhythmic musicians, as modern composers write concertos just for percussion.
He is performing four premieres this year, all of which are concertos written for him, illustrating just how mainstream the section is becoming.
Explaining how he first became interested in the instruments, he told the Telegraph: “I was always fascinated by drums, and I remember I was given a toy drum kit when I was three. And actually I did have a sort of role model, which was the jazz drummer Buddy Rich (right).”
He explained that Rich would practise difficult rhythms for hours on end and gave him the idea “being a percussionist was about overcoming technical hurdles”.
Currie stressed that just because percussion instruments produce sound rather than actual notes, they can be just as musical.
“It’s about poise and phrasing,” he told the news provider. “You can play things in a flat, severe way, or in a rounded way; you can push the tempo or hold it back.
“But in any case, colour is a vital part of music, and we have this huge, wonderful palette of colours, which no other family of instruments can beat.”
Most modern school students pick up some kind of percussion instrument during their music lessons, be it the humble triangle, steel pan drums or even gamelan, but there are many other instruments that can add to the “palette of colours”, and not just from the exotic sounds of world music.
Outside of the orchestras, rhythmic instrumentation has, in some ways, superseded the harmonies and tunes of their melodic cousins. In the popular music sphere, genres such as funk, hardcore and dance music, especially within sub-genres such as breakbeat and dubstep, regularly shift the listeners focus to the beats, pulse and groove, and not always for the purpose of dancing.
The complex time signatures, cross-beats and poly-rhythms that can be heard in modern jazz, gospel, progressive and experimental genre, even some punk-derived styles, often elevate rhythmic content to the level of their melodies, and sometimes above them.
It is hoped that showing young musicians just how diverse and creative percussion instruments can be could spark renewed interest in the section and its increasingly vibrant role in music today.
Do you think percussionists get a hard time in comparison to other musicians?