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5 good reasons for starting a percussion ensemble

Oxygen Percussion Quartet

There are many good reasons why you should start your own percussion ensemble. Today I’m giving you at least five.

Yes, I am talking about one of those groups, such as So Percussion Quartet, Percussions de Strasbourg, Torq, Third Coast Percussion, the Italian Tetraktis, and the “famous” Oxygen Percussion Quartet, that you might think can exist only in schools and universities while at the same time you’re wondering how could it even be possible to find them outside of an academic setting.

So here are the 5 good reasons why you should go down on the same path already taken by these groups.

 

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5 good reasons for starting a percussion ensemble

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1. It is possible

A percussion ensemble CAN exist outside of schools and universities. The groups I mentioned above are not an exception to the rule, but rather living proof that creating an independent percussion ensemble is possible. And since it is possible, why not doing it? And why not doing it now?

By now, you are probably wondering about a few things, such as:

  • how can you get a room large enough to host rehearsals with so many instruments;
  • How can you have time to study between rehearsals, private lessons, and university or conservatory’s classes;
  • how much money do you have to invest in new instruments, parts, and advertising;
  • how much money can you make;
  • and what about if one of the members takes a job in another city;
  • etc, etc, etc…

I don’t have an answer for everything, but I can tell you that in the past, I did ask myself those same questions until I finally realized that constantly doubting yourself is a colossal waste of time. First of all, create the ensemble, then find the musicians and finally do exactly this (drum roll, suspense…): talk about your doubts with the members of the group and together you will find a good solution.

For example, regarding the “where to rehearse” issue, here is an image from the video of a rehearsal with the Oxygen Percussion Quartet shot in my studio. The room is four meters by four meters and yet it fit four percussionists with all their percussion instruments. When we needed more room, we simply moved to the kitchen and removed the dining table.

Oxygen Percussion Quartet rehearsing

Although you will need to make some sacrifices, anything can be accomplished if you have the will.

 

2. It’s fun

Admit it. Rehearsals of percussion ensembles have been or still are some of the best times you have ever had during your years of study. Among instruments of the same family there is obviously a better understanding than in multi instrument ensembles or orchestras and the atmosphere is therefore more relaxed.

It’s important to remember that even professional musicians sometimes need to have fun. We forget that too often, as we’ve been trained to play in orchestras where we have to commit to always and only perform that one piece that we have studied hard in a professional environment full of anxiety.

On the other hand, there’s no room for anxiety in a small independent percussion ensemble that has no director and where your fellow musicians are your friends. Having fun is almost an obligation as well as a natural consequence.

 

3. You learn about “freedom” and “responsibility”

When I played in the percussion ensembles of the Conservatories where I studied, I had to comply with the professor/director’s rules, from repertoire to concerts, from attire to rehearsals to advertising. And that was the way it had to be because the ensemble was a project of the Conservatory and therefore was dependent on it.

That is exactly what happens today with the Percussion Ensemble in the High School where I teach. I decide the repertoire, the rehearsal schedule, the concerts, everything and anything, because in the end, I must be able to grade my students on their performance of the pieces I chose for them and to respond of my work to the principal and the parents.

This is because, as a teacher and Ensemble director, the responsibility is indeed all mine.

On the other hand, in a “private” percussion ensemble, everyone participates in the decision-making process and although there might be a leader, decisions are made collectively as a group, not by one person.

With great freedom, however, comes great responsibility, which in turn can become a significant tool for personal growth for all those musicians who aspire to become real professionals without hiding behind their role of “subordinates” within orchestras, schools, universities, anything, or anybody.

 

4. You can and you must play every percussion instrument of every type

Foto by TEDx UND / CC BY-NC-ND

Foto by TEDx UND / CC BY-NC-ND

I don’t know about you, but I chose to play percussion instruments partly because I have always been fascinated by their variety. Can you remember what I wrote about the classification of percussion instruments in one of my first posts…? When you talk about percussion instruments, always remember one word: variety. Variety of instruments and genres.

Would you like to play in a percussion ensemble? Then you’ll need to be able to play mallet percussion as well as the snare drum, timpani as well as orchestra small instruments; you’ll need a good knowledge of drum set as well as ethnic percussion instruments.

And I don’t mean only traditional instruments. For example, I remember when, a long time ago, I recorded Lou Harrison’s Suite with the Art Percussion Ensemble with the following instruments: sinks, trucks suspensions, aluminum sheets, brake pads, and other objects used in everyday life. Well, now if I ever end up with a sink as an instrument, I’ll know all there is to know regarding technique of execution. It’s a fact.

 

5. Money

During my university years, I learned that a market niche with little demand rarely creates demand. And yes, within the “circle” of percussion ensembles, there is not a whole lot of money.

However…I’ve never completely trusted the university business department and so, just as a gut feeling, I can tell you that, in my opinion, there are plenty of opportunities to make money; you better believe it.

Just think in how many different settings or events your ensemble could play. Let me give you some examples of what I personally experienced while playing with different percussion ensembles:

  • festivals of contemporary music;
  • theater shows;
  • concerts organized by local groups;
  • fairs;
  • various shows;
  • schools (concert lessons);
  • product launches (I recently participated, with the Oxygen Percussion Quartet, in a gala for the presentation of a famous brand watch that costed 450,000 Euros…);
  • clubs (trust me, you just have to choose the right set list).

So, do you still think there are not enough opportunities out there? Do you still think there is not enough money in these circles? Well, you are wrong.

 

Conclusions

Many months ago, I wrote a small free ebook titled “9 Essential Tips for Percussionists”, a small collection of tips and advices for professional percussionists. You can download it below, if you are interested.

Well, one of the tips, number eight to be precise, was: “Play with percussion ensembles”. With today’s post, I tried to analyze the issue in more depth by not only recommending you to play with a percussion ensemble but also to start one outside of the university and school settings, and I actually gave you 5 good reasons to do it today, to do it right now.

I did exactly that back in 2010 together with three friends, Arrigo Axia, Francesco Corso, and Andrea Del Bianco and today, I still consider the Oxygen Percussion Quartet as one of the best creations of my life. I can’t deny that objective problems do exist, but for every problem there is a solution. As I explained earlier, talk to your fellow musicians and everything will be resolved.

I truly believe that the future will be bright for us and in particular for this type of chamber group. Although time has passed since the day Varese “created” music specifically for percussion instruments with his 1933 “Ionisation”, we are still young when compared to other forms of traditional chamber music.

But we are growing up and sooner or later we’ll become adults, in every sense.

Question: Do you play in a percussion ensemble outside of university or school settings? Tell us about your experience by leaving a comment.

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