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Percussion Ensemble: how to choose the repertoire

Choosing the repertoire for percussion ensembleAre you teaching percussion at school? Then you’re surely periodically facing this problem: which pieces to choose for the percussion ensemble you direct?

Sure, you’d like to prepare all the most important pieces, but actually you simply can’t do that. There are many factors that influence your job, for example:

  • number and skills of your players;
  • the didactic targets you are aiming to;
  • the Country you work in;
  • the philosophy of the school you work in;
  • (last but not the least…) how much money your school has to finance your ensemble.

In this post I’ll write about these factors and about my personal experience related to what I do as director of a percussion ensemble.

 

NUMBER AND SKILLS OF YOUR PLAYERS

Surely, if you have 4 students, you can’t prepare “Ionisation” by Varèse. But you can’t do this either if your ensemble is made of 13 kids from the Lower Secondary School. Unless they all are prodigies, which is rather unlikely.

The fact is that it’s difficult to find the right pieces for the number and the average skills of your players. You need to know how to search.

However, be aware: if you choose pieces that are too difficult from the technical point of view, you’ll humiliate those poor students who aren’t able to play them. On the other hand, if you choose pieces that are too simple, you might induce your students to think: “ Our teacher gives us this piece because he thinks we can’t do any better”.

What can you do then? Easy: good practice lies in the middle path, which means you should choose pieces that your students are able to play and that, at the same time, aren’t too simple, also from the technical point of view.

Doubts, uncertainties, you have no idea how to get on? I usually do this:

  • I browse into an online shop catalogue for percussion ensemble pieces; for example, percussion-brandt.de. On this website I can first filter the results based on the number of players, then on the level of difficulty: beginner, intermediate and advanced. In my case, I work in a High School and I look for “intermediate” pieces, choosing almost randomly or according to the author I want to play. Of course, I always take into account the price of each piece.
  • When I’ve chosen a piece that looks interesting, the second thing I do is searching on youtube whether there’s any recording of the related performance, otherwise I simply search on Google for some additional information.
  • If I really don’t find anything, I follow my instinct, which means, I pick the piece that satisfies me most.

Of course, this isn’t the perfect system, but I’ve always reached good results in this way.

 

THE DIDACTIC TARGETS YOU ARE AIMING TO

When you choose a piece for your ensemble, do you give priority to the show effect, or to the didactic objectives you are aiming to? In other words, do you consider the performance more important than what your students can learn out of the musical piece they’ll play?

You might think that working at school means that the pedagogical side of a performance is your sole target, as an ensemble director. This is true and false at the same time….

All live music is also a show and you just can’t ignore this. Part of your duty is also to get your students into the performance market. From this point of view, percussion are very versatile instruments, which are well suited for different kind of performances.

Therefore, you should carefully consider the show effect when you decide to prepare a piece for your ensemble, without choosing the pieces exclusively on the basis of their music scores. Consider also the final effect that you’ll obtain in front of the public.

The beauty of music stands on the fact that you can always learn something new, even out of pieces that look simple on paper (and this simplifies the life of a music teacher, who should always find a reasonable explanation for each choice he/she makes…).

 

THE COUNTRY YOU WORK IN

To make this point simple: most people in Italy are not aware of what a marimba is. Therefore, you can imagine how many people here are aware that music for percussion ensembles does exist. Is this a big deal? Not at all. On the contrary, starting from scratch is sometimes very convenient.

Now, replace “scratch” with “ the average Italian public expectations at a percussion ensemble concert”. What are people expecting from a stage full of those weird instruments, tools, toys? Everything and nothing at the same time, exactly.

If you live in a Country like mine, you’ll have therefore the chance to explore all the repertoire you like, from the classic one for ensemble, to music pop transcriptions, to rudimental marches, to the gamelan music etc etc.

In other words, you are free to put on stage any musical genre using any possible instrument you can use, precisely because you can be sure that 99% of the people who are listening to your ensemble have never heard anything of that sort before.

And this brings two clear advantages:

  1. surely, clapping hands after the final energetic hit of the last piece;
  2. the honest “wow!!” of kids and parents after your percussion show.

That’s enough to bring the evening to success and give your Ensemble students 5 minutes of glory. Take-home message: use the surprise effect and play a bit with the unawareness of your public, regarding the acoustic potential of percussion. From this point of view, working in Italy has some advantages.

School Orchestra

THE PHILOSOPHY OF YOUR SCHOOL

Do you think it is possible to play any piece despite genre, author and period? I don’t think so. Some schools have a “terroristic” philosophy regarding the choice of the repertoire for their music ensembles.

This clearly contravenes the nature of Percussion Ensemble itself, which have variety in their own DNA: variety of instruments, genres and repertoires. It’s precisely for this reason that in those schools where certain types of music is usually “forbidden”, the Percussion Ensemble doesn’t even exist.

You might think that I’m over exaggerating, but unfortunately also here in Italy, a semi-civilized country, I know schools and teachers who ban rock, jazz, and all music written from 1950’s on. A real problem for those who need to decide which pieces a Percussion Ensemble should play.

Another possibility is that your school prefers orchestral ensemble to small chamber music ensembles (which include percussion ensembles). This choice damages in general all the different ensembles that are not strings-based.

For this reason, school orchestras mainly formed by guitars, flutes, boards and percussion are growing in number even here in Italy. Percussionists usually have to “keep the time” or to “give some colors” to the performance using effects and different tools. A creepy show.

 

MONEY

Can a percussion ensemble exist without its main component: instruments? Clearly not, unless you want to specialize exclusively into the body percussion repertoire…

School should provide the necessary funding to buy all the necessary instruments. Unfortunately, we all live in an economic crisis and Italian schools barely have money to pay their teachers and their substitutes, I’m not exaggerating.

I’m lucky and I work in a high school directed by someone very reasonable, who does her best to meet all the requests coming from me and the other teachers, regarding purchasing music material and so on.

However, we can’t hide it: money can make a difference in a context of chamber music like this. Being able to use certain percussion instruments influences the choice of the pieces to play. When I watch certain videos of percussion ensembles of american schools on youtube, I think: “ it’s completely different. They have money.”

If in Italy the percussion ensemble music is so unknown, it’s partly due to the modest funding that percussion teachers in public schools have to let their ensemble work decently.

All in all: no instruments, no party.

 

CONCLUSIONS

In this post I analysed only certain aspects that influence the choice of an ensemble director regarding the pieces his/her students have to play. There are lots of other remarks to make and I ask you to partecipare to this discussion in the comments.

If you also direct a percussion ensemble, I wish you’ll be able to do your job at your very best, for yourself and your students. Remember that by choosing to play certain pieces of our repertoire with your ensemble, you are doing something very important: disclosing our instruments to the public.

Therefore, thank you and see you with the next post, bye!

 

Question: which are the main problems when you choose a repertoire for a percussion ensemble? Which problems have you been facing? Leave a comment.

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