Category Archives: Clinics

Man, did you hear that?

A long, long time ago in a land far away, there was a  symphony orchestra. This orchestra was pretty much like any other orchestra. There were string players, brass players, woodwind players and players of percussion instruments. When they weren’t playing, the string players talked about their bows, the brass players talked about their mouth pieces, the woodwind players talked about their reeds and the percussionists looked far away and smiled.

There was a large dressing room backstage for the women in the orchestra and another one for the men. But the percussion players inhabited a room of their own. It was in the basement just around the corner from the boiler. This percussion room was not much bigger than a closet. It was very narrow and at the back were shelves holding drumheads and other things of their profession. The walls were covered with philosophical quotations. One was “Listen don’t hear. Hear don’t listen”.

The percussionists hung their concert clothes on nails and the unspoken challenge was to wear them for at least one season of concerts and tours before having them cleaned. Jacket armpits were inspected for shredding. A player whose jacket lining had dissintegrated beyond repair was considered the winner. Of what,  was not clear. No one ever admited to having his tails dry cleaned.

To some people the percussionists were weird. They were a clique and didn’t hang out much with other players. They seemed to disappear into their closet at odd times. Whispers suggested they were involved in subversive activities. Occasionally undefined odors immenated from the room. A few orchestra members, though never able to prove anything, harbored suspicions, but only the cleaning staff and the stage hands knew what was going on and they weren’t talking.

Percussionists thought their closet adventures helped them play better and experience the music more powerfully. Upon exiting, they felt loose and believed they heard things in the music they’d never heard before. Their playing tended towards the dramatic, a kind of “If you got it, flaunt it”, attitude.

On one concert, a percussionist played triangle during the entire first movement of  Haydn’s Military Symphony. Once he began to play, he just grooved on quarter notes. It must have been sublime, only one of the conductor’s eyebrows arched. Then there was the deep military drum suspended in the bowl of a kettle drum and played in unison with another smaller drum for the Debussy Fetes from Three Nocturnes. That one got a glare from the concert master and a look of puzzlement from the conductor. The same guy played the Dies Irae in Verdi’s Requiem on two bass drums simultaneously with croquet balls attached to broom handles. The guest conductor was too terrified to say anything.

But the numero uno “Man, did you hear that?” moment came in New York City’s most famous music hall. The orchestra’s timpanist began the 3rd movement of Mahler’s 1st Sympony twice as fast as written. The life of the principal bass player flashed before his eyes and the conductor’s mouth began moving in strange ways.

Someone said, “If you can remmber the sixties, you weren’t there”. Perhaps, but some things can’t be forgotten. Did you ever hear that?


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Japan and the Evolution of Marimbas.

Ryan Scott

Ryan Scott

On 2 December, I attended my very first Lecture/recital by a Doctor of Music Arts candidate. It was so good, I may never attend another. The candidate was Ryan Scott and he spoke about the marimba and the effects Japanese culture, manufacturers, performers and composers had on the marimba’s popularity and dissemination.

After achieving his MM, Ryan was kept busy performing with local orchestras, opera and contemporary music ensembles. To date, his major achievement in music is the preparation, performance and recording of the three Maki Ishii solo percussion concerti with the Esprit Orchestra.

As one might suppose, this project in and of itself was daunting as it required the skills of a performer, administrator, accountant and the political acumen for dealing with the dead composer’s relatives, a conductor, the orchestra musicians, the musician’s union and a recording comppany, as well as dedication, passion, patience and endurance, all attributes useful for obtaining a DMA degree. In fact, he should have been awarded a DMA for the Maki Ishii project.

Ryan was alloted 45 minutes to demonstrate and perform representative marimba works and distill his thesis to, in this case, a time line from 1968 to about 2000  with very brief references to the Meiji Restoration and forward.  I had not thought to bring a pen and paper. Never the less, they would have been useless to me given the wealth of information and the virtuosity of his playing in such a short span of time.

Ryan touched on marimba history in south east Asia, its arrival in Japan and from the mid thirties onwards, its physical improvements and ascension to a national obsession. The craze, involving transcriptions of folk, light classics and pop music, also included the xylophone which, as Ryan pointed out, is identical to the marimba except for the emphasis on tuning certain overtones in each instrument.

Then came Keiko Abe, today a justifiably venerated marimba soloist, teacher and composer. Her repertoire did not include arrangements. She wrote original works for marimba and her astounding technique. Abe convinced a Japanese company to develop a suitable instrument for her. She also commissioned her country’s leading composers  to write works for her and came to North America for concerts and university master classes in1977. What until then had been an academic percussion culture based on symphony orchestra repertoire, began to shift dramatically and rapidly towards marimba pedagogy.

To demonstrate developments in performance practices, Ryan played Ms. Abe’s first work for marimba, Michi. Michi written in the 1960s, but not published until 1979.  It requires a traditional four mallet technique. Ryan followed with his commission Look On Glass (2010) by Canadian Michael Oesterle, for marimba and koto. Look On Glass was an interesting aural treat – the blend of koto and marimba sounds during certain passages opened new sonic possibilities. It also demanded a variety of mallet techniques.

Ryan’s lecture and recital included slides of rare instruments and virtuosi as well as recordings by very early Japanese xylophone soloists, one of whom played a Suppé overture. As a percussionist I was surprised and more than a little chagrined to learn about the historically important events taking place in the late 60s, early 70s, directly under my nose, if you will, while I blithely went my way. I met Ms. Abe in  November,1977 and again in Sweden and Japan and occasionally during  Percussive Arts International Conventions. She has been a delight to  know, but I was never aware of her history, the influence of her work. So too, I’m sorry to admit, much of what Ryan spoke about. My impression was and is, that at the time, no western percussionist was aware of this rich, complex history unless they were being very tight lipped about it.

No western percussionist except perhaps Alan Zimmerman who, before Abe travelled to North America, flew to Japan to study with Abe and meet percussionis Yasunori Yamaguchi and Sumire Yoshihara as well as a number of Japan’s leading composers. Alan was incredibly generous to Ryan with his time  and gave him access to his collection of  more than150 early Japanese marimba scores.

During Ryan’s presentation I was sitting with Frank Morphy, former oboe and English horn player with the Toronto Symphony and his son Daniel, a superb percussionist with TorQ Percussion Quartet. As we were leaving Frank said, “Aren’t these events advertised? There are only about three percussionists here.” I had to remind Frank of the Nexus concerts in Toronto. “People would drive from New York and Ohio to hear us”, I said “but we rarely had more than one or two students attending from the university, even when we were playing there.”

Well, it’s their loss. Ryan’s topic, unlike a preponderence of DMA topics I’ve heard about, is an interesting, well thought out, well researched and useful percussion history. Much like The Military Band in the United States Prior to 1834 by Raoul F. Camus, Ryan Scott’s thesis in book form, with index, bibliography, photos and audio examples, would be a significant contribution to percussion litrature and music history.

To order Maki Ishii Live, three concerti wit the Esprit Orchestra:

Ryan Scott home page:

Ryan Scott, Yasunori Yamaguchi and Sumire Yashihara in Japan.

Ryan Scott, Yasunori Yamaguchi and Sumire Yoshihara in Japan.


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Composing & Performing Contemporary Music for Percussion

Percussion students, absorbed with learning the techniques of their individual instruments, can easily be unaware of the causes of the frustrations they experience when dealing with multi-percussion set-ups in ensemble situations. Composers and composition students who normally study,the traditional orchestral instruments, are often uninformed about percussion, and many conductors, themselves pianists or violinists, have very little knowledge of percussion. This lecture was prepared to help everyone engaged in ensemble performance better understand a percussionists craft.

Percussion instruments are unique in their number, diverse sounds, tuning, physical characteristics and logistical requirements. This lecture/demonstration for percussionists, composers and conductors, is intended to clarify some of the issues that profoundly affect the performance of contemporary music which relies heavily on percussion. Some of these issues are scoring, notation, orchestration, instrumental techniques, logistics, time and space. Special attention will be given to the ambiguous nature – and enormous potential – of non- pitched percussion.

The growth in the importance of percussion during the 20th and 21st centuries will also be explored by examining the contributions of  performers such as the Nexus and Kroumata ensembles and composers such as Milhaud-” La Creation Du Monde”, Varese-” Ionisation”, Cage-”Quartet for Percussion: Instruments unspecified”, “4′33′ “, Reich-”Music for Pieces of Wood”,and Takemitsu-”From me flows what you call Time”, are some of the works that will be reviewed.

duration: 1 1/2 hours

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Posted by on April 16, 2010 in Clinics