“Where’s the Triangle?” Strategies for managing percussionists and percussion instruments. – Parts 1 and 2 - Nottelmann Music Company
Nottelmann Music St. Louis
“Where’s the Triangle?” Strategies for managing percussionists and percussion instruments. – Parts 1 and 2

“Where’s the Triangle?” Strategies for managing percussionists and percussion instruments. – Parts 1 and 2

Curated from Bandworld – by Russell G. McCutcheon –

Managing the percussion inventory

Every conductor has experienced it: rehearsal is progressing smoothly, then the triangle part is missing. “Who is playing the triangle?” “Umm…we didn’t know we needed it.” Or “We can’t find it,” your percussionists reply.

There are three keys to solving this dilemma:

  1. Students must be able to quickly and easily locate the instruments and equipment they need,
  2. Students must know what they need and when they need it, and
  3. Students must set up their stations efficiently for each piece.

This is the first article in a three-part series addressing each of the keys to success. In this article, we will examine how to organize and manage percussion instruments and equipment. With more than 100 instruments a percussionist might be expected to play, it is no surprise that managing the physical instruments, sticks, mallets, beaters, and other equipment is one of the biggest challenges for student percussionists and music educators alike.

Keeping the instruments, sticks, mallets, beaters, and other percussion equipment where it can be easily found and just as easily returned to storage is an art by itself. A disorganized percussion inventory leads to damage, costing the program money. It makes it difficult or impossible for players to find what they need and just as unlikely they will put anything away in its proper place.

Large instruments, like marimba, xylophone, vibes, bass drum, and timpani are typically either left in their regular places in the rehearsal room or wheeled into a storage closet if one large enough is available. For most schools, leaving these out is the only option. It is a good idea to purchase short covers for keyboard instruments and covers along with head protectors for timpani. These covers will keep the instruments clean and dust-free, and have the added benefit of preventing impromptu playing by non-percussionists. Be sure to designate a space to put the covers when the instruments are in use.

Mid-size instruments, like snare drums, cymbals, and glockenspiel can either be left set up and ready to play or placed in storage, depending on the space available. If possible, best practice would be to get your students in the habit of returning these items to a storage location after each rehearsal. The storage location for mid-size instruments may be as simple as a set of deep shelves in the rear of the rehearsal room. Shelves can often be constructed by facilities staff, or can be purchased at relatively low cost from a home improvement store. If buying shelves, avoid the plastic versions as they tend to warp and often cannot support the weight of the instruments. Ideal shelves have metal frames and plywood or other solid shelves.

CC license attribution: "Food Storage Shelving" by Jesse Michael Nix is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0
CC license attribution: “Food Storage Shelving” by Jesse Michael Nix is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Plywood can be left bare or covered in heavy-duty fabric to protect instruments; either way is better than a metal shelf which may scratch the instrument. A web search for trunk liner carpet or speaker carpet yields great results. This carpet is thin, protective, and easily cut and applied with spray adhesive.

When arranging instruments on your shelves, it is most important that each instrument have its own designated space and that each space is labeled. Spaces can be set apart with thin colored tape (often called spike tape). A battery-powered labeling machine can be had for less than $75; aim for a labeler that can print on 18mm (3/4”) label tape. High contrast label tape with extra-strong adhesive is widely available and will help ensure labels stay put. In the November 2010 issue of Teaching Music, Steve Fidyk stresses the importance of neatly labeling each instrument’s individual location and every drawer, cabinet, and more.

Percussion Shelf

Small items, including accessory instruments, stick, mallets, and beaters, are ideally stored in percussion cabinets with drawers. There are many types of percussion cabinets available on the market, in styles designed for classroom use as well as more rugged “road case”-style cabinets.

All are good choices, but one might also consider another option: the tool cabinet. Tool cabinets are available from every home improvement center and come with many small, shallow drawers that are perfect for small percussion instruments. They can often be had for less money than cabinets intended for percussion, but work just as well if not better. When choosing a tool cabinet, make sure the drawers are deep enough (front to back) for sticks and mallets to fit.

Tool Cabinet

It is also important that items in each drawer only be one layer deep. In other words, avoid loading lots of stuff into the larger drawers causing students to have to dig for items. Save the larger drawers for larger items. As with the shelves, label each drawer with the items it contains and keep like items together.

Percussion hardware, including snare stands, tom stands, cymbal stands, and the like can be stored in several ways. Hardware storage bags and cases are rarely the best solution as these are designed primarily for transport and assume that every stand will be removed from the case for each rehearsal and performance. Our goal is to create a storage system that will allow musicians to easily find and return only the stands and equipment they need at the time. Some conductors have found success designating a shelf for these items. This is good, but sometimes can make it difficult to retrieve a “buried” stand. Conductors may consider custom-built boxes or carts to hold their stands. These may be built by handy band parents with common materials, and go a long way toward helping organize the multitude of stands in many percussion sections.

The conductor and the students alike must commit to keeping the percussion area organized. Over time, students will see the value in a well-arranged system, taking pride in their instruments and in their role as valuable members of the ensemble.

Determining percussion needs and assigning parts

Every conductor has experienced it: rehearsal is progressing smoothly, then the triangle part is missing. “Who is playing the triangle?” “Umm…we didn’t know we needed it.” Or “We can’t find it,” your percussionists reply.

There are three keys to solving this dilemma:

  1. Students must be able to quickly and easily locate the instruments and equipment they need,
  2. Students must know what they need and when they need it, and
  3. Students must set up their stations efficiently for each piece.

This is the second article in a three-part series addressing each of the keys to success. Here we examine percussion scoring and creating percussion assignment charts. While there is some standardization of percussion writing, almost every piece requires different instruments and a different number of performers. Preparation and score study prior to the initial rehearsal is key to a successful first reading. It is important to do this work in advance to avoid confusion at the first rehearsal, especially if percussionists are young or do not get their parts ahead of the first reading.

Percussion staves can be arranged in several different formats, and each poses different challenges to the conductor and percussionists. Some scores label staves by instruments, as in snare drum, bass drum (often combined with cymbals), xylophone, etc. Others are simply labeled Percussion 1, Percussion 2, and so on. In both cases, an examination of the score and parts is important. Many composers list all the percussion instruments required in front matter or on the first page of music on each staff, but just as many do not. It is not uncommon to find a staff labeled “snare drum” and assume the snare drum is the only instrument called for on that staff, only to find the snare player is expected to double tambourine, claves, or another percussion accessory not listed at the beginning. This causes confusion during initial readings when players may not be aware of all the instruments they need before beginning the piece. Best practice is to examine both the score and the individual parts, listing all the instruments required.

After establishing the complete list, the conductor can decide how best to assign each part. Scores that list parts as Percussion 1, 2, etc. are often designed for one person to cover each part, but that is not always the best option for students. It may be that a part should be shared by two players, especially if there are fast transitions between instruments. A conductor may also split a part to more evenly distribute parts among many percussionists. For some pieces, it could be better to combine several parts into one, especially if there are not enough percussionists to cover the parts as designed by the composer. When studying scores, be sure to note not only which instruments are required but how much time percussionists may have to switch between each instrument. Conductors must also consider technical demand; it may be that the triangle part requires less proficiency than the tambourine part, for example. Through careful assignment of each part and sharing parts as appropriate, conductors can ensure each student is performing a part most suited to their skills that will – hopefully – also help them further develop those skills and improve as a percussionist.

Conductors can assist their percussionists through the creation of a percussion assignment chart for each piece. There are several pre-made charts available online, including an excellent one originally designed by Bruce Pearson, edited and adapted by M. Max McKee, Director of the American Band College.

Percussion Chart

Whether you choose a pre-made chart or create your own, the chart should include each student’s name and all the instruments they are playing for each piece. This chart can be laminated and posted where percussionists can refer to it easily, and can also be handed out for inclusion in each student’s folder. The conductor may also wish to create their own chart or assignment list for individual pieces. This way, students can be listed in score order and any special notes can be included. (Figure 2: pdf/image of conductor’s assignment list) The conductor’s list can be kept inside the front cover of the score so it is always available when rehearsing. Keeping the list or chart in the score when the piece is returned to the library is a good idea; then the next time the piece is brought out most of the work is already complete.

Finally, students must know what instruments to set up first, second, and so on. This can be achieved by simply writing the rehearsal order on a white board or chalk board at the front of the room. Having all musicians put their music in “rehearsal order” can be a time-saver for the entire ensemble as well.

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