To a Perspective Percussionist
July 24, 2021
I recently met an ebullient, sharp kid who graduated from high school last month. In addition to being class valedictorian and an accomplished skate and surfboarder, he is a talented percussionist who persuaded the music department of a large state university to waive their usual admissions requirements for percussion students so he could focus on drum set, music theory, and composition instead of classical music. Like me, unusual time signatures, mixed meters, metric modulations, and other rhythmic weirdnesses fascinate him, and like many music lovers under 30, European classical music written before 1920 leaves him flat.
A large part of me empathizes. Music comes in many forms, styles, and timbres reflecting cultures from all over the world; indeed, African drumming patterns, five-note scales from Asia and Appalachia, Caribbean grooves, and worldwide improvisation traditions influenced my journey as a composer/percussionist. Today, young musicians are exposed to all kinds of music that I didn’t even know existed until I attended graduate school in my 20s. Acquainting everyone with diverse musical traditions is exciting and deeply necessary.
Then there’s Brahms Two.
I fell asleep while listening to Johannes brahms’s Second Symphony for the first time in college well before the famous “Lullaby Theme” early in the first movement, but over the years, it has become one of my favorite pieces of music. I couldn’t quite explain why until I heard another performance of the piece early yesterday morning when I discovered the rhythmic inventiveness that undergirds the piece. Unusual time signatures? Mixed meters? Metric modulations? Other rhythmic weirdnesses? They’re all there hidden in plain sight.
So I say to this perspective percussionist: By all means, get better playing that drum set while learning about music’s underpinnings. Explore the wonders of unique percussion styles around the world.
Just don’t ignore Europe. Listen to a recording of Brahms Two, and you will notice that the first and third movements are in three-four time while the second and fourth movements are in four-four time … until they aren’t … until they are again. But you might not notice unless you listen actively.
While you’re at it, check out the third movements of Ludwig Van Beethoven’s second, third, and fourth symphonies. And no exploration of rhythms of European classical music would be complete without Igor stravinsky’s “Rites of Spring,” which revolutionized the use of rhythm.
I also encourage you to learn to play as many percussion instruments as possible, especially the timpani, often viewed as the European orchestra’s second conductor. And become a part of as many ensembles as possible. These experiences will make you a better drum set player while sharpening your ability to work with all kinds of people — a valuable skill that will serve you well no matter what you end up doing.