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Why Should You Play Percussion?

Updated on November 13, 2012
Vibraharps, an example of mallet percussion.
Vibraharps, an example of mallet percussion. | Source

When I was in elementary school and my teacher gave me and my classmates a slip of paper asking what instrument we wanted to play in the school band, I didn't know what to choose, or why. No explanations of instruments were given, or images. My friend chose clarinet simply because her friend chose it, too. After a few minutes, I circled the flute. Flutes sounded pretty, as far as I knew. But how could anyone guarantee that we would like the instruments we chose simply based on the little we knew? A few weeks later, I was switched to percussion (I wasn't playing the flute so well, according to the band teacher) and have enjoyed it ever since.

Why should you play percussion, then? To start, the band section offers a versatility that other instruments cannot compare to; percussion instruments that are commonly included in band compositions include the snare drum and drum set, timpani, chimes, mallet instruments and smaller percussion, such as the triangle and the cymbals. Each instrument offers a different play-style and always provides a challenge; if you are already in charge of the cymbals on one piece of music, you can choose to play the snare drum on another, or the bongos or something else that is available. The band pieces that are the most fun are the ones with the most percussion instruments – trust me. And with the snare drum and most other percussion, there is no scale of notes to learn, simply play-style and rhythm.

However, mallet instruments such as the xylophone, vibraphone, glockenspiel (or bells), chimes and marimba all require learning how to read and play scales. This, of course, is not a bad thing; learning how to read these notes later provides versatility in learning to play other instruments in the band, or even just goofing around on the piano (hey, you know the notes, so why not learn to play the Mario theme song?). Aside from this, mallet instruments can be very exciting to play. Trickier band pieces sometimes include fast-paced, intricate mallet rhythms and solos that can sound epic when mastered. In my high school orchestra, I got to play the bells for a compilation of music from the musical Wicked, for the section called “Defying Gravity”. It was some of the most fun I've ever had playing percussion. Look up the song, listen about a minute from the end, and you'll get the idea.

Playing the timpani also requires being able to read notes, and not only that – playing timpani involves tuning the notes onto the drums. Depending on the piece, you may need three or four of the different-sized drums alone to get through the band piece, and oftentimes (depending on the difficulty of the piece) need to change notes while playing. It looks and sounds daunting, but can be some of the greatest fun you've ever had playing a drum. Chances are you don't know what the timpani are, but once you look them up and listen to them, you will; they are featured in a lot of band and orchestra music, and are very distinctive and powerful. Played with strength and volume, they can be a great driving force in the piece. That, and it's hard to not have fun while playing the timpani. I played the timpani for most of my time in band at college, and I came out of it feeling more confident, both as a percussionist and as a person.

Another perk to playing percussion is a strong grasp of rhythm and timing, something that (believe it or not) does not always come easily to someone who might grow up learning to play a different instrument. As a percussionist, part of your duty is being the backbone of the band in terms of keeping time. If the percussion section is falling behind, it's a lot easier for the rest of the band to lag behind, partially because it is easier for other sections of the band to fall back on the percussion for a sense of timing in the piece. With the flutes and clarinets playing all of their crazy melodies, sometimes having a strong and in-time percussion section keeps everyone in line. More importantly, percussionists are taught via numerous rhythm exercises, such as rudiments, since a lot of music incoropates certain percussion rolls or rhythms that are played with certain accents or sticking that make it easier to play at a faster pace. Because of this, percussionists get drilled a lot more often in rhythm than some other instruments.

So, if you're thinking of playing in the band in your school but you can't decide what instrument to choose, perhaps you should consider percussion. Granted, percussion is not the only “fun” section to play in – any instrument can be entertaining if you enjoy playing it, and there are plenty of others with which you can be loud and play tricky rhythms. However, if you are looking for versatility, percussion can give that to you. You may just be interested in the snare drum, and that's fun, but why not try some of the other percussion instruments at your disposal along the way? Learning an instrument can take a lot of work, especially learning a few, but the surge of energy and elation you get playing your part at the next concert is well worth the effort, especially when it involves banging out notes on some percussion.


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