Have you ever played in a chamber setting with a non-percussionist? Did you know that some musicians need to breathe between notes as opposed to whenever they feel like it? Have you ever noticed that some instruments can sustain sound without repeatedly striking their instrument? Is it really true that a quarter note might sound differently than an eighth note followed by an eighth rest? Obviously I’m being quite sarcastic – we know all of these things to be true. Most, if not all of us, have played in a band or orchestra, accompanied a choir, etc., but in those cases, we are often partnering with other percussionists and focused on our own section, and the string and wind players are just those people we listen to while we count measures of rest. Chamber playing with mixed instruments is quite different, much more interactive, and can be extraordinarily beneficial to our musicianship as percussionists, particularly if we carefully observe our fellow ensemble members and incorporate some of those observations into our playing.
There are of course, several benefits to chamber playing in general, regardless of the instrumentation. Chamber rehearsal and performance is typically done without a conductor, requiring performers to communicate tempo and entrances and cooperatively evaluate and demonstrate such musical elements as style, articulation, etc. With only one player per part, every player is essentially a soloist – if one person fails to show up or misses a measure of music, their voice does not exist. Additionally, while every part and player is exposed to the audience almost as much as in a solo, they are also dependent and interlinked with at least one other individual, requiring cooperation and attention to ensemble skills such as balance, blend, tempo uniformity, intonation, and rhythmic precision.
Beyond the benefits of chamber playing in general, there exist several additional benefits of playing in a chamber ensemble with non-percussionists. Inherently, wind players must breathe in a manner deliberately connected with the music. The necessity of a breath before an entrance can improve the ensemble accuracy of that entrance because of the uniform preparation. Additionally, the necessity of breath between phrases forces the individual player and ensemble to address the type of release and entrance used for the end and beginning of those respective phrases. When playing with non-percussionists, the influence of breathing connected with music should improve our ensemble awareness at entrances and releases, make us more aware of phrases, and ideally transfer to our performances with percussionists. Unlike percussion instruments that immediately begin to decay after being struck, wind and string instruments may be sustained or even grow in volume over the duration of a note. As percussionists, we emulate sustain by means of rolls, but listening to the natural sustain of non-percussion instruments can inform our aural concept of sustain and help us make our rolls more smooth. Less specifically, but equally importantly, simply striving to initiate a sound or imitate the sound of a violinist or clarinetist can change how we view the simple act of striking the bar with a mallet. Listening and emulating will inevitably help us to be more aware of every element of our stroke, rebound, playing spot, mallet choice, etc. and how each influences our sound.
I am extremely fortunate, personally and professionally, to be married to a non-percussionist musician. I am also quite thankful to have played in chamber settings with many different vocalists and instrumentalists. Even given all that interaction, I am still learning from mixed chamber ensemble playing and greatly hope for those continued opportunities. I have much to learn about percussion and much to learn from other percussionists, but I have even more to learn about music and there are so many musicians who make sounds in different ways than I do, and I hope you share my excitement about playing and learning from as many of them as possible.