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The Beat of a Different Drummer

Percussionists master dozens of instruments. Percussion ensemble music often uses a variety of instruments to convey the message intended by the composer.

Percussionists master dozens of instruments. Percussion ensemble music often uses a variety of instruments to convey the message intended by the composer.

BY Karen O’Brien

Under the direction of Dr. Adam Rappel, the UWSP Percussion Ensemble will present its spring concert on April 14 at 7:30 pm in Michelsen Hall of the Noel Fine Arts Center in Stevens Point.

This year the ensemble will offer a very challenging program that includes “Sacrificial Rite” by David Gillingham, “Divertimento” by Takayoshi Yoshioka, “The Song of Quetzalcoatl” by Lou Harrison, and “Changes” by Bill Cahn. Three pieces will feature guest faculty: “Five Pieces for Clarinet and Percussion Orchestra” by Philip Parker featuring Andrea Splittberger-Rosen on clarinet, “Ostinato Pianissimo” by Henry Cowell featuring Jon Caldwell conducting, and “Coming Home” by Nathan Daughtrey featuring Patrick Lawrence on euphonium.

Incorporating traditional percussion instruments as well as some instruments you’ve likely never seen before, modern percussion performances are an adventure in sound.

“We will be using ten brake drums, which are literally the brake drums removed from old cars [that] are struck with mallets or hammers,” Dr. Rappel said. “We will also be using glass wind-chimes, a variety of whistles, and eight bass drums!”

Percussion instruments can be arranged in a variety of ways to maximize their efficiency for the performer. A timbale, a snare drum, and a floor tom are all mounted on stands to bring their heads to a uniform playing height.

Percussion instruments can be arranged in a variety of ways to maximize their efficiency for the performer. A timbale, a snare drum, and a floor tom are all mounted on stands to bring their heads to a uniform playing height.

Whereas small ensembles of woodwind instruments or strings have an established tradition of performance dating back hundreds of years, music written specifically for percussion ensembles is a 20th Century phenomenon.

“The percussion ensemble is a rather new form of ensemble. It really hasn’t been around for very long, maybe 60 years or so,” Dr. Rappel said. “That being said, we don’t really have the luxury like orchestras or pianists do of possessing a repertoire that has stood the test of time.

“If you perform in an orchestra, you know that Beethoven is always going to be good — his works have had hundreds of years to prove themselves. We are still trying to figure out what the classics are for our ensemble. However, there are composers that have truly pushed the percussion ensemble to new heights, such as Lou Harrison, Henry Cowell, and John Cage, among many others. Recently, with the virtuosity of percussionists extending the boundaries of performance possibilities, composers have written fantastic pieces. I am really excited to see what happens in the next ten years!”

The UWSP Percussion Ensemble musicians are include Oemig, Gina Sayler, Curtis Hanson, John Leja, Katie Hansen, Austin Gafner, Aly Evans, Terra Jansma, Bri Trainor, Kel Kelley, Dan Kellner, and Tom Ford.

“Chamber music is a tremendous opportunity for students to serve not only as performing musicians but also as ensemble directors,” Dr. Rappel explained. “It allows students to have a large voice in the direction of the music. They are able to shape the piece, or phrase things a certain way, and be a bit more liberal in their decision-making. In an orchestra, the conductor serves most of that purpose. In chamber music it truly is a communal effort from everyone in the group.”

“Multi-percussion” means that a performer will be using several different instruments to play a given piece. Pictured are bells, crotales, xylophone, tom-toms, snare drum, and suspended cymbal.

“Multi-percussion” means that a performer will be using several different instruments to play a given piece. Pictured are bells, crotales, xylophone, tom-toms, snare drum, and suspended cymbal.

There are professional percussion ensembles performing around the world. If you are interested in learning more about these incredible musicians, Dr. Rappel recommended several groups that have a presence on the Internet.

“Because our ensemble is so new, there is one professional ensemble that every single percussion group in the world would most likely recommend, and that is NEXUS. Because of this group, we are able to use the percussion ensemble as a professional ensemble to perform and interact with audiences around the world.”

The ground-breaking group NEXUS was formed in Toronto in 1971 and continues to perform live around the world.

“Kroumata [formed in Sweden in 1978] is another group like NEXUS that has greatly influenced the percussion and music world,” Dr. Rappel said. “Other groups to check out are So Percussion, Jovan Percussion Project, Akadinda, Maraca2, and Percadu.”

Join the UWSP Percussion Ensemble on April 14 for an unforgettable evening of music. It’s a concert you won’t want to miss.

Karen O’Brien is a freelance writer and percussionist.

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