Working With Minimal Percussion(or with what you got!) and Keeping It Simple!!!

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Being a percussionist is pretty cool.  Perhaps I’m biased a bit?  Of course I’m biased but I’m also being truthful.  There’s an old saying in the drummer world: “A drummer is someone that beats on things and a percussionist is a musician!”  Of course, there’s also a myriad of jokes on all drummers and percussionists like: Q: “What did the drummer get on his I.Q. test?” A: “Drool…”  So I guess you have to take it all with a grain of salt.  However, I digress….

I guess one thing that appeals to me about playing percussion is the endless possibilities that are out there.  That’s great news for someone like myself, who can get bored and complacent pretty easily. I like to be challenged.  No one can truly master the art of percussion in a lifetime – there’s quite simply too many things to master!  (Check out my “Percussionist’s Dilemma” blog).  One moment you can play congas in a salsa band, the next moment tabla, maybe next you’re playing a melodic percussion instrument like steel pan, marimba or vibes, or the next moment you’re doing something totally off the wall like hitting a gong and dipping it into water to change the pitch.  I really can’t think of any other instrumentalists that have the world as their canvas like percussionists do.  Literally just about anything can be a percussion instrument, even your voice!

Sometimes this gets us into a bit of trouble.  You can have too much stuff.  I don’t know too many serious percussionists that aren’t also “collectors” of instruments.  And sometimes it can really be some weird and crappy stuff!  For instance, a few years ago I found a small mobile at a flea market made up of smashed spoons and forks.  Looks weird – sounds killer!  I bought it and to this day it has done absolutely nothing but sit in my collection.  This and a multitude of ‘instruments’ in my drumroom will hopefully someday find a use either in a session or a live gig.  Until then I’ll just continue to collect more – haha.

I’ll tell you one time that being a percussionist really isn’t much fun: loading gear.  Having a lot of gear at your disposal is a dangerous proposition when gig time rolls around.  You start thinking about what you need to do the gig and you load it up.  Then you start thinking some more… you might as well take that new toy you just spent $75.00 on but don’t know how to play, right?  Of course you’ll need a multi clamp or stand to mount it.  Well if you’re going to do that, you might as well take your whole trap table and since you can’t have an empty looking trap table let’s go ahead and grab that extra bag of toys…I think you’re getting my point on this one.  Now you have a truck or car load of gear and have to make 20 trips in and out to load in and onto stage!  Believe me – I’ve been there before.  And sometimes it’s actually warranted, especially if the music calls for certain instruments to be played.  There have been times when I’ve tried to take the least amount of gear as possible and it still takes up half of my truck!

So what’s my point here?  You signed up to be a percussionist so quit whining about hauling gear, right?  Well you’re correct on that one, but really my point is to get people to think about what you CAN do with a minimal set-up.  I’ll bet it’s a lot more than you think. If you’re really into the big set-up, go for it!  I can make my percussion set-up look as cool onstage as the next guy.  But can you play a shaker 20 different ways, or groove on a tambourine enough that even the horn players notice what you’re doing?  Could you survive on a gig “armed” with just a shaker, a tambourine, and let’s say a cajon?

What this really comes down to, in my opinion, is getting complete control and mastery over your instruments.  For this example I’m going to concentrate on the shaker.  (Tambourine and cajon will actually be covered in some separate upcoming blogs on other subjects).  Wow, sounds exciting doesn’t it???  The shaker has to be the easiest instrument to play, isn’t it?  Well perhaps in theory one could try to make that argument.  However, I disagree.  There’s a lot of nuances that can be achieved with something as simple as a shaker and again it goes back to having complete control.

When I was in college, Tom Miller talked about a simple concept that will enable anyone to play a shaker consistently and accurately every time.  He used the example of imagining a “bar” in the air in front of you.  With the shaker in front of you, move it over the bar, then under the bar, then repeat.  Sounds rudimentary doesn’t it?  Yeah – it is but it’s also a visual that people will never forget.  There have been times when I’ve seen other percussionists, singers, horn players, or whoever aimlessly attempting to rattle a shaker and have been able to “fix” their terrible playing within seconds of giving them this analogy.  Check out my “amazing” illustration below to show this easy 2 step process:

There are also other ways to gain complete control over your shaker technique.  One thing that I used to do awhile back and still do on occasion is to work on accented and unaccented notes.  Every shaker from an egg shaker to a rain stick has the ability to provide accented patterns.  What sometimes makes it difficult is that certain accents will land on an ‘upbeat’ and will require a slightly different technique.  Consider this age old accent pattern for snare drum and try it out with a shaker.  Remember that the unaccented notes are just as important, if not more, than the accented notes.  Also note that the “e’s” and “a’s” will be when you are pulling your shaker backwards thus producing a completely different motor challenge.

One other thing that you might notice when you really start paying attention to the sound of your shaker while doing these patterns is that different timbres can be achieved.  The accents produce a short, staccato sound.  Unaccented notes can either be short or can provide a more legato or “slushy” sound.  How about trying it without any accents at all?  Then of course you can begin experimenting with muting different parts of the shaker and using multiple shakers at once.  This is a fun one and is a good way to add an extra element to the music.  I got this idea from watching Luis Conte play a shaker in one hand and doing accents with caxixi in another.  Try all of these examples at different tempos and dynamics.

So as with most of my points that I try to make to students and most importantly myself, everything is always about being as musical as you can be.  That needs to be first and foremost, and the great thing is that the more musical you are, the better you’ll become and (theoretically) the more work you’ll get!  Sure we have all kinds of instruments to tackle as percussionists, but it’s not a race to the end.  Sometimes we need to look at what we’ve got around us and see how many ways we can use the tools at our disposal in a creative and unique way.  You can see how taking what some perceive as the easiest instrument for anyone to play; the shaker, and breaking it down really exposes the endless possibilities of adding new textures and sonic possibilities to your music.

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