college, and I began with cymbals leading to bass drum, where I found my home.
I now have over a quarter-century's experience playing all manner of miscellaneous
percussion in many groups (including an actual orchestra!), although I have never
learned to play snare.
One of the results of this particular background is that I played hundreds of
pieces for years and years and never actually had to play a sixteenth note in a
band. Not one. Over time my sight-reading improved to the point where the process of
determining a rhythm from the percussion part on the page was close to instinctive
(barring the occasional tricky passage, of course), but not if the music contained
Something else I never saw, ever, was ledger lines above the staff. Once I started
playing a little tympani I would see ledger lines below the bass clef, but not too far
below the staff and besides, tympani parts tend to be the basic notes of a chord. You
don't get melodic lines, or much in the way of sixteenth notes, for that matter.
About ten years ago the Minnesota Freedom Band lost its bell player, and I was
shanghaied into the part. A little piano background translates somewhat into being
able to play bells (aka glockenspiel), but not a lot. Fortunately for that first concert
the bell parts were all relatively simple and (to the extent this is possible on bells)
not particularly exposed. So I got to ease my way into playing.
Then we got a xylophone.
Xylophone parts and bell parts are quite distinct, in terms of what they require and
what they are doing musically in the arrangement. In general, bell parts are simple
melody lines or basic accent notes while xylophone parts are, well, xylophone parts.
They can be melody lines, or countermelodies written many ledger lines above the staff,
and quite often they are arpeggio-like runs of sixteenth notes. Unending arpeggio-like
runs of sixteenth notes, that require training and technique and practice. Sometimes
they require three or four mallets. If the piece is very slow and the chords are
separated by time I can sometimes handle the multi-mallet parts, but usually I just
determine what I think are the two most important notes of the required chord. That's
a xylophone trick that goes along with playing the first and third note of the sixteenth-
note four-note runs, or sometimes just the first note -- keeping absolutely in tempo and
pushing the first beat of each measure without any drag is far more important than
hitting every note on a fast run -- this is percussion, after all. Sometimes I think
those extra notes are just indulgences on the part of the arranger who probably thinks
the xylophone is merely a big piano keyboard.
In my last few seasons with the band, there were two or three pieces per concert that
required a xylophone. We'd get the music, and I'd look it over, and I would shout out
"Sixteenth notes! Oh no!". Yeah, sure, I can work out sixteenth notes, but unless
the line contains only sixteenth notes I need to count out the rhythm, which always
takes a lot longer than you have at pretty much any tempo. And then I would write in
the notes on my music if there were too many ledger lines, like a rank beginner, and I
would go up to the flute section during break and ask them how in the heck they do it.
("Oh, you just get used to it," they would say, or "You sort of see the ledger lines
as a separate staff" which at least made sense.)
Somehow this all worked well enough that the band thought of me as their mallet player,
and even the local gay/lesbian orchestra has called me in to play mallets on several
occasions (they hire a professional player if the part is quite difficult, though, and
I say good for them). The police band has several times gotten me to sight-read entire
concerts on the bell part. For the last few years, while I have been on break from band,
somebody else has been playing the bell parts (and they've been ignoring the xylophone
parts). That replacement is not playing this season, so they called me and pleaded and
I said sure, how hard could it be? Um, well, many many times harder than any previous
concert I have played.
Sixteenth notes! Oh no!
Variations on a Korean Folk Song is at least a piece I know. Its rhythms are
very tricky, but tricky rhythms (compared to runs of sixteenth notes) aren't much
of a problem for me. The xylophone part for An Irish Party in Third Class (from
"Back to the Titanic") seems to be a pennywhistle part written out for xylophone,
with lots of sixteenth notes scattered about the medley of jigs; you can't skip over
any of those notes, as they really are part of the melody. A medley from "Chicago"
ends with an accel. and a cres. poco a poco to that maddening tune about
"the gun, the gun, thegun, the gun, thegunthegun"; there are sixteenth notes galore,
and syncopation, and a tempo that stretches my technical expertise.
Last week they handed out an arrangement of Offenbach's Ballet Parisien.
Sixteenth notes! Oh no! But I looked at the Overture and the Allegro moderato
tempo and I could sight-read it pretty well in my head. Then the conductor raised
her baton and began, at twice the pace I had conceived. Yikes.
Last week as well, my third week back, they pulled out a piece that was commissioned
for the band last season which they had worked on hard and long (when I wasn't
around), a piece called Freedom Forever by a wonderful local musician and
former band member named Paul Schulz. Paul's work is brilliant, just brilliant,
and I've played another piece he wrote just for us, but being a brilliant composer
does not necessarily mean you know how to arrange for percussion. I looked at
the first page of the piece and my heart sank.
Dotted sixteenth notes! Oh no!
And you know what dotted sixteenth notes yield? Thirty-second notes!
This isn't a mallet part; this is a violin part.
It's to the woodshed for me. I have three weeks.