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Do percussionists want composers to specify which sticks to use?


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Hello!

When composing a symphonic work that includes timpani, xylophone, and suspended cymbal, should the composer specify which sticks to use? Is it irritating as a percussionist to be told which sticks to use, or do you like being given specific instructions? If percussionists prefer to make their own choices, I am happy to give them that freedom, and will instead just indicate dynamics.  Thanks for the advice!

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Hi Seni,

I'm not a percussionist, but a conductor. Generally, it's best to leave the mallet choice up to the player. They'll work to realize the dynamics and articulations you've put down. The exception is when you want a specific effect, such as wooden mallets (like at the beginning of Mars, the Bringer of War). In that case you would specify.

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I played percussion in my college orchestra. I don't think a player would be offended if you at least mentioned the hardness or the material of the mallet you want. Especially if you've an effect before and really want that sound, like big fuzzy mallets for a soft timpani sound,ppp.

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  • 1 month later...

I want to hijack this topic to make a point which I think is pertinent which often goes unsaid. The point is:

Be as SPECIFIC as you NEED to be. This goes for -everything- you write, for any instrument in any kind of style. As noted by a previous poster, if you NEED a specific sound then you NEED to be specific about what kind of technique and/or auxiliary means are necessary to get it done.

The second point (surprise!) is this:

If a musician, for any reason, complains about you being specific, they are being a nuisance and should be kil--disregarded. Yes, that sounds awfully harsh, but the truth is that you probably were being specific for a reason, right? You weren't just saying that you meant the violinist to use a soft toothbrush on the G string for literally no reason, right? If you have the conviction (as you should) that what you're writing is exactly what you want, then you must be prepared to stand and defend your idea. This is what makes us (composers,) kind of a pain but at the same time where much of the admiration comes from. We command power but with that power comes the responsibility to actually stand behind your ideas even if the entire string section hates you for ever and ever.

 

There will be other string sections out there, but there's only one of you.

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So I know this thread is nearly two months old by this point but I realized I could actually contribute.

As a percussionist who's played a large variety of works, I don't mind at all composers specifying mallets. Just last night I played a piece by Elena Kats-Chernin where I had to do a cymbal roll with my fingers, a cymbal roll with brushes, and a cymbal roll which was unspecified so I went with the default soft mallets. I've had mallets specified for mallet instruments, for snare drum, timpani, cymbals, gong, tubular bells, temple blocks, anything where you can get multiple sounds out of it.
I also recently wrote a work for wind band where I did specify some mallet choices - for example, specifying 'hard yarn' both for a xylophone bit and a temple blocks bit (the percussionist would have just assumed plastic/wood otherwise, which wasn't the sound I wanted), or 'soft yarn' for a particular marimba part (where I knew the percussionist would have gone with harder sticks otherwise). I did not specify mallets for every single bit though, because I knew what the default choices were and that's often what I wanted.

I love when composers specify mallets because it shows they've put some thought into the possible sounds that can be produced, and that they care which one is used. I hate, however, when a composer specifies a mallet or a particular sound and I look at it and go 'huh? I don't understand what they want' which happens very occasionally, because then I feel like I'm going against the composer's wishes no matter what I do. I've seen 'rim shot' specified when what the composer actually wanted was for me to hit the side of the drum. I've made fruitless attempts to do a snare drum roll with timpani mallets. I don't even really understand why Kats-Chernin wanted me to hit a cymbal with my fingers - it was barely audible.
SSC said it - 'Be as specific as you need to be'.

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On 3/31/2017 at 5:31 AM, SSC said:

Be as SPECIFIC as you NEED to be. This goes for -everything- you write, for any instrument in any kind of style. As noted by a previous poster, if you NEED a specific sound then you NEED to be specific about what kind of technique and/or auxiliary means are necessary to get it done.

Absolutely this. Too many of my students come to me with these elaborate setups with specific measurements and positions, and I have them redo them. That's too much. 

If our job is to promote specific sounds, why would we not label certain percussion sounds. It's likely the most diverse of any of the instruments so being specific is good. 

But not too specific. 

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