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  • Writer's pictureNathan Coles

Obsession or Necessity: Cultivating an Ear for Sonic Diversity with Percussion Instruments

Written by Black Swamp Educator, Norman Weinberg. Originally published in 2016.

Obsession or necessity?

Norman Weinberg explores the nuanced art of selecting percussion instruments, emphasizing the importance of cultivating an ear for sound variety and quality from an early stage in musical education. Through vivid analogies and personal anecdotes, Weinberg highlights the necessity for percussionists to have access to a diverse array of instruments to develop their musical sensitivity and make informed sonic decisions, akin to selecting the perfect wine for a gourmet meal.

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Meet the Author

black swamp percussion educator, norman weinberg

Norman Weinberg (A Black Swamp Educator), a distinguished percussionist and educator, boasts a remarkable career spanning over 38 years in university teaching. Holding a Performer’s Certificate from Indiana University and a Doctor of Musical Arts degree, Weinberg has mentored numerous students who have gone on to achieve success as professional performers and educators. Renowned for his expertise, Weinberg has performed with prestigious orchestras worldwide under the baton of esteemed conductors such as Leonard Bernstein and Yehudi Menuhin.

A prolific author with nearly 300 published articles, Weinberg's contributions to the field of percussion extend beyond performance to include significant pedagogical and technological advancements. His groundbreaking books, including "The Electronic Drummer" and "Guide to Standardized Drumset Notation," have set global standards in percussion education. Recognized for his outstanding service and contributions, Weinberg has received accolades such as the Maestro Award from the University of Arizona School of Music and Dance and the Charles and Irene Putnam Excellence in Teaching Award. As a Yamaha, Vic Firth, and Zildjian Performing Artist, Weinberg continues to inspire and educate percussionists worldwide through his publishing company, VAP Media, LLC, dedicated to preserving and promoting percussion history and literature.

Obsession or Necessity

"...the truth is that we're not like other musicians. We get to play much more than any other instrumentalist in band or orchestra. We get to play - with sound."

We've all heard the jokes and laughed at the memes on Facebook: "No, you don't need another [fill in the blank from the following selection: snare drum, triangle, cymbal, tambourine, bass drum mallet, etc.] But the truth is that we're not like other musicians. We get to play much more than any other instrumentalist in band or orchestra. We get to play - with sound.

Try this experiment: close your eyes and in your mind's ear, call up the perfect trumpet or flute sound. I'll bet that you didn't have too much trouble doing this. My guess is that most musicians would envision sounds that are pretty similar. After all, practically every instru­ment has a set shape, size, construction material, and method of operation ... except percussion.

When you try this same mind's-ear experiment with the perfect snare drum, we'd all come up with very dif­ferent mental/aural images: diameter, depth, shell mate­rial, head material, snare material, tuning range, muf­fling, stick type, playing area, etc. The same goes with tambourines: diameter, shell material, jingle material, single row or double row, calf or plastic, even the humid­ity in the performance space!

Many bassoonists, oboists, trombonists, and other players own two instruments. They have their "best'' axe and they have a "secondary" instrument that they use when their top one is in the shop. This just won't work for a percussionist!

When there are so many different sounds available for an instrument, it's an absolute necessity that the profes­sional player use his or her musical knowledge, artistic sensitivity, experience, and EARS, to determine what is going to be the very best match for a particular piece or passage. You know the old adage: "If your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail". If you only own one triangle, then it's going to be the perfect choice for every piece you'll every play. As soon as you add the second instrument to your color palette, you can start making musical judgments as to which instrument is going to sound best.

When should percussionists begin to make these highly discriminating choices? As soon as possible! It breaks my heart to walk into a middle school or high school and see a percussion section with one triangle suspended by a shoelace. Not only does it sound horri­ble, the students have no chance of developing any sort of "ear" for the instrument they play. Give the students two, three, or four different triangles and all of a sudden, their ears will start to hear the differences between the instruments and they can start to THINK about the sound

that they are creating.

I've heard some university faculty state that their studio doesn't own any tambourines or triangles, because they want their students to buy their own. OK, I get it, but how is the student going to determine which instrument to get? Most university students are not flush with cash, and once they buy their own triangle, this instrument then becomes the hammer, and their ears don't develop. Here at the University of Arizona, we have a large selection of the accessory instruments so that our students start making sonic decisions the minute they walk in the door. At rehearsals and concerts, I try to guide them on their choices: Man, that suspended cymbal was perfect! Can you try a tambourine that's a little drier next time? I think that triangle is awesome for the first passage but per­haps too thin for the tutti. Switch to a darker one there.

Pairing the right percussion instrument to a piece of music is similar to pairing a wine to a meal. First, you have to start with a great quality wine that matches your taste and your sensibility. Then, you want to be able to select between a number of different wines so that you can make the right selection for the perfect fit! After all, you wouldn't want to pair the same wine with Grouper al Forno con Funghi Trifolati, as you would with fish tacos. Right?!

Author's note: I know nothing about selecting wine, let alone what "Funghi Trifolati" is. But I know about selecting percussion sounds!


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