The Art of Percussion Playing – Stephen Yalden
In the last of the series in which some of the SA banding world’s pre-eminent players discuss the role of their particular instrument within the brass band, Stephen Yalden, currently a member of the USA Western Territory Staff Band and formerly of the International Staff Band, focuses on the role of percussion.
I have been playing percussion for nearly 50 years and have seen some significant changes during that time. In my days as a junior band member, the music we played only required the use of snare drum, bass drum, cymbal and, occasionally, triangle, and the only addition needed for senior bands was a set of timpani. Surprisingly, percussion was not allowed at all at the National Brass Band Championships of Great Britain until as late as 1973, when the Championship Section introduced it for the first time in its history going back to 1900. Since the 1960s, there has been a huge increase in the number and variety of percussion instruments used and these days most contesting bands use three or four percussionists, depending on what is required.
I remember as a young lad listening over and over to the ISB’s 75th anniversary recording of The Call of The Righteous, trying hard to learn the snare drum solo off by heart, and it was a thrilling moment for me when, as a teenager, I finally got to play it with the South London Youth Band. In those days, the ISB still only used snare drum, bass drum and timpani and the occasional glockenspiel and only needed two percussionists. I recall using the glockenspiel for the first time with James Curnow’s Guardian of our way in 1975, and later, in 1976, in Major Leslie Condon’s masterpiece, Song of the Eternal, which had the added dimension of the bell’ effect. It was some time later that we finally introduced the drum set to the ISB, and, even then, we had to employ some diverse tactics to accomplish it! I recall the flugel horn solo So glad arriving on the ISB stands one Wednesday evening in 1982 and Bandmaster Colonel Ray Bowes announcing that the band would be playing it at the forthcoming Bandmasters Councils Festival at the Royal Albert Hall.
Robert Foster was the soloist and he suggested I play the set to give the piece a swing feel, so I asked Colonel Bowes if he was happy for the set to be used. In his own inimitable way, he calmly replied that there was no need and “the snare and bass would do perfectly well.” However, Robert and I decided between us that if we smuggled my drum set into the Albert Hall and positioned it behind the basses, the Colonel wouldn’t notice, and that is exactly what we did! I still don’t really know whether Colonel Bowes realised what we had done, but he never mentioned it and, some years later, when I came clean and confessed he just gave me a knowing smile!
By the 1990s, the drum set was used more, as the music being written then needed it. Barrie Gott’s Daniel and Light-Walk are two pieces that spring to mind, and I remember the first performance of the latter at the Bandmasters’ Councils Festival causing quite a stir! By my return to the ISB in 1993 after a gap of eight years, more percussion instruments were being introduced to the SA band repertoire. Two timpani were no longer sufficient, as composers were now writing for three or four, and tuned percussion, such as xylophone and tubular bells, were also required, and I remember the band purchasing three new timpani and a xylophone. Bandmaster Stephen Cobb introduced Robert Redhead’s Isaiah 40 to our repertoire and the piece certainly stretched the band, including the percussion section!
Many of the leading bands in the Salvation Army now have at least three players to cover all the parts written and I am privileged to be one of the three that play with the US Western Territorial Staff Band. One of us covers the drum set part, one the mallets and auxiliary parts and one the timpani part. To be a percussionist these days, one is required to have a vast knowledge of all the instruments and have the appropriate sticks/ mallets, and necessary technique to play them. Some composers actually recommend certain mallets for certain sounds, as in Peter Graham’s Renaissance, where a cymbal is required to be placed on a timpani head and rolled with soft mallets while the pedal is raised and lowered, causing the pitch of the cymbal to go up and down.
Occasionally a new percussion instrument will be requested, and not all bands will have the appropriate instrument at their disposal. On these occasions we have to be creative, and I remember when the ISB were recording Peter Graham’s Blazon there was one chord written a vibraphone, which we did not have. If you listen very carefully to the recording you may be able to tell that the chord was played on a keyboard, with the vibraphone effect. The Army now has many fine percussionists, and as composers continue to write more challenging percussion parts, there will be more demand for new instruments. Even the Unity Series now requires drum set, glockenspiel and timpani. This is exciting, and offers more opportunities for young people to learn percussion, but, unfortunately, the cost of the instruments may limit their use in some corps. Most of the leading bands would require the following percussion instruments: three or four timpani, drum set, bass and snare drum, crash cymbals, glockenspiel, xylophone, tam tam, tubular bells, wind chimes, auxiliary percussion (tambourine, triangle, wood blocks, maracas, etc.) and mallets for all the above instruments.
It will be interesting to see what the next 50 years has in store for the brass band percussion section. Maybe, eventually, this myriad of sounds may all be produced electronically, although I hope not, as it would be a real shame to lose the art of real percussion playing in our bands.