Friday, November 5, 2010

Percussion Perspective

Contemporary culture puts great store on the latest technology and trends. Paradoxically, the traditional church has a tendency to scorn new ideas, instead clinging to tried and tested practices.This poses particular challenges for contemporarily minded musicians.

An Historical Perspective
Are those highly valued traditions really that old anyway? Pipe organs, for example, were unheard of for the first 1,500 years of Christendom. Prior to that church bands and a cappella singing were the order of the day. And in the early church scholars believe song was predominantly accompanied by percussion instruments.

But those old hymns were written for pipe organ, weren't they?
On the contrary, many of the oldest hymns are settings of old dance tunes, drinking songs, popular songs and patriotic anthems. Be Thou my vision (Slane) is Gaelic and hails from the 8th century (no pipe organs then my friend) and may be best accompanied with tin whistle and bodhran. Many other hymn tunes of Gaelic origin might be considered in the same light. All Creatures of our God and King (Lasst uns Erfreuen) and Praise to The Lord (Lobe den Herren) are thought to have originally been dances from northern Europe (think dancing and singing around a campfire here folks). Famously, Silent Night was written for guitar accompaniment after mice ate through the cathedral organ's bellows. But I digress!

The Trouble with Hymnbooks
Put a song into a hymnbook and you can be sure of one thing: many people will ignore its origin, assume the accompanying instrument should be the organ, and play at cathedral pace. Consequently many of our hymns are inapproprately hyper-harmonised in the traditional mould, diminishing one of the great strengths of our repertoire - global diversity.  God sends us his Spirit hails from Ghana. How many pipe organs do you think there are are in Ghana?

Using Percussion to Enlivening the Singing
Accompanying sung voices with percussion is the most effective way of ensuring the sung words are dominant. The more notes that are played by instrumentalists, the less weight is given to the sung text. Not only does harmonisation alter the mood of the song, but it also tends to slow its tempo or pace. Keep in mind that cathedral pace, neccesarily slow because of the reverberant acoustic in a cathedral, is irrelevent in most worship spaces. 

Advantages of Percussion Accompaniment

1. Most People Can
Most of those who come to worship can tap in time, and by extension will be able to play a simple beat. Fewer people, but still a goodly number, can play a simple complementary rhythm. It doesn't need to be complex. A simple beat on the first beat of the bar can be surprisingly effective. Most people will need to devote their entire attention to their percussion part, and refrain from singing.
2. Portability
There is no need for electricity and so percussion instruments have obvious advantages for stations of the cross, carol singing, worship-on-the-move, camps, and worship in the open air. Many larger drums can be hung across the body of their player by drumming straps.
3. Inexpensive
OK, so they can be very expensive, depending on what you choose to purchase. Claves, tone blocks and maracas are easily found at reasonable prices. A maraca egg can be bought for just a dollar or two. A quality tambourine or cabasa is a little more expensive, and good quality drums can set the heart rate apace!

However, fairs and fetes, local music shops and e-bay are great places to pick up a bargain. Washboards can occasionally be found in second hand shops - and I'll wager there are plenty of older folks who have an old one lying around in their shed.  Consider making your own instruments for a fraction of the price. Start by acquiring a great drum, the deeper the better, and build from there.

Getting Started - What to Play
I am not a fan of the everyone-pick-up-an-instrument-and-whack routine. We can do much better than that! Rather have two or three well-rehearsed people accompany a song with well-chosen rhythms. One person might simply beat a drum on the first beat of each bar, providing stability to the ensemble. A second could choose a brief and interesting rhythm from the song and play it several times throughout, leaving plenty of space inbetween. To get started, have a gander at my percussion suggestions for using The King of Glory Comes and Praise to the Lord. Better still, find out how to have a full-on A Cappella Sunday.

And another thing...
For drummers, faith communities can be a tough crowd, particularly those with a traditional music heritage. Take a look at this article, The Challenge of Playing Drums in Church by John Schmidli which offers practical solutions to some common pitfalls for young drummers.

You may also be interested in
Poll: How Does the Church Accompany Song in 2011?
Psalm 107 with Drum

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