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What’s so impressive about drumming?

By Meghann Wilhoite


November is International Drum Month, so declared by the Percussion Marketing Council. Percussionists are often the most underrated performers in the world of music, perhaps because specialized instruments aren’t strictly necessary: anyone with an upturned bucket or even just two hands to clap can engage in percussion pretty much anywhere.

But drumming is harder than it looks. Let’s take a listen to Steve Reich’s appropriately named piece Drumming [sub req'd].

“What’s so impressive about this?” you might say. Well, for fun, take a pencil in each hand and alternate tapping them in a pattern of your choosing. Now have someone do the same pattern next to you, while you each subtly change the pace of the pattern independently of each other. This technique is called phasing, a signature move in Reich’s pieces. Were you successful?

Beyond being able to perform complex time shifts, most percussionists are also skilled at playing any number of percussion instruments, from the kit to the marimba to countless jangling, clanging things. For example, check out the dizzying array of instruments being used by yarn|wire to perform Music for a Summer Evening (Makrokosmos III) by George Crumb:

And, occasionally, percussionists are asked to play such unfamiliar instruments as 2×4 pieces of wood, as in Michael Gordon’s recent work Timber:

But let’s not forget the kit players, who must be the most coordinated people in the world, playing different rhythms not only in both hands, but also both feet. Neil Peart of Rush comes to mind:

No post on percussion is complete without mention of Dame Evelyn Glennie, the deaf percussionist who performed so impressively at this year’s Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games. Check out her performance of “Libertango” for solo marimba:

Though I’ve only talked about a few different styles of drumming here, the different types of drumming are quite vast and fascinating. Why not celebrate International Drum Month by looking up some “talking drum” videos, playing in a drum circle, or making plans to head to Basel next year for their annual fife and drum event?

Meghann Wilhoite is an Assistant Editor at Grove Music/Oxford Music Online, music blogger, and organist. Follow her on Twitter at @megwilhoite. Read her previous blog posts on Sibelius, the pipe organ, John Zorn, West Side Story, and other subjects.

Oxford Music Online is the gateway offering users the ability to access and cross-search multiple music reference resources in one location. With Grove Music Online as its cornerstone, Oxford Music Online also contains The Oxford Companion to Music, The Oxford Dictionary of Music, and The Encyclopedia of Popular Music.

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