Two ensembles each play the same song. Both groups execute the correct pitches and rhythms, along with proper intonation and stylistic interpretation. Ensemble A turns in a very good performance, while Ensemble B’s rendition is superb. What made the difference? Perhaps it was extra attention to details by the members of Ensemble B. Subtle nuances can determine whether a performance is excellent or exceptional.

Are you paying attention to the details? Let’s examine a few areas where a little extra scrutiny will increase your level of performance.

The Right Tone
Perhaps you have struck a single shimmering note on the triangle during a song and noticed a few of your colleagues glance in your direction with a nod of approval. Whether by choice or chance, you produced an ideal triangle tone for that particular musical moment. Some timbres just fit in the mix better than others. Finding that impeccable timbre is part of the percussionist’s art.

Producing the appropriate tone requires both the means to shift between a variety of timbres and the willingness to experiment. I usually arrive at a rehearsal or recording session with multiple shakers, tambourines, and triangles along with dampening materials for drum heads and a case loaded with a variety of sticks, mallets, and brushes. It is common for me to “audition” a few tambourines during the rehearsal of a song until I settle on one for the actual performance. Be aware that slight changes in the striking area on some percussion instruments can make a significant difference in tone quality. Experiment until you find a fitting timbre.

Note Lengths
Listen to a single strike of a tambourine positioned with the shell parallel to the floor. Move the shell to a perpendicular position and strike the instrument again. You will hear the jingles ring for a moment in the perpendicular position while the parallel position yields a short tone. Experiment with all your percussion instruments to learn how to control note lengths. Develop the skills to play both short and sustained tones along with the ability to precisely stop sounds. Knowing how to control the length of a tone (even on tambourine) will assist you in creating better phrasing within your part and in conjunction with the other instruments. Focus on the entire ensemble as you play, and allow your discerning ear to guide you to tasteful decisions regarding note lengths.

The Correct Dynamic Level
Chan Teague, the principal percussionist of the Shreveport Symphony, passed along some simple wisdom to me regarding dynamics. Chan explained that there is a correct volume level to play your part so that it fits correctly into the musical phrase being performed by the ensemble at that particular moment. Although it seems like an obvious point to a mature musician, it can be easily overlooked. When playing in an amplified situation, we should not rely totally on the sound engineer to balance our playing within the overall mix. Listen carefully and strive to place your part at the correct volume within the ensemble.

Emphasis and Accents
Performer, composer, and educator H.A. VanderCook provided detailed instruction on musical phrasing in his book Expression In Music. The second chapter opens with a powerful sentence:

“With all the high-sounding titles that may be given to it, and no matter how poetically it may be described, expression in music consists of well-placed and intelligent accent or emphasis.”

Mr. Vandercook’s cogent statement holds true whether playing melody, harmony, or laying down a rhythmic groove. A light ghost note, a subdued accent, or a slight crescendo can create a significant difference in the sound of an accompaniment pattern.

Play and compare the sounds of Example #1 and Example #2.

Although both examples contain the same rhythm, the second pattern is transformed dramatically when performed with the notated expression markings and ghost notes. While certain accompaniment figures require a static dynamic level and little or no accents, many groove rhythms will benefit by applying Mr. VanderCook’s pronouncement regarding “well-placed accent or emphasis.”

Critical listening and evaluation, along with the ability to adjust, are key elements in fine-tuning your performance. Dig deeper into the details.

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