Dear Straight Dope:
Every time I watch the symphony on television, I see a man in the back playing the wood block and wind chimes. Where does this guy come from? Are there children who say, "When I grow up, I want to play with the Philharmonic on triangle?"
"LoboCop" Ian replies:
Nick, man, first off, there are better places to see the symphony than on TV. Even in Albuquerque. The thing about TV is, they really only put the camera on people who are doing something integral to the action (excepting, as always, Sabrina the Teenage Witch). You never see, for instance, the point that comes in every concert when the viola player on the fourth stand scratches his armpit with his bow. What you also never see is the performer finishing his 12 measures of wood block, putting it down, walking over to the suspended cymbal, playing one long crescendo, putting down the cymbal sticks, grabbing the snare drum sticks, and playing a 12-measure cadence.
Part of the artistry of playing percussion in a large symphonic ensemble is switching from instrument to instrument, all while counting rests, without making a sound. Harder than it looks–most percussion instruments are made to make sounds when they are moved in some way. Percussion players choreograph their movements prior to performance to avoid having to drop the crash cymbals on the ground and run over to the triangle stand. In fact, percussion players, requiring much more physical training than other instrumentalists, often take dance courses. At the University of New Mexico, right by you, there, Nick, it’s actually a requirement for percussion majors, and UNM has one of the most renowned percussion ensembles in the country.
Typically what you get in a band or orchestra is one or two mallet parts (that is, xylophone, marimba, vibraphone, etc.) played by designated players who remain on that set of instruments for the whole piece; a tympani part also permanently assigned; and then 2-3 designated percussion parts, which will include everything from bass drum to castanets to gong to cannon. If you had to pay scale to some dork just to play the wind chimes, you’d understand why this is done. Pro orchestras and such often designate a tympani chair, so that lucky guy or gal never has to do an instrument change in the middle of the piece, and other groups hire someone specifically for melodic percussion. Trust me, it’s every bit as demanding as playing in the wind section, ergo 15 times harder than playing strings. In short, there may be people who grow up wanting to play the triangle, but most of ’em flunk out and go to business school instead.
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