Developing the Front Line Percussion Ensemble
by: Brian Mason

Reprinted with permission from Percussive Notes, vol. 30, no. 3

Marching bands of today are utilizing a wider variety of concert percussion instruments than ever before. This recent growth has increased the emphasis of percussion in the school music program and helped to give more students experience with tuned and accessory percussion instruments. When these instruments are grounded off the marching field and played in the area in front of the band, they are commonly referred to as the Front Line Percussion Ensemble or Pit section. This section has not only developed into a more integrated voice with the wind texture, but has become a more prominent element of the percussion ensemble itself.

"How can I get my 'Pit' section to project their sound to the press box and audiences without damaging the instruments?"

Mallet selection is a primary concern in achieving a characteristic quality of sound and texture while projecting the sound at a great distance. Obviously, a mallet that is characteristic for each instrument is a good choice and can also be utilized for all other indoor solo and ensemble situations. The larger and heavier models of commercially available mallets help the player put more weight into the instrument while producing optimum tone. Avoid using extremely hard mallets to simply play louder. On most mallet keyboard instruments an extremely hard or brittle sounding mallet will only project a harsh attack and none of the characteristic fundamental tone.

Rattan or fiberglass shafts on the keyboard mallets seem to last longer and help the player to transmit more weight into the bar than do the birch handles. Most fiberglass and rattan shafts offer a bit more rebound off the keyboard instrument as well. For projection of a more characteristic timpani sound, the "general" weight mallets should be the softest mallets used outdoors. As with keyboard mallets, large-headed timpani mallets will tend to help in projection of tone.

"How do I effectively arrange music for this section?"

Scoring is another consideration for proper use of outdoor concert instruments. For example, if the brass section is playing a tutti passage at mezzo forte or above, a marimba player who is doubling the first trombone part will probably not be heard. Therefore, the marimba scoring should be edited instead of having the marimba player simply overplay the instrument. When scoring for the Pit section, one must look at the occasions when simple doubling of wind parts is ineffective and consider alternatives such as:

* researching the original score for parts the band arranger may have left out.
* adding color through the use of chord tones available within the harmonic structure.
* creating countermelodies to add rhythmic and/or melodic support to the existing melodies.
* adding ostinato figures to give more motion, tension and emotion to the music.
* creating passages that rhythmically double the field percussion parts to provide a more unified ensemble sound from the entire percussion section.

* adding new and creative sounds that enhance the music with a vast array of unique percussive timbres for color and texture.

These suggestions should offer inspiration for melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic ideas that may give the piece a new character, while adding a fresh interpretation as well.

"What techniques should I teach to my students in order to achieve a good quality of sound and a uniform style that will enhance their performance?"

Students must be made aware that in order to project a body of sound they should not 'pound' on the instruments. They must play with a style indicative of the music they are performing and approach the instrument with maturity. In order to attain the qualities needed to enhance the music, as well as the musician, the teacher must always remind the student of these points.
Utilization of the "piston stroke" or "legato stroke" is a good place to begin forming proper technique. This stroke contains only one quick downward/upward motion. The wrist begins in an upright position and, after striking the instrument, immediately returns to the beginning position utilizing a full-wrist stroke. This movement should feel like one wrist motion, not two separate wrist motions.

Quite often, beginners start their training with the "down stroke". In this stroke, the player lifts the wrist and then hammers the instrument leaving the wrist in a flat position until the next lift. This style tends to limit much of the instrument's tone and projection, (although the player may seem to be playing harder). Practice the piston stroke at a slower tempo to help achieve a more relaxed motion while increasing the amount of tone and projection from the instrument.

As the musical demands on the Front Line Percussion Ensemble player continue to grow, so must the knowledge of arranging the music and teaching the students. Proper orchestration, teaching of style and technique and good quality equipment must be provided in order to achieve maximum contribution from the Pit section. Most of all, a new emphasis in pedagogy and the performance practices of these students will help to further their abilities and musical experiences as young percussionists.


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M81: Soft yarn mallet designed for low end marimba. Perfect for roll passages. L = 17 1/8"

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M83: Very hard cord mallet designed for the high register on marimba and vibes. L = 16 1/8"

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M85: Medium hard cord vibe mallet for general and aggressive passages. L = 16 1/2"