Playing percussion involves a lot more than just learning to play a musical instrument. Percussionists, or those brave souls who play percussion in orchestras and music bands, actually need to master a variety of instruments to do their jobs.
Percussion instruments are easier to play than other instruments from the woodwind, string, or brass families. There are a few more complicated percussion instruments that are not so easy to play, and then there are several that are very easy to learn and require less technical skill.
So what exactly are percussion instruments, and how are they different from the other instrument families? Let’s have a look at the characteristics of percussion instruments and check out which ones are easier and why others are more difficult to play.
What Are Percussion Instruments?
Percussion instruments are items or devices that are usually struck, beaten, shaken, or scraped to generate sounds. The word percussion derives from the Latin, percussionem, which literally means “to strike.”
Keeping rhythm is the primary function of percussion instruments, but that is not where it stops. The clang of a cymbal, the dong of a gong, or the rattle of the maracas creates a different charge in melodies and makes music more vibrant and intense.
The most well-known types of percussion are the Latin, Classic, and Modern instruments, but these are not the only ones by far.
Latin percussion includes devices like the maracas, congas, and castanets. The timpani and bass drum are classic percussion instruments, and modern percussion is used in Rock ‘n Roll and Pop music.
Modern percussion is where your drum kit comes in, which can include a variety of percussion instruments, creatively used in different ways.
There are also some unusual ways to play percussion, and the sky’s the limit here.
You can use a handsaw, by bending and flapping it to create a very distinct sound, as well as handbells, boxes made from different materials, or even glass bottles filled with varying amounts of water (source).
The Easiest Percussion Instruments
Some percussion instruments are more straightforward to master than others, mainly because there are only so many sounds that you can get out of them with only a few techniques to use.
The Bass Drum
One of these is the bass drum, the big daddy of percussion instruments. It is a large drum that you play on both sides by hitting it with beaters that have soft heads.
If you think about a marching band, you can imagine the big drum that is strapped to someone’s torso, with them rhythmically beating first the one, then the other side of the drum.
In musical bands, you will see the bass drum with a foot pedal. Drummers play this drum with their feet to free up their hands for other percussion instruments.
The Djembe Drum
The djembe drum, aka, the “talking drum,” originated in Africa and was used as a communication device back in the day.
This drum is played by thumping your hands on the skin of the drum. There are three basic beats or tones that you can combine for a rhythm that comes from your soul.
Djembe drummers usually play them in drumming circles, where people come together to beat the drum—no sheet music, no rules (source).
Even though the guitar is classified as a stringed instrument, there is amazing percussion potential that people have been tapping into (pardon the pun) for years.
If you think about it, a guitar is a hollow wooden box, albeit in a distinct shape, but this still resembles a drum of some sort.
You can use your hands and fingers to create great sounds by slapping, knocking, rapping, rubbing, or scraping the guitar.
The strings stretched over this “drum in disguise” gives the musician even more sound options because it produces an entirely different sound when you bang on the strings instead of plucking them.
The idea of using a guitar as a percussion instrument brings to mind the fantastic sounds of August Rush in the movie of the same title. That kid had the right idea and the rhythm.
The More Difficult Percussion Instruments
There are percussion instruments that are more difficult to get the hang of either because there is a particular way to play them, or there are many different ways to play them to create various sounds.
These drums, also called kettle drums, resemble large bowls with animal skin or plastic stretched over the opening.
What makes these drums more challenging to play is the fact that they need to be tuned for a different pitch, depending on the music composition.
A percussionist playing the timpani in an orchestra could have up to four drums tuned to a different pitch, which he does with a foot pedal that is connected to the drumhead, loosening or tightening the skin.
These drums are vital to the orchestra because they not only keep the rhythm but also support the melody and the harmony by beating on the skin with what is called “felt-tipped mallets or wooden sticks” (source).
Playing this instrument gets especially tricky when you have to change the pitch of one the drums while you are in the middle of a performance.
The most popular North-Indian percussion instrument is probably one of the most difficult to learn. The tabla consists of two drums, one made of metal and one of wood, with goatskin stretched over the drumheads.
To further complicate things, there is also a hard disk in the middle of the drumhead made from an iron-mixed-with-rice combination, for more sound variety.
The drums also have “tuning blocks” used to vary the pitch, and these hang off the sides of the drums.
There are many variables in this instrument that make it difficult, but there are also fixed compositions that are like poems written in music, which tabla players learn off by heart. It is an instrument with deep roots in the spirituality of India (source).
This oversized xylophone can be over six feet wide, and you play it by hitting two, four, or even six mallets on the wooden bars to create notes. That means one, two, or three mallets in each hand for one marimba-player!
The wooden bars differ in size to create different sounds. The thicker and longer the bar, the heavier the sound produced. On the other end of the spectrum, you have the thinner, shorter bars for higher-pitched notes.
That explains why this percussion instrument can be hard to learn. Firstly, it is very big, and musicians need to travel from one end to the other for different notes.
Then, there are the mallet techniques, which refers to how many mallets you hold in one hand and how you roll the mallets to strike the bars.
Finally, you have to understand which bars to hit to create the specific notes you need for the song or melody that you are playing.
It is best to learn the notes beforehand because trying to read music that you have not seen before is almost impossible with this large instrument.
Benefits of Playing Percussion Instruments
Whether you are playing the percussion as a full-time job, skilled at many instruments, or you merely want to learn a new skill, there are many benefits to playing percussion instruments.
Because percussion instruments are about hitting, slapping, or shaking, we need to use our hands (or feet) to make sounds. This physicality increases our coordination skills by matching the movement of our limbs with what we are hearing.
Percussion instruments also encourage working with both the left and the right hand. This is an excellent practice for ambidexterity, which gives you a distinct advantage in life in general.
You can also relieve stress through the rhythmic sounds and concentration needed to get the beat right. Beating bigger drums at a quick pace also gets rid of frustrations that cause stress in the first place through the sheer physical exercise.
Finally, there is also the rhythmic and kinesthetic awareness that playing the percussion instruments bring. Rhythm is so important in all aspects of life, as is movement or kinesthetics.
As humans, we are made to move and with a rhythm at that, so becoming more aware of how your body moves and finding your rhythm is a great benefit that percussion gives you.
Most percussion instruments, especially the ones you cannot tune, are easier to play than woodwind, string, or brass instruments. The latter instrument families have a lot more technical skills involved when learning to play them.
But, if you want to become a percussionist, you will have to master the skills of a good percussion player and also learn a variety of instruments.
This makes it more difficult because you can’t just be good at one thing. You will be expected to play an array of instruments with rhythm and precision.