Writing for Winter Percussion

Over the last decade working with Homestead Percussion in Cupertino, California, director and music arranger Dave Sankus and I have put together a musical checklist for indoor writing.

We learned everything the hard way, so maybe this list can help you avoid some of our mistakes.

Musical Focus

Every phrase in a show should have a clearly defined focus. Who am I supposed to be listening to? Is it a snare moment with background front ensemble? Is the virtuosity of the front ensemble the most important element? Is it a loud unison end of phrase?

Whatever it is, define it, write it that way, and make sure the whole staff understands it, so the viewer is clearly led through the show knowing who to watch when.

It’s not about everyone playing all the time. The solution is usually to take things out, not add things in.

Range

The basketball court is not a football field. Some instruments speak very differently in a gym. On the quads, drums three and four should be used primarily at the end of phrases for impacts, not for crazy around patterns—the articulation just gets lost. Focus your notes on the top drums.

Similarly with bass lines, bass four and five don’t always speak clearly, and that sextuplet run sounds very washed out when played on the bigger drums.

When keyboards are playing over the top of quads and basses, stick to the upper registers where the keys will complement the drum sound and not get swallowed up by it. Use suspended cymbal and gong sparingly, as they can easily cover up the battery. Use a towel on the concert bass to keep tones short.

Tempo

Moving around a gym floor at 140 or 160 beats per minute looks and feels very slow. (Note: This tempo can certainly be appropriate for younger drumlines.) We focus on two tempo ranges: 180 to 185 is a tempo where triplet rolls sound great and movement is exciting; 210 to 220 is great for duple patterns and five-let rolls and can still be visually achieved (albeit with much smaller step size).

Follow these guidelines, and you’ll be off to a good start!