I can’t tell you how many times I have been stared at blankly when I use the word percussionist. My uncle teased me recently when I showed him my sparkling new business cards- “Pear-shoosh-un-ist… What the heck is a “Pearshooshunist!?” he asked.
I laughed, but internally cringed because I knew this reaction was probably more common than people let on to me. Usually the silence and cricket sounds are all I hear.
My very technical definition of a percussion instrument is anything you can hit on. Junk. A metal sheet. Pans. Bowls. Bicycle spokes. Your stomach. Or the more classical, traditional instruments such as a bass drum, cymbals, gongs, glockenspiel, xylophone, timpani, drum set, marimba (or, as my high school bestie used to call it, the “marumba”). Percussion instruments are things that are struck, either by a mallet, a hand, or another instrument. This is also why piano is considered to be a part of the percussion family, because the hammer strikes the string to create the sound.
Technically, to a percussionist, every object could be an instrument. I’m sitting in my room, looking around imagining the different sounds I could get just from a piece of furniture or hitting on the wood floor. Junk yards are gold to us; I have found many awesome instruments digging around storage areas on my dad’s farm (thanks dad).
Percussion is all about sound. It may seem easy to just hit something for a living, but there are different ways to get different sounds, and a finesse in finding how to do this consistently and musically. (So all our hours of practice really DO accomplish something!)
We have two types of instruments: the non-pitched instruments (like a snare drum) as well as the pitched, melodic instruments (like the xylophone).
Another common question is the difference between all of the pitched instruments-these are the instruments that kind of resemble a piano, except with wood or metal bars that are struck with a mallet. or four. (or bowed with a string bow, or lightly tapped with a finger, and the options go on and on…)
A glockenspiel, which we often call bells or glock for short, is small, metal, and very high pitched and piercing. A xylophone is made of wooden bars and has resonators, and is also high and piercing. The more mellow sounding vibraphone is metal, has resonators, and also has a pedal so it can sustain. The marimba is the gigantic one, with wooden bars, a huge range, resonators, and would take up half of my living room.
So as a percussionist, I hit things. And next time someone asks me what I do for a living, I think I’ll just keep it simple and tell them that.