Plink plink plink, tap tap tap, boom boom boom, crash crash crash, ding ding ding. Sounds good to me, but does it sound good to them? As we maintain our percussion instruments, by tuning or dampening or otherwise adjusting them to get the perfect sound, we often listen to them from only the player’s perspective that is, right next to the instrument. This of course makes a great deal of common sense: When we are alone tweaking and tuning it’s somewhat difficult to stand 10, 15, 50 feet away and still play the instrument. But for the player or director who is interested in how an instrument will actually sound in the context of a large ensemble or in a room the size of a concert hall, listening to the sound AWAY from the instrument while it is played is very important. Even 10 feet can make a big difference. The instrument that sounds fantastic right up close might sound a little lifeless when you listen to it from 30 feet away. The opposite is also true: The instrument that you think is too loud or abrasive up close might sound great when heard from 30 feet away. (No doubt dynamics and mallet choices should be considered, too. Players are often amazed that what they think is fff on stage turns out to be somewhat mf by the time it gets to the back row, or that the pretty blue mallet that sounds good up close sounds pretty awful when heard at a distance.)
When you are choosing a new instrument to buy, or maintaining or selecting an instrument already in the collection, always insist that part of the process involve listening to the instrument under consideration from varying distances as it is played. If in a showroom, have the salesperson or friend play it while you go across the room and listen; if in a concert or recital hall, do the same, but go out into the hall to get an idea of how it sounds. Also ask others what they think while you play the instrument in question. When adjusting an instrument and you are by yourself, record the sound from a distance to help you gauge how it might sound from farther away. Along with this private listening, listening to recordings of your large-ensemble rehearsals or concerts is also very informative. Remember, though, that recordings aren’t “live” they might have been adjusted for broadcast or other reason, or the equipment might be bad overall. Either way, the sound of the recordings might not be quite real. Only use recordings in addition to your “live” listening.
By gaining some distance from them as you listen to your instruments, you will get an idea of how they actually sound. This information, when mixed with your musical tastes, those of a teacher, and those of your friends, might make your overall sound, sound better.
Tony Oliver is the principal percussionist for the Lake Placid Sinfonietta and a member of the Quad City Symphony Orchestra. He is also a founding member of the New York contemporary-music ensemble The Society for Chromatic Art. A number of varied freelance engagements in the Midwest, New Jersey and New York areas round out his performance schedule. He has performed on the premiere of works by composers Allan Blank, William Bolcom, Libby Larsen, and James Romig. In addition to performing, Tony commits himself to education and enjoys giving interactive lectures, clinics, and demonstrations to students and educators of all ages and ability levels. Tony has been particularly involved with the New Horizons Band Program, which is an instrumental music program designed for older adults. In conjunction with this program, he has given lectures and clinics throughout the United States and in Sydney, Australia. He is proprietor of Curving Walkway Publications (ASCAP), a publisher of music. He received his B.M., M.A., and teacher’s certification from the University of Iowa, where he studied with Thomas L. Davis, and his D.M.A. from the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University, where he studied with She-e Wu. Tony plays and endorses SABIAN cymbals.