Written music has existed for over a thousand years, with the modern 5-lined stave being used in Western classical music since the 1500s or express musical ideas.

Many instruments have variations on this, with percussion being no exception. Non-standard musical notation can be any system for notating music which augments or disregards the Western notation system, including avant-garde and modern experiments with new notational ideas, some of which use the 5-line staff as a basis, and some of which do not. Percussion is one of the newest instruments to be considered a solo instrument, and as the range of skills and sounds percussion can produce continue to increase, so does the notation written for it. So how do we know how to read it?  

Often a composer will specify a key at the start of a piece to show you what to do, for example New Orleans Sunrise by Jill Jarman at Grade 6, or Up Sticks by Clive Malabar at Grade 7. Ultimately it is important to know what the composer is asking the performer for, but many requests are up for a little interpretation. Here is an example from the syllabus that will hopefully help. 

This piece is a strong example of less conventional notation. The ‘tip of stick-on rim’ sign is non-standard notation, and there is space for performer’s discretion here. Which part of the rim of the snare drum for example? Always aim for the way that’s most comfortable and makes a nice balanced sound. In this case, I would say that playing the rim furthest away from you would be most comfortable so that you don’t need to move your elbow far back to an uncomfortable position. Also, by ‘tip of the stick’, if you use the very end of the stick it’s likely to miss or slip, so just a fraction further back would suffice. Think about the sound the composer is trying to convey. As the volume is pianissimo in this section, and the tip of the stick is thinner and lighter, it’s a more fragile sound overall. By using the tip of the stick and moving around the snare drum it’s also more visually stimulating for your audience. 

In general, when performing things like stick clicks, make sure to practice this on its own, and be careful not to treat it as an ‘easy’ or throwaway moment. It’s not only the sound production that’s needed but the intention and image. Look up and be proud whilst you play! 

Even changes between brushes and sticks can be done in a masterful way. Make sure they’re in a convenient place nearby, on a trap tray ideally. Then practice switching between them smoothly. 

Although more conventional, I thought it would be worth mentioning glissandos on tuned percussion. You may need to consider the mallets you use, the pressure and speed of the glissando in order to make it audible and functional as glissandos can easily be overlooked.  

And finally, never be afraid to ask. Talk to teachers, peers, find other percussionists or even the composer themselves to speak to if you’re really stuck on what their intentions are. No question is a bad question! 

Find out more about our Percussion Syllabus and talk to other teachers in the Forums.

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Last modified: Wednesday, 28 June 2023, 9:28 AM