This is a link to the Spotify Playlist of the concert programme

Percussion Instruments

On this year’s concert programme, we will be exploring sounds from the Percussion Section of the Orchestra; how ‘noise’ becomes ‘music’ when instruments that you can hit, bang, scrape, or shake are played in particular ways, making very specific rhythms, textures, and timbres.

Hitting, shaking, or scraping an instrument causes it to vibrate and produce sound waves. The sound that is produced depends on how the instrument resonates. For example, in a drum, the sound spreads through the hollow part of the drum and echoes and grows louder. This is called resonance.

Percussion Instruments can be divided into 2 main groups.

Tuned or Untuned – also called Pitched or Unpitched. Tuned percussion instrument can produce musical notes, and can be notated on the musical stave.

Untuned percussion instruments make a particular sound, but not a definite note.

Idiophone or Membrophone? This refers to the way in which the sound is made.

Idiophones are instruments which make sound primarily by way of the instrument itself vibrating without the use of membranes (skins) or strings. Examples include Xylophones, Marimbas, Glockenspiel, Gongs, Woodblocks, Bells, Castanets, Claves.

Membranophones are instruments which make sound primarily by way of a vibrating membrane or skin . Examples include Timpani, Bass Drum, Snare Drum, Congas, Bongos, Bodhrán, Djembe.

The tighter the drum-head or membrane, the higher the sound. The larger the instrument, the lower the sound.

The percussionist in an orchestra will usually move around between several different instruments. The timpanist sits in the middle of the section, at the back of the orchestra, surrounded by several timpani or kettledrums.

Percussion instruments originated from all corners of the world. The kettle-drum probably came to Europe via the Middle East with the crusaders of the 12th or 13th centuries. Trumpets and drums were often paired in early European art-music, but percussion in the orchestra made a major break-through during the Romantic period, particularly in the music of Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, and especially Berlioz in his Symphony Fantastique of 1830. The development of the percussion section was been the biggest development in 20th century orchestral music, as can be seen in the central role of the section in Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring of 1913. With the spread of popularity of Latin American dance music, from the 1930s, smaller hand-held instruments, like maracas and woodblock, brought new colours to orchestral composition. Likewise, the development of the drum-kit in jazz and popular music made it more usual for a player to perform on several instruments. Percussionists continue to explore materials that can create interesting sounds or timbre, adding not only rhythm, but texture and colour to their playing, and to perform in a wide variety of genres – from orchestral to world music, from jazz to pop and rock.

Timpani – One of the oldest musical instruments, these drums are to be found in old paintings of battle scenes, royal occasions, on horse-back, even on elephants. Because of the shape of the copper drum, they are also known as kettle-drums. Playing timpani is a very specific art. Whether to hit the centre, side or rim; which kind of stick to use – a soft or hard felt stick, or one made of wood or leather; and how to strike the drum ‘right on the dot’ – these are all the secrets of the good timpanist. Tuning the drum to be exactly in tune with the rest of the orchestra, is also a great skill, especially as the drum-head, (made of stretched calfskin or plastic is affected by heat or cold.

Bass Drum – the biggest member of the percussion section, it is similar in shape to the snare drum, but without the snare. It can create a lot of drama, with its booming single beats, or rolls that can sound like thunder, but can also sound ominously quiet! It is played with sticks that have large soft heads, often covered in sheepskin or felt.

Snare Drum – unpitched, with two drumheads (stretched membranes). The ‘batter-head’ (on the top) is struck with wooden drumsticks. On the bottom head is the ‘snare’ – 8 -10 metal wires or catgut strings. This is what gives the drum its metallic, rattling sound. The snare can be turned on or off. This drum can be played with sticks, mallets, or brushes.

Afro-Cuban drums – such as Bongos and Congas – feature regularly in orchestral music nowadays.

Cymbals – these may look like pot-lids, but they are very sophisticated instruments made of bronze or brass. They come in many sizes. Clash cymbals have leather straps, and are played by striking two together. A suspended cymbal is struck with a stick, – a drum kit will have a number of these, with Crash or Splash cymbals of different sizes and thickness for different kinds of music. Crotales are the smallest cymbals, and come from ancient times. Cymbals are even mentioned in the bible.

Gong (or Tam-tam) – originally from East and Southeast Asia, with roots going back to the Bronze Age around 3,500 BC. Several varieties of gongs are prominent in the Gamelan Ensembles from Indonesia – the traditional orchestras from Java and Bali, largely made up of percussion instruments, such as metallophones. These are tuned metal instruments that are struck with mallets. The Gong or Tam-tam is a very large, suspended metal plate, which is struck with a mallet. Some have flat surfaces, others have a raised section in the centre, which produces a definite pitch. The instrument is an essential part of Chinese traditional opera, and first appeared in European orchestral music at the end of the 18th century.

Tubular Bells – are chimes made of metal tubes hung from a metal frame, which sound like church bells, when struck with a mallet. The tubes are cut to different lengths to get definite pitches. The player must hit them as close to the top as possible to produce a sound that vibrates properly. Like the vibraphone, there is a dampening pedal which must be used carefully. Hands and feet are occupied!

Woodblocks – originated in China; also called a Slit Drum, it is made from a single piece of wood and struck with a hard stick. (A good example of an idiophone, the slit in the wood provides a resonating cavity.) Early 20th century jazz and vaudeville drummers made woodblocks a regular feature.

Triangle – is a simple metal bar, shaped into a triangle. But there is a very special knack to playing it well! There are many different sizes and each one plays at a different pitch. The size and thickness of the beater can also change the sound the triangle makes. The metal in the triangle is left open at one end to allow it to vibrate. (Another idiophone!) The triangle player in the orchestra often has long waits, and many bars of music to carefully count, in case he plays in the wrong place.

 Tambourine – comes from Egypt, and variations on this instrument are to be found all over the Middle East. Basically, it is an unturned frame drum with ‘jingles’ or jangly disks, called Zills. The Irish equivalent of the frame drum is the Bodhrán (which, of course, has no jingles.) It is also found in folk music from Turkey, Greece and Italy, in the Provence region of France (the tambour), in Samba band (the tamborim), and jazz, gospel, and pop music. As well as beating or shaking the tambourine, an interesting effect can be made from rubbing a wet thumb near the rim to make the Zills jingle gently.

Maracas – come from Mexico, originally made from vegetables from the Gourd family, like squash, pupmkins etc. The gourd becomes a hard shell when it is dried out and dehydrated, which is then filled with dried seeds or little beads to make them rattle. The sound they make is directly related to what is used to fill them. They are often highly ornamented, and nowadays can be made of plastic or wood.

Xylophone/ Marimba/Glockenspiel/Vibraphon – are all percussion instruments that have bars, like piano keys, that are struck with mallets to produce musical notes. They all have tubes or pipes underneath that act as resonators, to amplify the sound. Many cultures have their own kind of xylophone, often with gourds as resonators. They are widely played in the folk music of West and Central Africa, Mexico and other parts of Central American, although often tuned to different scales than the orchestral instruments. The name Xylophone comes from the Greek word meaning ‘wood sound’. The modern Marimba, although similar, is larger and has wooden or plastic resonating tubes, making a mellower sound. The Vibraphone (also known as the Vibes) has both metal bars and metal resonators, with small rotating disks inside. These disks are connected to a rod, which are turned by an electric motor. When the motor is turned on, the sustained notes have added ‘vibrato’, giving a sort of ‘wavey’ sensation to the pitch of the notes. The Glockenspiel looks like a small xylophone, but it has steel bars instead of wood. When it is played with hard mallets, it sounds like little bells. The word ‘Glocken’ means ‘Bells’ in German. It is very interesting to listen to the difference between all these instruments.

Piano – People are often surprised to find out that the Piano is classified as a percussion instrument. Why is it not a stringed instrument? – with so many strings inside producing the sound? It is because the strings are HIT by the hammers that are attached to the keys, and not plucked or bowed, as are the instruments of the orchestra’s string section. Although, when an orchestra needs a piano for a particular composition, a pianist will be hired, rather than a percussionist who plays the piano! So the argument about how to classify the piano will go on…

Celesta – This is another keyboard instrument that is classified as part of the percussion section (but like the piano, it is generally performed by a pianist rather than a percussionist)! It was famous used by Tchaikovsky in the Dance of The Sugar Plum Fairy, which we featured on last year’s programme. He discovered the new invention in Paris in 1891, and was thrilled to be able to surprise his Russian audience with this new sound, at the premiere of the Nutcracker Ballet the following year. It looks like a miniature upright piano, with a keyboard of 49 – 65 keys. When the key it pressed, it moves a little hammer that hits a metal bar, making a sound like a little bell.

 Just some of the range of STICKS and MALLETS needed to play all these percussion instruments! Soft felt sticks. Hard felt sticks. Metal beaters. Bell Mallets. Leather sticks. Brushes.

Classroom Percussion

Cymbal – Triangle – Tambourine – Woodblock




Hold the cymbal by the strap. strike it. Allow the sound to die away naturally.


Strike the cymbal, then immediately dampen the sound by touching the metal. Strike it again, and leave a longer time before dampening it.

Strike different parts of the cymbal to create different sounds. Try the edge or the dome.

Hold the strap so that the cymbal is suspended. Strike it repeatedly ata steady pace, and make a continuous sound. Make your own dynamics, (getting louder ande quieter), by controlling the power you use on the beater/mallet.

You can hit the cymbal with different types of beaters, and get different sounds. You can also use different parts of the hands. There are many different techniques you can try and many different sounds you can produce.

Hold the triangle by the strap, strike the side of the triangle, and let the sound die naturally.

Try hitting different parts of the side of the triangle. Listen carefully to the sound produced.

Strike the triangle again, and this time, damp the sound immediately, using your hand.

Hold the triangle by the strap, and move the beater quickly from side to side inside the top of the triangle.

Hold the triangle itself, instead of the strap, and see what you think of the sound you get when you strike it.

Hold the tambourine vertically and shake it.

Hold the tambourine horizontally and tap the rim quietly. Tap the tambourine against the palm of your hand.

Hold the woodblock in one hand and tap it with a wooden-headed beater held in the other hand. Try tapping it slowly, then quickly. Scrape the beater quickly backwards and forwards across the woodblock. Use the handle of the beater to tap the woodblock.


         Brazilian Percussion – The Samba Band


The Caixa is a kind of snare drum            

The Repique is the ‘calling’ instrument


The Agogo Bells provide colour    

The Surdo is the foundation of the band


The Pandeiro is a kind of Tambourine  

The Cuica is a friction drum – varies in pitch


The Reco-Reco is a kind of ‘scraper’      

The Tamborim has the sharpist sound

 The Ganza is a kind of shaker                                

All these instruments make up the ‘bateria’- the percussion section in the Brazilian Samba Band. In the famous Carnival of Rio, the Samba band could have up to 500 members.

Programme Notes

 Georges Bizet

 Born 25th October 1838

Died 3 June 1875

 George Bizet showed his incredible talent at an early age, and was accepted into the Paris Conservatory at the age of only 9. He was what is called a ‘child prodigy’ – a child of special talent. Sadly, he died aged 36, and did not have much success during his lifetime. Even his final work, the opera Carmen – now one of the best loved operas of all time, was not appreciated by the first audiences. It was, perhaps, too modern and too dramatic for an audience more accustomed to gentler plots and music. He was never to know that Carmen would go on to be considered a great masterpiece. Set in Spain, the opera uses many Spanish rhythms. Especially popular is the song, Habañera, which is the name of a Latin-American rhythmic pattern that originated in Cuba, and is used in tango dances and in jazz. It is named after Havana, the capital city of Cuba, and became popular in Spain in the mid-19th century. The Toreador’s Song, from the opera Carmen, is still very, very popular, and has been adopted as the anthem for the Munster Rugby Team!

The Farandole was written as incidental music for a play called L’Arlesienne, which means ‘The Girl from Arles’. (We hear ‘incidental’ music, nowadays, so often on television, video games, radio and films, in between scenes.) The play was not a success, but Bizet rescued the music and made two ‘suites’ out of the music for several of the scenes. A ‘suite’ (pronounced ‘sweet’ is simply a collection of short musical pieces, played one after the other.) Each suite has four sections, and the Farandole appears as the last piece in Suite No. 2. A Farandole is a dance from the Provence region of the South of France. It is traditionally danced in a street procession, with the dancers being led by a player on a pipe (or whistle) and drum (tambourin). The dance section can be clearly heard, after the strong opening by the whole orchestra, with the flute and side drum (without the snare) featuring prominently. There is an interesting ‘canon’ section, when one group of instruments plays the tune, and then another imitates the tune, but two beats later (like a round .e.g. Freres Jacques.)

 Recommended Listening :

L’Arlesienne Suites No.1 & No. 2

Excerpts from Carmen

The Duet from the Pearl Fishers

Symphony in C major

 Maurice Ravel

 Born 7th March 1875

Died 28th December 1937

 Maurice Ravel was a French composer, pianist and conductor. He attended the Paris Conservatoire, and was a colleague there of another famous French composer, Claude Debussy. Maurice Ravel had a difficult time at music college. His Boléro is now so popular, that it is hard to imagine that at one time orchestral sounds like this were considered to be too daring, and his ideas and experimentation in music composition often got him into troubles with his teachers. He was expelled from the Conservatoire in 1895, but re-admitted two years later. When he was unfairly eliminated from the prestigious Prix de Rome competition, which had previously been won by composers such as Berlioz, Gounod, Bizet, and Debussy, it caused a national scandal. He was also very interested in recording, which was new at that time. He frequently got involved in recordings, as a conductor and director, as he saw the potential of recordings to bring music to a wider public.

He was commissioned by the dancer, Ida Ruberstein, to compose a piece for a new performance. She had actually intended him to arrange the music of a Spanish composer, Isaac Albeniz, but there were difficulties about the legal copyright. So, he still had the Spanish idea in mind, when he was on holiday and doodling at his piano. Beginning with a simple melody, he said to a friend “Don’t you think this theme has an insistent quality? I am going to try and repeat in a number of times without any development, gradually increasing the orchestra as best I can.’ He called it Boléro, because of the Spanish rhythmic pattern or ostinato (a recurring rhythm) with which the piece opens, played quietly on the snare drum. The melody is passed around the orchestral sections, while the strings often pluck the Boléro rhythm. With each repetition, he adds more instruments and more volume, until the piece almost explodes at the end! Throughout, the snare drum player must maintain the steady beat, and repeat the same pattern over and over – for almost 15 minutes! The premiere at the Paris Opera’s Ballet Season of 1928 was a huge success, and the piece went on to become popular all over the world, both as a ballet piece and on concert programmes. It has also been featured often on film scores. It was his last composition and it became his best-known work.

George Gershwin, the American composer of Rhapsody in Blue (and I’ve Got Rhythm – on the concert programme) was very keen to study with Ravel in the 1920s. But, Ravel, who admired Gershwin’s work, refused on the basis that it might change Gershwin’s originality, style and spontaneity.

Recommended listening:


Pavane pour une Infante Défunte

String Quartet

Giuseppe Verdi

Born October 1813

Died    27th December 1901

Italian composers have a very special place in the history of opera, and Giuseppe Verdi is one of the most famous of all time. He was influenced by Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti – other great Italian opera composers of that era, and in turn, he influenced Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), the composer of La Boheme, among other popular operas. Verdi had a lot of tragedy in his mid-20s, with the deaths of his two children in 1838/39, and his wife in 1840. He almost gave up composition around this time, when he also suffered his first operatic failure. However, the huge success of his opera ‘Nabucco’ in 1841 changed his mind, and within the next 11 years he produced 16 operas. He based many of his operas on plays and novels. Shakespeare was his favourite playwright, and he wrote a number of operas based on Shakepeare’s plays, including Macbeth, Othello and Falstaff. He wrote 28 operas in all, being very involved in the libretto (the text of the opera) and the development of the characters. Verdi, who often wrote roles with particular singers in mind, showed a special talent for beautiful melody, thrilling drama and orchestration. He was very involved in Italian politics, and was a supporter of the cause for Italian unification. His large scale opera, ‘Aida,’ set in Egypt, is often said to have been written for the opening of the Suez Canal. While this is incorrect, the opera was, in fact, commissioned for the opening of Cairo’s Khedivial Opera House on 24 December 1871. His popularity and influence was enormous, and his state funeral in 1901, which was declared a national day of mourning in Italy, remains the largest public gathering in the history of the country.  

Recommended Listening :

from La Traviata – Brindisi ‘The Drinking Song’

from Rigoletto     – La Donna è Mobile

from La Forza del Destino – Overture

from Nabucco – The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves

Johann Strauss Jr.– known as The Waltz King

 Born : 25th October 1825

Died :   3rd June 1899

His father, the first Johann Strauss was hugely popular as a composer of waltzes and polkas, and the famous Radetsky March, but his fame was surpassed by his talented son. The Strauss Family had its own successful orchestra in Vienna, performing at all major occasions there. In 1844, while still a teenager, Johann Junior set up his own. He produced and performed more than his father, travelling to Russia and America. On his father’s death, he merged both orchestras, and eventually his brothers, Josef and Eduard, took over, so that Johann could concentrate on his compositions.

His famous waltzes include The Blue Danube; Voices of Spring; Emperor Waltz.

Richard Strauss

Born : 11th June 1864

Died : 8th Sept. 1949

No relation of the famous Viennese family, Richard Strauss is one of the greatest German composers of the Romantic era. His Symphonic Tone Poems are a major part of the classical music repertoire from the late 19th and early 20th century. Influenced by Richard Wagner’s operas, he managed to bring the great dramatic power of Wagner’s opera orchestra into the symphony orchestra, in these one-movement works that set out to tell musical stories. This is often called Programme Music. In much of the classical music repertoire, however, the meaning in music is deliberately left up to the imagination of the listener. Composers after Strauss’ time tried to get away from the idea of music telling a story. The most famous tone poems

by Richard Strauss include Don Quixote – with its musical tilting at windmills; Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks – with the roguish character clearly depicted throughout; Death and Transfiguration (Tod und Verklärung), in which a dying man reflects on his life and ideals; A Hero’s Life (Ein Heldenleben) is quasi-autobiographical. Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra) is a homage to the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Zarathustra or Zoroaster was an ancient seer, dating from the sixth century B.C. who declaimed a set of pronouncements for man. The goal of these pronouncements was for man to improve himself, and ultimately to become an übermensch(superman). Richard Strauss wrote to a friend “I did not intend to write philosophical music or portray Nietzsche’s great work musically…I meant rather to convey in music an idea of the evolution of the human race from its origin, through the various phases of development, religious as well as scientific, up to Nietzsche’s idea of the superman. The whole symphonic poem is intended as my homage to the genius of Nietzsche…” 

The ‘ Dawn’ section from the Sunrise opening movement of Also Sprach Zarathustra has become well-known in modern culture, through its use in film scores.

The programme notes for the premiere in 1896 stated :

Sunrise — Man feels the power of God.  But man still longs.  He plunges into passion and finds no peace, so he turns toward science, and tries in vain to solve life’s problem in a fugue.  Then, agreeable dance tunes sound and he becomes an individual, and his soul soars upward while the world sinks far below him.” 

 In the section called The Dance Song – the second-last section of the piece, there is a reference to Johann Strauss Jr.

The Dance Song – An intoxicating, gypsy-like waltz emerges, built on the moods and styles of Johann Strauss, Jr.  Zarathustra sings to the dancing maidens of the capricious nature of wisdom and the caprice of life. A glockenspiel playing along with strings and harps adds a special touch of merriment in a section noting man’s striving for earthly and sensual pleasures.


Don’t Worry, Be Happy

Here’s a little song I wrote
You might want to sing it note for note
Don’t worry, be happy
In every life we have some trouble
But when you worry you make it double
Don’t worry, be happy
Don’t worry, be happy now

don’t worry
(Ooh, ooh ooh ooh oo-ooh ooh oo-ooh) be happy
(Ooh, ooh ooh ooh oo-ooh ooh oo-ooh) don’t worry, be happy
(Ooh, ooh ooh ooh oo-ooh ooh oo-ooh) don’t worry
(Ooh, ooh ooh ooh oo-ooh ooh oo-ooh) be happy
(Ooh, ooh ooh ooh oo-ooh ooh oo-ooh) don’t worry, be happy

Ain’t got no place to lay your head
Somebody came and took your bed
Don’t worry, be happy
The landlord say your rent is late
He may have to litigate
Don’t worry, be happy

Oh, ooh ooh ooh oo-ooh ooh oo-ooh don’t worry, be happy
Here I give you my phone number, when you worry, call me, I make you happy,
Don’t worry, be happy
Ain’t got no cash, ain’t got no style
Ain’t got no gal to make you smile
Don’t worry, be happy
‘Cause when you worry your face will frown
And that will bring everybody down
So don’t worry, be happy

Don’t worry, be happy now
(Ooh, ooh ooh ooh oo-ooh ooh oo-ooh) don’t worry
(Ooh, ooh ooh ooh oo-ooh ooh oo-ooh) be happy etc.

Here’s a little song I wrote

I hope you learned note for note
Like good little children, don’t worry, be happy
Now listen to what I said, in your life expect some trouble
When you worry you make it double
But don’t worry, be happy, be happy now, don’t worry
(Ooh, ooh ooh ooh oo-ooh ooh oo-ooh) be happy
(Ooh, ooh ooh ooh oo-ooh ooh oo-ooh) don’t worry, etc.

(Ooh, ooh ooh ooh oo-ooh ooh oo-ooh) put a smile in your face
(Ooh, ooh ooh ooh oo-ooh ooh oo-ooh) don’t bring everybody down

don’t worry
(Ooh, ooh ooh ooh oo-ooh ooh oo-ooh) it will soon pass, whatever it is
(Ooh, ooh ooh ooh oo-ooh ooh oo-ooh) don’t worry, be happy.

Three Little Birds

Don’t worry about a thing
‘Cause every little thing is gonna be alright
Singing’ don’t worry about a thing
‘Cause every little thing is gonna be alright

Rise up this mornin’
Smiled with the risin’ sun
Three little birds
Pitch by my doorstep
Singin’ sweet songs
Of melodies pure and true
Saying’, (this is my message to you)

Singing’ don’t worry ’bout a thing
‘Cause every little thing is gonna be alright
Singing’ don’t worry (don’t worry) ’bout a thing
‘Cause every little thing is gonna be alright

Rise up this mornin’
Smiled with the risin’ sun
Three little birds
Pitch by my doorstep
Singin’ sweet songs
Of melodies pure and true
Sayin’, this is my message to you

Singin’ don’t worry about a thing,

Every little thing is gonna be alright,
Singin’ don’t worry about a thing, I won’t worry
‘Cause every little thing is gonna be alright

Singin’ don’t worry about a thing
‘Cause every little thing is gonna be alright, I won’t worry
Singin’, don’t worry about a thing
‘Cause every little thing is gonna be alright
Singin’ don’t worry about a thing,

‘Cause every little thing is gonna be alright