2015 Class #4: Hitting Things: A Vocabulary

A Class in Ten Short Videos
Instructor: Steven Schick
Time: About 54 minutes

Class #1 – Beat of the World]
[Class #2 Physicality of Sound]
[Class #3 Stories in Sound]

We’ve seen how the language of percussion has evolved from reinforcing music to creating new musical language. We’ve also talked about how the language of music has expanded as the kinds of instruments composers and musicians were willing to use has grown. For any art form to evolve, it has to create a community of practice and develop vocabulary and language.

So how does a listener cuddle up to an unfamiliar language, to music that uses a sounds that are at once both familiar (taken from sounds around us) and completely foreign (we haven’t connected them with a language or vocabulary of music)?

The class consists of the nine short videos below – six  lessons by percussionist and 2015 Ojai Music Festival director Steven Schick, and three examples of sounds and music. In all, they should take less than an hour to watch and you can view them one after the other or bookmark this page to come back later.

Video 1: Solo Percussion is such a young sport… [3’43”]

The language of percussion is very young, even though people have been hitting things and keeping a beat since the beginning of time. But the language of solo percussion is only a few decades old and is still establishing its norms and traditions. Why is it important to have a language? Art forms evolve and change and establish standards and traditions and excellence by passing on what one generation of artists does to the next generation. Without a written language, without a community of practice, it’s difficult to develop and grow an audience or pass on knowledge. Just looking at the past 50 years of percussion history, it’s interesting to see how the language has evolved.

Video 2: It’s not just the notes, but the instruments [5’12”]

How does a composer write for percussion in a way that musicians can read it? Classical music notation is specific for traditional instruments, so that pianists, violinists, flute players and their colleagues can tell with precision what a composer intended. This is not always true with percussion. One flower pot is not the same as another. One set of mallets or sticks is different from another. Since the kinds of sounds you get depend not only on how you strike an instrument but what kind of pot or drum or stone you hit, each performer, having constructed his array of instruments for a piece, will sound different from another.

Percussionists embrace these differences; indeed, the vocabulary of sounds made on the unique instruments that each percussionist chooses and develops helps define that performer’s identity.

Video 3: Who is the next virtuoso of the flower pot? [4’48”]

It’s easy to compare one violinist with another. But every solo percussionist sounds different from the next. Two percussionists playing the same piece will not only interpret how to play the notes differently, they’ll also sound different because of the instruments they’ve chosen and how they’ve put those instruments together.

In this way, solo percussion is very much a full collaboration between performer and composer. A composer might have the sound of one set of wood blocks in her ear but the performer might choose a set that produce an entirely different sound. So how do you tell if the one wood block player is better than another if they’re playing different instruments?

Video 4: What is good percussion playing? (Interesting answers to a set of problems) [4’15”]

Experimentation. When you connect the sounds of the outside world to the sounds of the inside world, you’re thinking like a percussionist. When writing for solo percussion, composers are in effect posing a set of questions to the performer. A set of problems. How the performer chooses to address those questions or solve those problems and amplify them is what makes a performance interesting.

The questions that prompt a musical response are specific. And when you start to hear and think like a percussionist, you begin to realize which are the interesting answers.

Video 5: Is percussion the “slow food” of the music world? [4’40”]

We are surrounded by sounds all day every day. There is so much sound that we learn to tune much of it out, to not listen. But even the sounds we consciously choose to listen to aren’t necessarily “high quality” sounds. They can be, to borrow a metaphor from the world of food, a diet of junk food, devoid of nutrients or fibre. Indeed, they can degrade our aural palette, making it difficult to discern the high quality sounds we want to hear. Learning to understand percussion is learning to hear the world in a different way, to pay attention to the sounds around us and consciously separate and sort them.

Video 6: A language like anything else… [4:31]

If someone came into your house and started speaking a language you’ve never heard, you might be bewildered. You might not even recognize where one word ended and another begins; it would be all sounds to you. It isn’t until your ear becomes accustomed to hearing the language and you start to understand the construction and how the sounds are used that it begins to make sense.

First, you might recognize that it’s this language rather than that one, even though you don’t understand the meaning. Then you start to pick out the sounds of common words and figure out their meaning. Then sentence construction and inflection, verbs and nouns and paragraphs. Along the way you gain more and more understanding until you begin to use the language as an art. Why this word over another, how to state something obliquely or infer meaning rather than state it.

Solo percussion is a sound language, with its own metaphors and meanings and nuanced vocabularies and sentence structures. The listener doesn’t have to be a master in order to appreciate it, but to understand it one has to begin to hear sounds and attach meaning to them.

Example 1: Echolalia – By Mark Applebaum
What if a percussion piece made the theatrical part of making the sounds explicit in the visual narrative the audience sees. Mark Applebaum’s piece takes the sounds made by ordinary activities and combines them in a way that is fun, familiar and theatrical.

Example 2: John Luther Adams talks about Inuksuit [7’04”]
Two years ago, the Ojai Music Festival performed John Luther Adams’ Inuksuit in the park outside Libbey Bowl. In this video Adams talks not only about the making of Inuksuit, which has now been performed in several urban and natural  landscapes, and how his music relates to and interacts with sounds of the world around it.

Example 3: The Percussion Machine that plays itself [3’25”]
Just for fun, this video imagines a fantasy Rube Goldberg-like machine in which sounds are physically produced by machines that have been programed in perfect sync.The visual experience of seeing the machines perform is at least as enjoyable as the music they produce.

Want to discuss this week’s class? Take a look below in the comments section and make an observation or ask a question. If you subscribe to the comments feed, you’ll be notified when someone weighs in. Want to invite your friends in? Tweet @OjaiFestivals and use the hashtag #OjaiU2015. This is the last of four classes in the art of percussion. We hope you have enjoyed them, and would love your feedback in the comments section or through the contact form. OjaiU is a project of the Ojai Music Festival and our intention with these classes is to help listeners listen smarter.

Class #1 – Beat of the World]
[Class #2 Physicality of Sound]
[Class #3 Stories in Sound]
[Class #4 Hitting Things: A Vocabulary]


  1. jennifer says:

    Wow – this was really great. Made me think about hearing sounds in a whole different way. LOVE the percussion machine that plays itself. Really brings home this idea of finely-staged choreography and the way you make music. Thanks so much for this class. Can’t wait to come to Ojai some year.

  2. Great class. Among many other things, makes me wonder if we, as humans, tend to melody – assuming we can define melody among cultures and generations. And what about the sounds our fellow animals make, and insects, and fish? Just musing —

  3. Roger Hale says:

    Has definitely prepared me for next week in Ojai…can’t wait!

  4. Cecilia Ka says:

    Informative, enlightening, amusing and great fun! Thank you Steve Schick for providing these classes. You inspire me to want to pick up a stick and start working it! You have put me in the mindset for the Ojai experience…..will carry this on the road and read to join the conversation.