What is a Principal Percussionist?

In an orchestra’s percussion section it is customary that one of the members of the section be designated as the Principal Player. The Principal Percussionist is usually the most accomplished percussionist in the section and as such they are expected to play the most difficult and/or solo parts in any of the repertoire that the orchestra is playing.

The Principal Percussionist has the added responsibility of deciding which members of the section will play what instruments. For instance, let’s say that there are 4 percussionists and a timpanist in an orchestra and the orchestra is going to play the following piece of music on the next concert; The 1812 Overture by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

Not counting the timpani the other percussion instruments needed are snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, tambourine, triangle and bells. The first thing the Principal Percussionist need to do is to make sure that they have all the instruments necessary to play the piece, then they have to look at the part and decide which player will play what part.

If the player just looks at the number of instruments they might think that because there are 6 different percussion instruments in the piece that they might need 6 players, but when the music is seen it is obvious that certain instruments can be grouped together and easily played by one player.

Here is the break down for the 1812 Overture

  • Player 1 can play both the snare drum and the tambourine
  • Player 2 can play the cymbals
  • Player 3 can play the Bass Drum
  • Player 4 can play the triangle and the bells

Some pieces of music require a whole truck load of percussion instruments and an army of players to cover every part that the composer has written into the score and other pieces require only one or two instruments that can be easily performed by one or two players in the percussion section.

Online Resource to Make the Job of the Principle Percussionist a Little Easier

The job of the Principal Percussionists can be quite complicated especially if the orchestra is very busy and if the orchestra is playing a lot of compositions that require lots of instruments and many players. To make the job easier to manage the Principal Percussionist can use an online resource such as Percussion Orchestrations.

Percussion Orchestrations makes the work of the Principal Percussionist a whole lot easier. The creator of the site, Ed Cervenka has taken the time to research over 7570 of the standard and not so standard orchestral and operatic repertoire and he’s organized the breakdown of each piece as to how many timpani are needed, what percussion instruments are necessary and how many players are needed to play the part as written and how each piece can be organized so that each member of the percussion section knows which of the percussion instruments they will be required to play. In some pieces it is quite complicated.

For example in Samuel Barber’s piece Medias Meditation and Dance of Vengeance there are a lot of instruments and that need to be played by a four person section. It is sometimes necessary for two players to play the same instrument at different times in the piece, and that has to be coordinated so every part is covered and that players won’t crash into each other during the performance.

Here is how this piece is organized by Percussion Orchestration

Timpani  Percussion 1  Percussion 2  Percussion 3  Percussion 4 
 Gb Bb db, G# d, Ab db e, A db e, Gb c, G, A# B c# d, F# A f#, B e#, d eb f gb, eb g, B c  Xylo, Tam-tam @ Fig 2 +2, last 2 bars  Snare drum, Tom tom  Triangle 10, Clashed cymbals, Susp cymbal, Whip  Bass drum, Tam-tam @ Fig 20 -2, Fig 30 +4 to +6, Fig 32 +3

 

As you can see, preparation by the Principal Percussionist for a piece like this is pretty complicated and www.percorch.com makes the job easier.

Instrument Translations for Percussionists

In addition, to help with the assigning of parts, what I like most about this site is the translation chart. Percussion instruments have different names in different languages and because composers of orchestral music come from many different countries they refer to the instruments in their native tongue. For example; in French the word for Tambourine is labeled as Tambour de Basque but the word for Field drum is labeled as Tambour.

If you don’t know you might make the mistake of playing a field drum part on a tambourine so it’s important to have a dictionary of percussion instruments available and the Instrument Translations on the www.percorch.com site is fabulous. The dictionary is organized very well and it’s quite extensive. Here some of the instruments on the list of instruments that starts with the letter “H”.

Instrument

Description

French

German

Spanish

Italian

Hammer Large wooden mallet used to strike a box or pice of staging Marteau Hammer Martillo Martèllo
Hammer-wood Xylophone Xylophone, Xylophono, Clavequebois, Claque bois, Clagnebois, Echelette, Patouilles, Regalé de bois, Harmonica de bois Xylophon, Holzharmonika, Holz und schlaginstrument, Holz und strohinstrument, Holzfiedel, Holzharmonika, Holzstabspiel, Hültze glechter Xilófono Xilofon, Xilofono, Silofone, Silofono, Silophono, Zilafone, Zilafono, Zilofono, Gigelira, Organo di legno, Sticcada, Sticcado
Hand bells Tuned bells which can either be played by shaking so that the internal clapper strikes the bell, or suspended on a frame and strck with a mallet Clochettes à mains, Sonnettes Handglockenspiel, Handglocke, Tischglocke Campana de mano, Campanilla, Campanas de mano, Campanillas de mano Sonagli a mano, Campanello, Campanilla
Hand cymbals Clashed cymbals Cymbels, Cymbales à2, Cymbales à l’ordinaire, Cymbales avec plateaux, Cymbales choquées, Paire de cymbales Becken, Cinellen, Mit teller(n), Paarweise becken, Schlagbecken Platos, Platos chocados, Platos a dos Piatti, Piatti a 2, Piatti a due, Cinelli, Cimbali, Pàio di piatti
Hand drum Tambourine without jingles Tambour sur cadre, Tambourin à main Handtrommel, Tamburin ohne schellen Pandero sin sonajas, Pandero Tamburino senza cimbali

The www.percorch.com site charges a subscription fee, but the fee is well worth what you receive in return. You can search by composer and piece, have access to the translations dictionary and actually add each piece to a calendar for easy organization.

Does the Principal Percussionist get paid more than the other percussionists?

In many professional orchestras the Principal Players of each section is paid slightly more than the other members of the section because of the added responsibilities associated with the role. It’s common for a Principal Percussionists to be paid 25% more than the other members of the section.

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Comments

  1. Great informative website!! Would you consider the piano a percussion instrument because of its hammers striking the strings mechanism? or would it be a string instrument because of the strings? Or should we just refer to it as a keyboard instrument? hope you can answer my questions, thanks 🙂

    • This is an age old question. By the definition of what is a percussion instrument the piano because of the hammers striking the strings is a percussion instrument. But, it is not part of the percussion section of the band or orchestra. A percussionist’s responsibility is to be able to play all of the percussion instruments; mallets, snare, cymbals, timpani, etc, but not the piano. Having said that it is a good idea for all musicians to have some proficiency on the piano

      • Actually in one song (I forget the name) a piano part was included in the percussion parts. However, a person separate from the percussion section ended up playing it. By the way, would you consider Mallet Percussion a different section or a subsection of Percussion that is still under a Principal Percussionist’s jurisdiction? I wondering because at my high school I’m the Principal Mallet Percussionist and there’s also a Principal Percussionist.

        • If your band has those titles then that’s the way it is for you, but in an orchestra there is usually just a Principal percussionist who is responsible for all of the percussion including mallet parts.

  2. Hi,
    Is it possible for a percussionist to play timpani and somehow cymbals the same time?

    Thanks

    • Thanks for your question. It is certainly possible depending on the part of course. If the part is written for a pair of cymbals you would have to substitute a suspended cymbal instead. That is pretty common.

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