Meet Class Notes Artist: Minnesota Percussion Trio
If you take home only one lesson from a performance by Class Notes Artists the Minnesota Percussion Trio, it should be this: percussion can be pretty much anything that you can hit, scrape, or shake (including your own body). It doesn't have to be an "official" instrument like a snare drum or a marimba. Pieces of scrap wood from the basement or a metal water bottle are just as legitimate. And there is no requirement to use a drumstick or a mallet if you don't want to — spoons will work just as well.
Half of the pieces in the Trio's program subscribed to this philosophy. For instance, the composition Wood, Metal, Skin calls for no specific instruments, but only for one player to play anything wood, the second player to play anything metal, and the third to play "skin." ("Skin" here does refer specifically to drums, as drumheads were traditionally made of animal skins. In recent times, however, they are made of plastic, as it is more durable and easy to care for) Another piece, St. Patrick's Shenanigans, calls for glockenspiel bars to be nailed onto wooden 2x4s and for the performers to use spoons as mallets. The sound of the spoons on the 2x4s evoked the tapping of shoes on a wooden floor in traditional Irish dance, while the pitches of the glock bars (screwed onto the 2x4s) were used to play a quote of "O Danny Boy" that was woven into the music.
However, it turns out that you don't need anything beyond your own body to make percussion music. In an interactive body percussion exercise with their audiences, the Trio paid homage to John Cage, a 20th century composer who advocated for the importance of silence in music. He believed that silence can be music, as he illustrated with his famous composition 4'33" (4'33" is a scored composition for any number of instruments in which the musicians are instructed not to play for the duration of three movements over four minutes and thirty-three seconds. The music is derived from whatever ambient noise that occurs during that time.)
For this exercise, the Trio divided the audience into two halves — with Bob Adney leading one half and Paul Hill leading the other — while Erik Barsness stood in the middle and alternately held up three signs: LOUD, SOFT and a blank sign to indicate silence. As he switched these signs up at random, Adney and Hill led their respective groups in body percussion which corresponded with the dynamics on the signs. During the silence, the students were asked to listen for whatever they could hear — be it the hum of air vents, the ticking of the clock, or the creaking of the floor. The lesson here: what is in between the notes is as important as the notes themselves — what is within the silence is also music.
The percussion demonstration was not limited to the human body and homemade instruments. From a variety of drums (snare, tenor, and bass), to woodblocks, to mallet instruments (marimba and xylophone), the student audience got a fine idea of what fun they could have should they choose to play percussion in school band or orchestra — if they haven't already started.
Interesting bits of trivia were doled out with the demonstrations. For instance, the "golden age" of the xylophone was the 1920's. As there was no amplification at the time, the xylophone was often used because of its piercing, dry timbre. This "scientifically arranged pile of wood," as it has been described, was perfect for early recordings of dance music due to the need to use a loud and clear instrument if you wanted to capture a decent sound with the rudimentary technology available at the time.
The xylophone's ability to cut through a musical texture was obvious with the performance of Chromatic Foxtrot, composed in its golden age for solo xylophone and piano accompaniment (for this performance, the piano part was covered by Paul and Erik on the marimba). Bob made the xylophone melody his very own by quoting famous orchestral xylophone solos in the introduction. If you knew your xylophone solos, you could catch bits of Khachaturian's Sabre Dance, the Danse macabre of Saint-Saëns, and Copland's Appalachian Spring, among others.
More than any other Artist ensemble that I've seen, the student audiences naturally responded to this percussion music by wanting to move in their seats. Perhaps this was because of the wide dynamic range, or because the rhythms are catchy, or maybe even because they had their own percussion instruments on which to perform — their own bodies, or the floor they sit on. They just couldn't resist tapping or even drumming along. This kind of reaction to the live music basically proves the message of the Minnesota Percussion Trio's presentation — percussion opportunities are all around us.
George H. Green: Chromatic Foxtrot
John Cage: Amores: Trio for Seven Woodblocks (not Chinese)
Eckhard Kopetzki: Marimba Music
Josh Gottry: Wood Metal Skin
Kaposia Education Center — South Saint Paul, Minn.
Mississippi Creative Arts — Saint Paul, Minn.
New Millenium Academy — Minneapolis, Minn.
Folwell Performing Arts — Minneapolis, Minn.
Zanewood Community School — Brooklyn Park, Minn.
L.C. Webster Elementary — North Saint Paul, Minn.
Saint Paul City School — Saint Paul, Minn.
Linwood Arts Plus — Saint Paul, Minn.
Seed Academy-Harvest Prep — Minneapolis, Minn.
Saint Paul Music Academy — Saint Paul, Minn.
Vadnais Heights Elementary — Vadnais Heights, Minn.
Aquila Elementary — Saint Louis Park, Minn.
Washburn Elementary — Minneapolis, Minn.
Robbinsdale Spanish Immersion — New Hope, Minn.
About the Classical MPR Class Notes Artists program
Now in its sixth year, the Class Notes Artists program at Classical MPR brings performers to elementary schools throughout the state of Minnesota to give educational concerts. Each performance includes a presentation about the Artists' respective instruments, as well as the style, technique, history, and traditions related to the music that they perform.
The Artists are selected for the quality of their musicianship, and for their interest in promoting music education. Over the next few months, the following Artists will collectively travel to 60 schools in four different geographical hubs.
Belladonna Baroque Quartet — Twin Cities
Excelsior! Trio — Northwestern Minnesota
L'unica Trio — Saint Cloud area
Lyz Jaakola — Twin Cities
Mill City String Quartet — Southwestern Minnesota
The Mirandola Ensemble — Twin Cities
Minnesota Percussion Trio — Twin Cities
Summit Hill Brass Quintet — Twin Cities
These performances are supported by Minnesota music education standards-based curriculum designed by Classical MPR's Curriculum Specialist. These lessons and activities are given to music teachers in advance of each Artist's visit, and are to be used as learning materials for before and/or after each performance.
Students at participating schools will also receive an MPR-produced compilation CD featuring the year's Artists, allowing students to experience a wide range of different musical styles and ensembles. The 2014-15 album, Bach, Birds, and Blues, is also available to stream online.
Classical MPR's goal for the Class Notes Artist program is to create authentic and transformative experiences for young pupils that will inspire their creative pursuits, and be a meaningful addition to what they are already learning from their music teachers.