Do you know how many instruments a percussionist plays in the Orchestra of the FNO? While most musicians are dedicated to one, a percussionist’s repertoire might involve a whopping twenty different instruments, depending on the composition.
The percussion section of an opera orchestra is divided into two subsections: timpanists and percussionists. ”A timpanist only plays the timpani, but the basic set of a percussionist includes the bass drum, cymbals, triangle or snare drum – and often more than one of these,” says percussionist and deputy principal timpani Heikki Parviainen.
Many other instruments are often added to the mix, from bells to gongs, xylophone, castanets, carillon, glockenspiel, and more. ”Puccini’s Madama Butterfly,for example, includes gongs, as it’s set in Japan and the composer wanted to showcase that in his music,” Parviainen continues.
Some compositions feature a wide variety of instruments and require several percussionists. ”When it comes to opera composers, Šostakovitš tended to write multiple percussion scores. In Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, for example, I think there were eight of us playing at the same time. On the other hand, there can be twenty different percussion instruments in a composition, but if they’re played one at a time, you only need a single musician,” Parviainen explains.
Percussionists must be prepared to create very unusual effects, too. “If the composer wants to include more exotic sounds, it’s usually up to us percussionists to produce them. Whether it’s blowing a whistle, breaking a glass or playing a toy piano, we’ll fix it. Once I even played a wooden box with a bunch of bright red whisks.”
Listen to samples of different percussion instruments in the video below.