Art Imitates Life

Art Imitates Life, or maybe more precisely, Art Imitates Practice.

This post will refer back to my previous one from April 8, 2011: Make Your Own Soundtrack. Currently, I'm having a great, real life example of having to create a musical soundtrack. My wife is the music director, and pianist, for a Middle School production of the musical, Mulan. A few weeks ago, she said that percussion would be great to have, especially since I have all the Gongs. I asked to see the percussion part, which they didn't have. So she called the publisher, who said that there is no percussion part/score for this version. Hmmmmm…

Now this version can be performed with a full score CD of backing tracks (which is full of percussion), or a live piano score. They wanted to do the live music. So the first thing I did was listen to the CD, and it was overwhelming! There must be 5 percussion parts of all sorts: Gongs, drums, mallets, etc. What do I play? Which parts do I pick out? How can I basically create a complete percussion score for this musical???

So the first thing I did was attend a rehearsal with just a note book and a pencil. I sat with a copy of the piano score and watched, listened, and made notes. Then I went home and picked out sounds. Then I set up at home and played along with my wife. The only problem was that the piano only part sounded nothing like the fully orchestrated CD. So some of my ideas didn't really work. Back to square one.

Another thing was, because the musical is based in China, it would be easy to go overboard with Gongs, blocks, etc. and have my "performance" become the main focus—this is not my show! So I really wanted to avoid that, and just provide sounds that would enhance the action, helping to keep the story moving along. So this is where my previous blog post above comes into play: I've had experience improvising to films from just playing at home. Now since I've played musicals before, I also knew what they needed from a percussion standpoint. And finally, as an improvising musician, I've learned to listen and react to what's going on around me.

What I Came Up With

I wanted to keep things simple, and create some themes to use, because there is a lot of repetition in the music. This would help tie things together. Here's my set up, kept to a minimum:


  • Star Classic snare w/muffle ring, snares off - used as a Chinese Tom.
  • 18" Paiste 602 Medium - a nice Crash/Ride, used for a lot of cymbal rolls.
  • Ancient LP Wood Block.
  • Small Chinese Opera Gong (muted on towel).
  • A pair of Ting-Sha.
  • Small Chinese Opera Gong (hanging-open sound).
  • 20" Michael Paiste Wind Gong (top) The best Wind Gong I've ever heard!
  • 22" Paiste Accent Gong (bottom) A big, but compact sound. Easily controllable.

Mallets were:
  • Mike Balter cord wound vibe mallets for tom, cymbal & Gong rolls, muted Opera Gong.
  • Balter hard rubber for a nice bright wood block sound.
  • Vic Firth Echo snare sticks (let me control the volume easily and give a focused cymbal sound).
  • Balter GM3 Gong mallet for quick, sharp hits on the large Gongs.
  • Ancient Paiste padded mallet for big, full Gong hits on the large Gongs.

  • The snare is used during the marching/soldier sequences .
  • The cymbal is used during the dreamier musical parts to add atmosphere with cymbal rolls & swells. Also, as a ride, with a cross stick, on the 2 jazz parts.
  • The block & muted Gong are used mostly for one of the themes: alternating quarter notes - block-gong-block-gong-etc., that go with main songs/reprises & dancing.
  • The hanging Opera Gong is for accents and the end of songs. The big Gongs are used for drama, and to enhance some of the action on stage, as well as being played at the curtain opening for both acts (getting the audience's attention).

At first I held back, but then the director said to play more, so I added a few things to enhance the on stage action. But my motto was always: keep it simple! As I didn't want to do anything to throw off the actors. Since this was a middle school production, this was the first time many of the kids had done something like this.

All in all, a great time that drew on a lot of different experiences of mine. As a percussionist you never know what a gig will be like, so you need to be open and be ready for anything. 

~ MB


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