Friday, October 1, 2010

Musical Inventions Necessitated by Being a Percussionist

Plato is reported to have said “Necessity is the mother of invention” about 2,400 years ago. As far as we know, he did not have the advantage of being a percussionist. Drummers invent things all of the time simply because playing their instruments or moving quickly from one instrument to another demands it. Sometimes these inventions are commercially-available products; more often than not, one must build a device based on one’s own idea, or on a concept borrowed from a fellow percussionist.

castanet base
Percussionist Dan Diamond, who has been with the Concord Band since 1970, learned while in high school that percussionists are required to be inventive. The first stand he ever saw that allowed a player to quickly pick up and put down a pair of crash cymbals was made by Warren Myers, then principal percussionist of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra (formerly with the Boston Pops) and director of Dan’s high school band. Dan still uses a pair of castanets mounted for him by Myers on a plastic base more than 50 years ago.

wind machine
The first device that Dan was called upon to construct was in his earliest days as a member of both the Band and the Concord Orchestra, which he joined at the same time: a “wind machine”. It was called for by Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle, being performed by the Orchestra. Amazingly, it was needed by the Band in the very next season for Robert Russell Bennett’s Down to the Sea in Ships. A percussion wind machine produces not wind but the sound of wind. The Internet not yet having been invented, there was no way to determine easily how existing wind machines had been constructed, so Dan contacted Everett Beale, a neighbor and one of Boston’s leading free-lance professional percussionists, who described to Dan on the phone how the Boston Symphony’s wind machine was constructed.

When Neil Tischler, a consulting mechanical engineer, joined the Band percussion section in 1972, he and Dan discussed the need for a crash cymbal stand. Neil designed and built the stand that the Band still uses (photo, right). In the opinions of many percussionists, Neil’s design is more functional than the commercial products that finally became available 20 or so years ago. The principal drawback of the latter is that while several different players, located yards apart on the stage, may have to play the crash cymbals in the same piece of music, these stands do not have wheels. When the Band found it useful to acquire a commercial stand a few years ago so that one could remain at Fruitlands during the summer and one be kept at 51 Walden for rehearsals, Buck Grace, a Band percussionist since 1995, built a rolling base for the commercial stand.

While still on the subject of cymbals, but this time those referred to as “suspended,” we have two more Concord Band inventions. Neil Tischler, who plays drum set in the Band whenever it is called for, realized many years ago that it would be convenient to be able to stack two cymbals several inches apart on one stand (as long as the upper cymbal is much smaller in diameter than the lower, always the case when it is a “splash” cymbal). Being an accomplished machinist, about 20 years ago Neil fabricated an extension to the upper arm of a suspended cymbal stand by threading both ends of a steel rod: one end internally and one externally: The cymbal post extension was born.

Dan Diamond prefers to hang a suspended cymbal from a “crook” rather than to put it on the post of a suspended cymbal stand. This requires that a leather cymbal strap—similar to the kind used for crash cymbals—be attached to the cymbal. The problem with this is that it takes a few minutes to untie and retie the special knot that holds a cymbal strap to a cymbal, meaning that it becomes inconvenient to quickly switch a suspended cymbal from “crook” use to “stand post” use. So Diamond invented a quick-change strap that goes on and comes off in seconds.

Dan Diamond is the senior member of the Concord Band, having joined the ensemble in January, 1970. He is a percussionist who began his lifelong love affair with the snare drum 63 years ago. His is also the founder/ editor of our newsletter, Notes from the Concord Band.