The one to beat
Cathy Heard says it's really good fun playing in a group. "And you get to experience some of the wonderful music that's been created for percussion. "
Cathy is a member of the Berkshire County Youth Percussion Ensemble and, at 17, has three years' experience of working with the group under its director, Andy Leask. Some musicians have the impression that playing percussion is less demanding than playing "proper" instruments.
"Not true," says Cathy. "In a percussion group you have your own solo part. If you miss something out, or make a mistake, everyone can tell. It's a good musical discipline, too, because playing percussion teaches you to be rhythmically precise. And it helps you gain in confidence."
I attended one of the ensemble's rehearsals of Henry Cowell's Pulse. And no one sitting in with me could have failed to be astounded at the skills of the six members of the group as they tackled this demanding work.
"The hardest thing is that it's in 78 time," says drummer Sam Sowerby. "And it's really fast. But Andy is an excellent conductor and he really does know his stuff."
In addition to drums, Cowell's piece is scored for cymbals, gongs and temple blocks. And the composer employs some less conventional timbres, too. These include rice bowls, played in this ensemble by Cathy Heard, and brake drums and metal drainpipes, which are skilfully managed by Katherine Sowerby.
"Technically, these are just like other percussion instruments," says Katherine. "Although the way they are set out makes them more awkward to play and the sound is different. It's good playing instruments that are so new and exciting. And they work really well in this particular piece."
Andy Leask is head of percussion at the Berkshire Young Musicians Trust, which was established in 1982 to enhance the music education of young people in the county. The trust is contracted by Berkshire County Council to provide musical opportunities in its schools and, at present, some 4,000 pupils participate in bands, choirs, ensembles and orchestras at its four regional music centres.
"Quality is the trust's first aim," says Leask. "And the standards of performance are high in all departments. As for being in the percussion ensemble, the pupils love it. They happily turn up each week for rehearsals and, as a result, we've been very successful in national events such as those organised by Music for Youth."
The percussionists will be joining six of BYMT's other groups when they mount a concert at the Hexagon in Reading later this month. And Cowell's Pulse will be featured, alongside Khachaturian's Sabre Dance, in their contribution to the programme. "It's a fantastic arrangement of the dance," says Leask. "And the piece is technically very challenging for the tuned percussion players, who have to change beaters rapidly, and whose rhythmic accuracy has to be spot on."
Leask feels strongly that the foundations of good percussion work must be laid locally. To this end, he directs nine regionally-based percussion groups for BYMT, and is regularly involved in presenting percussion workshops for pupils and teachers at schools throughout Berkshire.
Celia Armstrong is head of music at Furze Platt School in Maidenhead, and she was delighted with the outcomes of a recent workshop involving her GCSE and A-level students. "Andy began by demonstrating the full capabilities of a range of percussion instruments and immediately gained the respect of all the pupils," she says.
"One of the activities, which they really enjoyed, involved them in building up some quite complex Latin rhythms. I feel that the students came away with a new respect for percussion instruments. And I learned quite a lot, too. "
Berkshire Young Musicians Trust 01734 665015. The BYMT concert is at the Hexagon, Reading, on January 26 at 7pm (tickets 0118 960 6060)