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What Is a Percussionist?

Pianos are percussive based.
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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 29 August 2014
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A percussionist is a musician who has studied percussion instruments, such as drums. People who become percussionists typically have an excellent sense of rhythm, and can use their skills in many ways. Careers for percussionists include performing with an orchestra teaching skills to others, or even playing in a band.

A percussion instrument is any musical instrument that creates a vibrated sound when struck, scraped, or shaken. Although drums are the easiest identified type of percussion instrument, maracas, vibraphones, harpsichords, tambourines and even pianos are all percussive as well. Depending on the instrument and the desired sound, a percussionist can use different techniques to create different types of vibrations, altering the tone and sound of a percussion instrument.

One major job of a percussionist is to provide rhythm to a piece of music. In many musical compositions, it is the drums or percussion section that sets tempo of the piece and helps keep all other instruments playing at the same rate. Some percussionists play instruments more suited to providing melody and harmony, such as harpists and pianists. These more melodic instruments are used less for aiding rhythmic development, and more to provide a melodic line or help set the mood of a piece. Some percussion instruments do an excellent job of providing both melody and rhythm, such as marimbas or vibraphones.

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Learning to play percussion can be done at home or through lessons. Many percussionists start playing in school as part of high school or junior high bands and orchestras. Although a percussionist can be self-taught, the art can also be studied as part of an advanced program, or even at university. Many music programs at colleges offer courses of study that allow incoming musicians to specialize in percussion. An advanced music program can be a wonderful opportunity not only to hone skills on a primary instrument, but to also study the history of music and learn to play different cultural versions of many percussion instruments.

A percussionist can look for jobs in a variety of different areas. Some choose to work with orchestras or other large musical groups, and may find work playing for film score recordings or musical theater. Others seek fame and fortune by forming or joining a small band group and entering the recording industry. A percussionist with a love of teaching can also find employment, either as a private tutor or as a professional teacher at a school. Those proficient in many instruments may also end up as band or orchestra teachers.

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