Les Misérables pit percussion setup (Schools Edition)

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Les Misérables (Schools Edition) is a slightly shortened version of Les Mis made for the slightly shortened attention span of the intended audience, high school students and their families. It was a fun show for me to play for a number of different reasons, the skill and camaraderie of this particular group of musicians being chief among them. The percussion book also has unique instrumentation and some challenging passages in it, making it a more than worthwhile gig to take on.
The biggest difference between the Schools Edition (SE) show and the full show in the percussion book is the fact that it’s condensed into one part. Because it’s one part built from two, there are many moments where you’re called to play more than one instrument or switch quickly between two, making the arrangement of instruments very important. I don’t know why this was done, but my guess is that the editor knew that MD’s for these school gigs were only going to hire one percussionist anyway, so might as well make it easier on them.
There were some esoteric instruments to scrounge up, and some that required research. This show calls for a “Gavroche drum”, which is certainly not in the Steve Weiss catalog. A little investigation unearthed a comment by Ian Cape, who currently sits in the percussion rig in London’s West End:
So if I had a popcorn snare, I’d have finally had a use for it! Another thing people were using was a children’s toy drum. Either way, a popcorn or toy snare drum plus a field snare, concert snare, and piccolo snare would take up more space than I wanted to indulge on snares, so I ended up using just two: a larger concert snare and a 13″ piccolo.
The next challenge was the trine. If you don’t know, a trine is a newer instrument, functioning much like a bell tree but with a somewhat sinister sound. The only shows that I know of that use it is Les Mis and Wicked. They are a little expensive, $200 last I checked, and kind of hard to store, so I decided to make one. People had done it before, and so armed with a few YouTube videos of what they should look like and sound like, an 8 foot strip of aluminum ($16 at Home Depot), and a little elbow grease, I ended up with this:

The trine ends up as a cue for Valjean’s time as a forced laborer, and is only played with a downward scrape (bell tree-style), so to my ears, this instrument did everything a store-bought trine would do.

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As for the assorted small metal implements called for, I ended up putting them on a brake drum, a Steve Weiss Anvil, a cowbell, and a pair of Tingsha.

As for the drums, it was important to have a station with timpani, toms, and crash cymbals close by for a few different numbers in the first act. In my original setup (shown above) I had four roto-toms set up off to the side as well. In the end, my MD and I both disliked the sound and I ended up putting all the toms & roto-toms parts together on the concert toms. This had the added benefit of getting my trine closer to the low tom, very helpful in the opening tune.



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Shoreline Musical Theater 2018-2019

Looking for musical theater right here in Shoreline? Look no further, here is a combined schedule from several Shoreline venues. This list includes community theater, high school drama departments, and more.

November 30-December 9, Shoreline Community CollegePeter and starcatcher tile

March 2019:


Spring 2019: Shorewood High School Spring Musical (unannounced)

Spring 2019: Shorecrest High School Spring Musical (unnannounced)

May 10-May 19, Shoreline Community Collegedrowsy

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See me with Mr. & Mrs. Muffins tonight



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Buying a recorder

If you’re thinking about buying your own recorder, here’s some recommendations.

Your first recorder: Yamaha 302 Soprano Recorder (click link for Amazon)

If you’re starting out, this is your best bet. At under $20, it is affordable for nearly everyone and still is a high quality instrument. Use this to learn your fingerings, learn to control your air, and the fundamentals of articulation.

More options:

Yamaha YRA-302B Alto Recorder

Yamaha YRT-304B Tenor Recorder

Yamaha YRB-302B Bass Recorder

Alto, tenor, and bass recorders each come with their own challenges. Alto has different fingerings than the soprano, but has a much more pleasing sound. Tenors have the same fingerings as sopranos, but the cost more and take some finesse with your air to get a nice sound. Bass recorders have the challenges of altos and tenors combined, with the extra stumbling block that they are seriously expensive. Committed, advanced users only!

I like the Yamaha 300 line because they have a nice quality level throughout the family of instruments, but they aren’t so expensive as other intermediate instruments. They all use the standard ‘baroque’ fingering, have adjustable tuning joints, and are built to last.

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Next to Normal pit percussion setup

Next to Normal pit percussion setup

Here’s my setup for the drum book for Next to Normal, a musical I’ve been working on with Twelfth Night Productions down in West Seattle. It’s pretty much built around a five piece drum set, since the rhythm section is very prominent in this show. There’s also a lot of rhythmically challenging mallet parts, so I have the bells and “vibraphone” keyboard nestled as close to my music and line-of-sight with the MD as possible. Everything else, i.e. tambourine, shaker, bongos, triangle, wood block, finger cymbals, and djembe, are just wedged in wherever i could fit them.

I tried to get away with as few pairs of sticks & mallets as possible here, so the whole show is played with just the basics: some jazz drum sticks, brushes, and blasticks, rubber Bob Becker 30’s and aluminum bell mallets, and some cord mallets for cymbal rolls. I got a lot of mileage out of my Mike Balter 9AR aluminum bell mallets, on the glock of course but also as a triangle beater. I was surprised how easy it is to get a consistent, controlled sound out of an Alan Abel triangle with one of these.

This is the first show I’ve used a MIDI keyboard to play a percussion part, in this case vibraphone. I feel a little like I’ve joined the dark side but it’s surprisingly handy and better than just putting all of the vibes parts on bells or cymbals. My only complaint is that there is no monitor near me, so I can’t really hear myself play. Overall it has been a positive foray into electronics.

Everyone I know seems to have a personal connection to mental illness and trauma, and this musical deals with those themes in a way that’s a little harrowing at times. The thing that I notice, however, is how insightful the author, Brian Yorkey, seems to be when it comes to the inner workings of families faced mental illness and trauma. As I got to know the show and the characters better, I started finding insight into my own life in a way that doesn’t always happen with musical theater, and for that the painful themes are worth the emotional cost.

Next to Normal has become one of my favorite drum books to play. There’s a lot of up-tempo rock and punk rock, interesting mallet parts, and most importantly a fantastic story with depth and heart.


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Mary Poppins pit percussion setup

The interesting thing about the percussion books for MTI’s Mary Poppins production is that book 1 is almost exclusively pitched percussion. Most of the auxiliary percussion is in book 2 with the drum set. So, while there are fewer instruments in this setup, it’s still about the same size since all the large instruments are here. The part even calls for marimba, although there isn’t one in my setup.
80% of the time I’m playing xylophone, bells, or vibes so I crammed those three as close together as possible to maximize line-of-sight with the bars, the music, and the director. I bought two new pieces of equipment for this rig, the washboard and the bass drum piatti mount. The mount came in handy since there are a few combined BD/cymbal moments for Mr. Banks.

Here’s me playing some of my favorite moments from the show:

Here’s my equipment list:
2 timpani (26″ & 29″)
Bass drum/piatti
15″ & 18″ suspended cymbals
Wind chimes
Tambourine (unmounted)
Bird whistle
We only had one bell tree, so Henry got it in the P2 setup.
Pro-mark Haas timpani mallets (general)
Mike Balter blue vibe mallets x3, brass bell mallets, aluminum bell mallets
Malletech BB34, OR42

I love the OR42r’s; they are so versatile. There are many quick switches between xylophone, bells, and crotales, and the old 42s sound great on all 3. I also recommend the aluminum Balters for a nice and light metallic sound on bells, crotales, or even the wind chimes.

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Wizard of Oz, July/August 2016

2016 Wizard of Oz Studio East 22016 Oz Pit

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