Corrections or additions?

This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the October 8,

2003 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Percussion Rules: Hit, Bang, Fondle

It’s fun playing percussion," says She-e Wu,


of the Rutgers Percussion Ensemble, "but a conductor expects you

to play everything and to play it well. With percussion, there are

aspects of the whole world — Brazil, Africa, steel drums from

Trinidad, the tabla from India. It can take a lifetime to master one

instrument. The biggest difference between percussionists and other

instrumentalists is that the others focus on just one instrument."

Wu is both thoughtful and sunny. She is only fleetingly daunted by

the dimensions of the realm in which she works. To the contrary, she

looks out constantly for additional objects that she and her students

can hit, bang, and fondle. Her domain, the Mason Gross Percussion

Studio, on the Douglass College campus, goes beyond the assorted


marimbas, xylophones, gongs, triangles, and cymbals that the trivia

devotee might list as percussion devices.

Scattered among the standard instruments are items not normally


as musical. A group of rusty automobile parts commands attention.

Acquired at a junk yard, they are the brake drums from a motley group

of discarded vehicles. One still bears the marking "Celica,"

another is labeled "VW." Ready to be put to use, in addition,

are a flower pot, a plastic garbage can, wooden stools, and lengths

of metal pipe.

Interviewed in her office across the hall from the studio, Wu claims

that she does not eyeball the whole world all the time looking for

surrogate instruments. But then the inventiveness that makes her a

playful mentor takes over. "Sometimes, when you see an empty can

you start wondering what it sounds like," she says.

Wu produces three small ceramic bowls from the desktop and plays them

in turn with her fingers. They produce clear, resonant pitches, the

beginning notes of "Big Ben’s" signature tune. She pulls


drum sticks from a desk drawer and uses each of them on the three

bowls. Each stick makes a different sound. Her eye falls on a key

ring. With a glow of discovery, she engages each bowl with the keys.

"That sounds great," she pronounces. Moving on, she holds

a bowl with one hand to dampen its sound as she taps it with her other

hand. Then she varies the length of time her fingers stay in contact

with the bowl, observing that it is possible to modify the duration

of the sound.

Wu’s 17 proteges, who make up the Rutgers Percussion Ensemble, give

a concert at Nicholas Music Center on the Douglass College campus

Friday, October 10, at 8 p.m. A second performance by the group this

semester takes place on Friday, November 7.

Wu mentions the high points of the October performance. One piece

is scored for PVC pipes; the length of the plastic tubes varies.


play them with sticks," she says, "we’ll hit the pipes against

each other, and we’ll pound them on the floor. We’ll try to have


lighting for the piece."

There will also be a sextet, with each performer using three drums,

making a total of 18 instruments. "Each player will have a bass

drum and two tom-toms, so it will be very energetic and loud,"

Wu says. "I’ll check whether the structure of Nicholas can


the piece, and I’ll give out ear plugs." When she perceives my

wonderment, she quickly says, "That was a joke."

Wu plans to conduct "Crown of Thorns," a piece

by David Maslanka, inspired by the plant, and scored for five


two vibraphones, and glockenspiel. "It’s quite moving," she


"The Percussion Ensemble rehearses a lot," Wu says. "For

the students, the process of preparing a concert is a learning


For me it’s a rewarding experience to see them playing together in

an intimate situation. I try not to conduct very much. It’s chamber

music. The performers have to have a very good sense of time in their

heads. Their ears have to become like this," she says, holding

her hands 18 inches apart.

Now 30, Wu grew up in Tainan, about four hours south of Taipei,


Her father, director of a national park in Taiwan, and her mother,

a high school counselor and nurse, divorced when Wu was 17. When she

talks about her mother, Wu’s face lights up. "It’s funny,"

she says, "my parents were not musicians, but both of their kids

went into music." Her brother is a violinist.

Wu started studying piano at three and a half. "My Mom and I


a music store, and I saw the kids inside playing piano," she


"We went in, and my Mom says I was so fascinated that I couldn’t

speak. She says it took all of her energy to get me to leave."

By the time she was six, Wu’s mother thought she should start a second

instrument, and pointed her towards her own favorite instrument, the

French horn. The experiment was a failure, and Wu took the initiative

for finding a second instrument. "I asked, `What about those drums

in the back of an orchestra?’" she says. "And my Mom said OK,

and found timpani teachers. I practiced on a couch at home, and on

full-sized timpani in school. The conductor built a platform about 15

inches tall so I could reach the timpani in school. By fifth grade,

when I outgrew it, he built another one for me."

Beginning with third grade, Wu attended a special elementary school.

"We had to audition for it," she says. "There were


music classes. We had to do everything the other kids did, but in

half the time. The other half was music. Western music was the focus.

But we also studied Chinese instruments and Chinese opera." After

timpani, Wu learned to play snare drum for orchestra, xylophone, and


Her introduction to marimba was the conventional approach, with two

mallets, one in each hand; the student plays one note at a time. The

method is still widely used today. "When you switch to four


two in each hand, you feel as if you’re starting from the beginning

again, "Wu says. "I believe you should start with four


and also use two. With the four you can learn chords, and it’s also

better for understanding music theory." She demonstrates by


a riff from "The Flight of the Bumblebee" with two mallets

in one hand.

In addition to her musical activities as a child, Wu also studied

watercolor and ballet. "Taiwanese parents are very eager to have

their kids learn as much as possible when they’re young," she


Pursuing marimba through high school, Wu thought she was not getting

enough information about how to handle the instrument. She was dating

a percussionist, who left for the University of North Texas (UNT)

to study with Ed Soph, a drum set teacher. At the time the reputation

of percussion at the university had not yet caught up with its


Wu took the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) test and

passed. "I could understand English, and had a good sense of


she says. Accepted, at UNT, she followed her high school friend to

Texas when she was 17. "We broke up immediately," she says.

"He gave up music and became a minister, because music reminded

him of me."

"I couldn’t speak English when I came to Texas," she says.

"I’ll never forget the first lecture in music history. I looked

up and everybody was taking notes. But I was completely lost. I was

having major culture shock in Denton, Texas. It was a small town,

very different from Taiwan."

"I spent the first couple of months not talking," says the

voluble Wu. But she made friends in the percussion department and

studied for four years with Soph before earning a master’s degree

at UNT. While she worked with Soph she learned to play steel drums.

With an array of instruments to manage, a percussionist

necessarily thinks differently from the master of a single instrument.

"I think differently with each instrument," Wu says. Perhaps

the shift is something like switching languages or alternating between

a car with automatic transmission and one with a stick shift.

Wu explains her orchestral timpani thinking. "Timpani add color

to the orchestra," she says. "If you’re playing with strings

you have to ask, `Should we play like them?’ If you’re playing with

oboe, you have to remember that they have to take a breath. With


there’s always a slight crescendo on a note because of how the


breathes. But timpani can also be a solo instrument. If you’re the

soloist, you think like a pianist and consider your own sound, rhythm,

and articulation."

"Much as I love timpani," Wu says, "I’ve concentrated

on marimba since I was 20." She travels extensively. An estimated

30 concerts a year, from Madrid to Minneapolis and Tennessee to Taipei

keep her away from Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts, where

she is an assistant professor. Her previous academic posts were at

West Virginia University in Morgantown and at the University of North


Wu is convinced that she can transmit to her students much of what

she has learned. "You can teach a lot of things," she says.

"Almost everything is teachable." Nevertheless, there are

limits. "You can influence someone’s life as a mentor. You can

teach discipline, or a work ethic. But you can’t change how a student

progresses over time.. Everybody has their own pace. It depends on

their talent level_their basic musical instinct, their ability to

read music, their sense of rhythm, and of phrasing."

Wu uses a Socratic method in her teaching, asking questions to


learning. With percussion students exposed, often, to various quirky

ways of making music, she likes to ask, "What do you see? How

do you phrase that?" The students are ultimately responsible for


"You open students’ possibilities," Wu says. "I tell them,

`Today, I will set you free.’ When you see `forte’ [loud], it can

mean different things. There are no dynamic [loud and soft] police.

Forte is different in a practice room, in an orchestra, and in an

ensemble. Music is like painting. When we talk about dynamic, we don’t

want just black and white. We want a wide spectrum of grays. The


player needs to know how to make the mix."

— Elaine Strauss

Rutgers Percussion Ensemble, Mason Gross Performing

Arts Center , Nicholas Music Center, Douglass Campus, 85 George

Street, New Brunswick, 732-932-7511. $10. Friday, October 10, 8


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