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,
"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
Arts Center , Nicholas Music Center, Douglass Campus, 85 George
Street, New Brunswick, 732-932-7511. $10. Friday, October 10, 8
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