HOW I TURNED MY BODY INTO AN '80S DRUMKIT WITH POWER UP
By Stephanie Eslake, TSO News, May 2022
If the term “body percussion” sounds experimental, I’d challenge you to think about the way you’ve already played it. How many times have you clapped along to a beat? Tapped your toes? Patted a rhythm onto your legs?
Body percussion is not a difficult instrument to perform – though learning an entire piece of new music, and playing it in time with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, is a challenge. Luckily, it’s a fun one, and it’s accessible to anyone who wants to give it a go.
This is the POWER UP experience. It’s a new composition by TSO ACS Composer in Residence Holly Harrison; you may have seen her on Facebook speaking enthusiastically about this new project.
“This title, Power Up – what might that mean? Well, I’m imagining that when you’re getting ready to perform the piece, we’re energising ourselves,” Holly begins.
This instrumentation of orchestra and body percussion may be fairly new to me, but the TSO’s body of educational resources is not: UKE BOX, Recorder Lift Off, and TUNE IN are just a few of the Learning and Engagement resources that have launched over the past few years.
POWER UP has now joined them. Many will test this one in the classroom, but not everyone needs to be a student or teacher. Me? I’m checking it out from the comfort of my living room.
I should feel relaxed enough to get moving in new and unusual ways. But secretly, I feel a jittery combination of excitement and nerves when I read about how the piece draws “inspiration from ‘80s rock” – and that I will be imitating a drumkit.
Am I cool enough to become an instrument? It’s time to find out.
Finding the beat
First, I visit the TSO website and start exploring. I figure I should listen to Power Up before performing it, and my first impression of the music is that it’s pretty wild: it sounds not only like an ‘80s rock hit, but like the score to an ‘80s action-adventure film. It’s suspenseful, dramatic, and a little bit witty. Brass guides the music; strings underpin the work with a driving theme. Eventually, it gets bigger and louder until finally wrapping up with a Hollywood-esque clatter and bang.
After listening to the percussion part in this recording, I’m no longer feeling nervous. With a beat like that, it’s hard not to bounce along! So begins my POWER UP journey.
I get started with the video Learn the Body Percussion Patterns. It’s presented by music educator Angela Chapman, and her script is translated by an Auslan interpreter. Through the recording, they tell me I’ll need to be sitting down to perform this work, but I’ve jumped the gun – I’m already up on my feet! Taking a seat again, I prepare to learn the six rhythmic patterns that will recur throughout the Power Up music.
I’m surprised to see the music notated on the screen. With patterns of just a few bars long, this offers a simple introduction to sightreading music – and to body percussion. The lines on the staff read clap, chest, stomach, and thighs to indicate the body parts used for each note. For teachers or students who can read music, dynamics (loud or soft) and accents (the way you emphasise a note) are added. In no time, I’m clapping a beat, patting my tummy, and tapping my chest in time with Angela.
We repeat the patterns a few times to commit them to memory. At this point, I find myself relying heavily on the notes displayed on the screen – reading along with the music so I don’t pat my stomach when I’m supposed to be clapping.
Angela says: “There’s no prize for being the loudest.” But let’s be honest – in a classroom, kids are going to be bursting with energy as they smile, pat, and tap in time to the beat.
There are plenty of opportunities to test-run each pattern. With the first new rhythm in my body, I’m already joining in like a pro. From there, I take on the following challenges – including sequences that progress up the body from thigh-slaps up to a clap (playing along to the brass theme); and vocal percussion parts (“ch” and “zzzzz” sounds).
I rarely need to pause the video, because it’s easy to follow along, and doesn’t require me to rewind in order to learn or remember something. As the rehearsal comes to an end, I’m ready to make my debut and perform Power Up with the world-class musicians of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra! (From my chair.)
Performing with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra
I now feel confident and prepared. I know my parts fairly well, thanks to Angela’s recorded instructions. And I’ll probably make a mistake or two, but who cares?
Luckily, Angela remains on screen in the performance video – so I feel more in control of the rhythms I’ve rehearsed as I see them reflected back to me. I want to tell her: “Angela, we’ve got this!” (But I don’t think those words are written into the vocal line alongside “ch” and “zzzzz”.)
Angela counts in with her fingers – and I’m immediately dismayed that there’s no more music notation on the screen. Then I remember the resources – the score is available online if I need to read it while the video is playing. But with a little trust in myself, I realise the beat is already within me. And when I forget it, I can listen out for the TSO-recorded instruments that play in time with the rhythms I’ve learnt, or I can follow along with Angela.
By the time the final pattern of Power Up hurtles to its conclusion, I’m excited to see if I can keep up! Can I make it to the climactic “Oi!” at the end? (I can – just. And I have a great time trying!)
Should you give POWER UP a go?
Yes. Going into POWER UP, I knew it’d be a fun activity to try out. But what I didn’t know was just how many skills I would be utilising along the way.
By the end of Power Up, I realised I’d learnt a new piece of music from scratch. I’d used sight-reading skills. I’d used active listening skills. I’d engaged in a memory exercise – including muscle memory. I’d practised spatial awareness. I’d put everything aside to concentrate on a single task. (And whether you’re an adult or child, opportunities for pure concentration are hard to come by these days.)
POWER UP is a genuinely enjoyable activity, and one that I can see making its way into classrooms or even family homes that nurture a love of music. The beauty is that you don’t need access to resources like a drum kit or other instruments – you can still learn the music anyway. And we all know how important that is: learning music helps kids become smarter, and adults become calmer. When we do it together, it helps forge rewarding relationships and enhance our social wellbeing.
Personally, I’m looking forward to playing Power Up again during my working week. It’ll give me a few minutes to get refreshed, listen to some new Australian music, and engage in a bit of upper body exercise while I’m sitting at the desk. What’s not to love?