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Forte: Percussionists are the real movers and shakers

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Yakima Symphony Orchestra percussionists show on March 19, 2016, at The Capitol Theatre. (Photo by Gary Miller)

YAKIMA, Wash. -- “Movers and shakers” were the featured instruments at the Nov. 1 “Meet the Orchestra” session at the Yakima Valley Museum’s weekly story hour. To the audience’s delight, guest musician Dave Larson, a percussionist with the Yakima Valley Community Band, shared a full “hands-on” treasure chest of instruments whose job in the orchestra is to keep rhythm, create special sounds and effects and add excitement and color.

It’s a big job, as the percussion family includes the greatest variety of instruments of any in the orchestra. Common instruments include the bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, timpani, triangle, tambourine, maracas, gong, xylophone and wind chimes, with some pieces calling for more unusual instruments such as automobile brake drums, duck calls and tuned wine glasses.

While differing greatly in appearance and size, all percussion instruments produce sounds by actions that set objects into vibration, including hitting with an implement, shaking, rubbing and scraping.

Percussing, or tapping sharply, is not unique to music. Medical practitioners tap the surface of a body part to learn the condition of the parts beneath by the resultant sound; percussive drilling is used in mining exploration and geological sampling; and no carpenter’s tool chest would be complete without the well-known percussive hammer.

Percussion also has a long history in the military, where drum patterns, called rudiments, were used to signal troops in battle. These figured prominently in the “Armed Forces Salute” on the YSO’s recent concert, “The American Dream.”

The upcoming YSO concert, Holiday Pops Spectacular, on Dec. 2-3 will feature percussion instruments in a particularly evocative way in Leroy Anderson’s 1948 classic “Sleigh Ride.” In addition to jingling sleigh bells, percussionists are asked to play wooden Temple Blocks in a manner that simulates the sound of horses’ hooves on cobblestones.

And the piece guarantees at least one annual gig for the professional Slapstick player, whose job here is to provide the crack of a whip.

In large part due to this colorful percussion writing — in addition to the final moment, in which a trumpet is asked to imitate a horse — “Sleigh Ride” has become one of the most popular musical compositions of the winter holidays for almost 70 seasons, and YSO’s movers and shakers will be ready. Come see and hear it for yourself!

• Learn more about the Yakima Symphony Orchestra at

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