By Eric Hopkins, paid to play the triangle.
“Wow, you’ve got the best job in the world! I mean, how hard it can be to play the triangle?” Oh no you didn’t.
I would try to convince you that the triangle is an extremely challenging and complex percussion instrument, the intricacies of which can only be mastered after years of diligent practice. But I’m not. Because that is not exactly the truth.
The truth is that anyone can play the triangle. It is one of the most basic musical instruments. I mean, its name is the shape. You hit a triangle-shaped piece of metal with another piece of metal, and “Ding!” No worries about hitting a wrong note or playing out of tune. You don’t even have to bother with note length; just hit it and you’re done.
But that’s not exactly true either.
The truth is that the triangle is part of a collection of percussion instruments, that together, warrant a profession in which one strives to master the art of performance. Through manipulation of timbre (sound color) and articulation (length), one can start to convey the common musical elements of phrasing, clarity, texture, balance, and finesse, to name a few. This holds true from snare drum and xylophone to tambourine and triangle.
So what makes tasteful triangle playing, if there is such a thing?
Imagine yourself as the professional triangle player you’ve dreamt of being. To get you started, I’ll lend you my triangle collection. This gives you six triangles to choose from, clips to suspend them from, five pairs of graduated steel beaters, and three pairs of graduated brass beaters.
Now we’ll put you in the orchestra. Since I play with the Utah Symphony, and I happen to be playing triangle on Mahler’s Fifth Symphony this week, that’s what you get to play.
Your To-Do list…
- Youtube, Spotify, or tape-deck some recordings of the music and start to get an idea of the tempos, rhythmic challenges, style, and volume of the piece.
- Translate the German musical indications that you do not understand.
- Listen again, specifically for when to let the triangle ring and when to muffle. Quick muffle, taper muffle, or let vibrate? Make up a short-hand notation for this and mark it in your part.
- Decide what triangle(s) to use. Do you want a clear-toned, pristine sounding triangle, or a more shimmery triangle with a bigger overtone spectrum? Or somewhere in between? Articulation or smoothness?
- Decide what beaters to use. Stainless steel or the more malleable brass? Heavy or light, and to what degree?
- Decide where on the triangle you want to hit, depending on the desired timbre. Dark sound or light sound?
- Decide if you want to play that tricky passage in the fifth movement with one hand as normal, or to mount the triangle on a special stand, freeing both hands.
- Vibrato or no vibrato?
- Now practice along with your favorite recording, then with five others. Do your sounds blend with the orchestra in context, or do you need to make adjustments?
- Get to know the part well enough so that nothing can throw you off (nerves, curve balls from the conductor, etc.).
- Practice counting the rests. You don’t play all the time, but you need to know when to play if the music says “Tacet until you play,” which it does in this piece.
- Practice your triangle roll. It’s unlike any other percussion instrument technique, and it will be really obvious to the audience if there are hiccups and gaps in that clangy metal noise.
- Practice your soft playing. Thierry Fischer, our music director, really likes to exploit soft playing, so make sure you can make that metal-on-metal steel alloy triangle sound really soft and delicate, even under pressure.
- Remember, don’t whiff it, or the conductor may stop the orchestra and make you feel really dumb for messing up something as easy as the triangle.
- Practice hitting the triangle three times in a row and getting the same sound. Good luck!
- Don’t forget to start practicing for next week’s triangle repertoire.
- Don’t mess up!
I think there is a reason why the late George Plimpton, known for his participatory journalism, said that playing triangle with the New York Philharmonic was the scariest thing he ever did– more unnerving than playing football with the pros or playing a role in a film. He writes, “One reason it was terrifying was that in music you cannot make a mistake. If you make a mistake, a big one, you destroy a work of art. The thought of doing this nags, of course, at the consciousness of all musicians, even the very good ones”. That is, possibly, one of the reasons why orchestral music as a career path is such a niche community. Of the 15,000 music graduates in 2003, for example, there were approximately 160 job openings for all orchestral instruments combined, as reported by the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians. That means only 1% of graduating musicians got a job in an orchestra. The odds are no different for percussion. Consider that if 75 cellists audition for an orchestra, the odds of any one person winning are 1 in 75. In percussion auditions, which actually do usually include triangle playing, the odds are not better.
So in summary, the triangle is an extremely simple device, but I do not believe that this changes the difficulty of mastery of this instrument, especially when coupled with the percussion collection as a whole. Compare Yo-Yo Ma playing Hot Cross Buns with a young cellist playing the same. Yo-Yo Ma’s playing will surely stand out, but still both players present a recognizable and fine rendition. The young player can still hit the notes, play mostly in tune, and probably phrase a little too, but Yo-Yo Ma would have extra verve and an overall richer sound. It’s a career spent devoted to mastery of an instrument that, in this case, shows its fruit in such a subtle display.
(Click here to listen to Eric’s interview for NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday)
Eric Hopkins is the associate principal timpanist and section percussionist of the Utah Symphony | Utah Opera. He actually plays much more than just the triangle.
Regarding the San Francisco Symphony’s 2013 musicians’ strike, Anthony Alfidi, a San Francisco investor, writes,
“If the Symphony needs a scab player for the triangle or tambourine to help break the strike, then I volunteer to perform for free. I’ve had no musical education at all but those instruments don’t look that difficult.”