What instrument does a percussionist play? You may think you know the answer: it’s obviously drums, right? According to Josh Jones, principal percussionist of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, it’s actually more accurate to ask, “What doesn’t a percussionist play?”
Jones will have the chance to test out some of the more unconventional percussion instruments this month, when the CPO performs the live score of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone alongside the film for local muggles at the Jubilee Auditorium.
I spoke with Jones about this upcoming movie concert, his life as a orchestral percussionist, and how the CPO continues to make a name for itself in the community.
As the musician in charge of the orchestra’s percussion section, Jones’s role goes far beyond simply providing the drumbeat.
“I assign parts for whatever pieces we play … And then, after that, I look at all of the parts, see how many instruments we’ll need,” he explains. “Also with that, I send (the stage crew) a little map, a setup chart, so they know where to put things.”
He also offers input during rehearsals to other percussionists that play alongside him.
“I’ll tell people to do certain things if I hear something I like or want something different,” he says. “I have control over the sounds that are made back there, so it’s my responsibility to make sure they’re all appropriate and sound good.”
Jones only recently joined the CPO (his first concert was Salute to Vienna on New Year’s Day this year), but his musical experience began many years earlier.
“When I was in fourth grade, I was lucky to be accepted into a program that taught orchestral percussion … It was a free program that I was allowed to be in for nine years — so from fourth grade on to when I graduated high school,” he says. “And then after that, when I went to college, they hired me as their assistant director, so I was able to help teach and do stuff with the organization as well.”
This early experience provided Jones with a strategy when it comes to working with the more obscure instruments in a composer’s arsenal.
“The way I was brought up in percussion is that no matter what you hit, you should be hitting it the same way, with the same concept, at least. You’re supposed to stay relaxed, let the mallet or whatever we’re striking the instrument with do all of the work, let it bounce — or we call ‘rebound’ — off of the instrument,” he describes. “If we need more sound, we add more weight instead of force and muscle, and if we need less sound, we … decrease the amount of weight or speed.”
This approach will undoubtedly come in handy when the CPO plays John Williams’ score from the first Harry Potter film.
“One of the big things is that movie scores are a lot more involved, usually, for percussion than most things — it’s not only the parts that are playing with the orchestra, but also sound effects as well. So, yeah, it could be everything and the kitchen sink, basically,” he says. “Instrumentation is the biggest hurdle that we usually have to go through.”
Jones is also a firm believer in making the orchestra accessible to more people, and presenting this movie concert is definitely a way to accomplish this.
“From personal experience, I know that going to see live music is definitely something different, especially nowadays,” he says. “With the added effect of having a live orchestra (alongside the movie) … when you hear something go boom, it’s actually there with you, it’s not in the movie or on the soundtrack, it’s right there.
“It’s such a different feeling … very nostalgic, but feels super new at the same time, so, yeah, at the very least it gives people a fresh experience for what they like.”
In addition to his regular duties as principal percussionist, Jones will actually also be featured as a soloist in the CPO’s upcoming 2018-2019 season, performing Gareth Farr’s Percussion Concerto in April of 2019.
“I guess I’m looking forward to and not looking forward to that … because I’ve only played one concerto in my life and that was when I was like 14 or 15,” he admits. “And this concerto seems, or at least sounds, pretty crazy!”
Only four months in, his experience with the CPO has gone far beyond what he ever could have expected.
“Without getting super sappy, it’s definitely something I never thought I’d be doing — I thought I’d just have a little (percussion) section job somewhere and I’d just, you know, go to work everyday … I didn’t know I’d be principal and then doing assignments every week and having concertos!”
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone In Concert takes place Friday, May 18 and Saturday, May 19 at 7:30 p.m., with a Saturday matinee at 2 p.m. Tickets for this performance and future concerts, including those in the CPO’s 2018-2019 season, are available at calgaryphil.com.
Jill Girgulis is a student at the University of Calgary and a regular contributor for thegauntlet.ca as well as buzzfeed.com. When she’s not busy studying for her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree, she can most often be found in one of the first three rows of the Jack Singer Concert Hall.