Book Reviews: Percussion Instruments and their History

Andy Gleadhill
Thursday, July 1, 2021

Andy Gleadhill takes a look at James Blades' Percussion Instruments and their History, published by Kahn & Averill

Percussion Instruments and their History
Percussion Instruments and their History

In his autobiography Drum Roll, James Blades recalls that in 1966, when looking at an early draft of this book, the publisher remarked, ‘Everybody will learn from this book’; Blades quipped back, ‘I've already learned never to write another’.

The work immediately established itself as the standard reference book on percussion, so it is wonderful to see it reissued with additional chapters: ‘The Modern Solo Percussionist’ by Dame Evelyn Glennie and ‘The Modern Orchestral Percussionist’ by Neil Percy. The main body remains true to Blades’ original quest to catalogue percussion instruments, relate their history, and describe their use in all musical applications. This it continues to do very successfully, but with the addition of the contribution from two of the world's finest exponents of percussion, it has updated its coverage to the present day.

The new chapters look at some of the developments in percussion since the book's last edition. Glennie describes how, by increased interaction with manufacturers, existing percussion instruments have evolved, and new ones have been born; she examines how composers have become more interested in writing for these instruments as well as looking for new sounds to use in their compositions. In his chapter, Percy begins by explaining how professional percussionists have become all-rounders rather than concentrating on specialising in one area. Like Glennie, he describes the development of the myriad instruments that modern percussionists are expected to play, both new and re-inventions of traditional instruments, as well as the ever more sophisticated and demanding techniques required to produce quality sounds. He then goes on to discuss his vast experience of contemporary percussion as the principal percussionist with the London Symphony Orchestra.

As this is an updated edition of the book reflecting the developments in percussion, it might have been helpful to have some mention of the positive effect of the recent blossoming in educational settings across the globe of various percussion-based groups such as Djembe, Samba and Taiko. In addition, a little more on the use of percussion in music therapy and health and wellbeing settings would also have been beneficial.

However, the book remains the seminal work on percussion instruments and their use. Now with the addition of the new chapters, it is even more the essential reference guide for musicians and music educators on all things percussion.

ISBN: 0995757437

Percussion Instruments and their History is priced at £45.95.