Sonic Innovation #13 - Respecting the Triangle
Few instruments have earned as bad a reputation as the triangle - it's considered the ugly duckling of the music world, second only to the cowbell or the tiny guitar-like instrument virgins with fedoras play. It’s seen as deceptively simple; a no trick pony; the instrument that can’t be remixed.
Eric Hopkins, a percussionist in the Utah Symphony, thinks differently and believes the triangle deserves more thought towards the small but integral role that it plays in an orchestra.
Eric recently laid out a seventeen-step guide to becoming a professional triangle player in a blog post for the symphony. Among gems like “don’t mess up!” he set out a whole new way of seeing how the triangle fits into an orchestra, tonally.
I contacted Eric to find out more about the underdog instrument of the classical world and why everyone should cut it some slack.
Noisey: So Eric, is the triangle really that hard to play?
Eric: Yes and no. My first experience of playing triangle was in the Naples Philharmonic Youth Orchestra. About six months into my newfound orchestra experience, we were playing an orchestral piece that had only a single triangle note in the entire percussion part. This forte (loud) note was wedged between literally hundreds of bars of rest, which makes it harder to count. So I managed to lose count, played the note with a 1 in 950 chance of being right, and sat down in my chair, thinking about what an idiot I was. The conductor didn't stop; I don't think he even knew. But it didn't matter to me. We never went back to that spot in rehearsal that day, so I just didn't get to play. I thought, "I drive here on the weekend, further than anybody else by a landslide, just to get to this damn rehearsal and sit here like an idiot." I left that rehearsal and never came back.
Did that halt your triangle-playing career somewhat?
Yeah, I let the triangle get the best of me. I didn't come back to it until college. Now that I'm a professional, that piece still presents the same danger. If I play that piece again and I miss that note in a concert, I still get paid the same, but the embarrassment of it being wrong is still there.
Sounds like a lot of pressure. How skilled do you need to be to play the instrument properly though?
Look at this analogy: Any middle school violinist can play “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. How does that compare to famous violinist Jascha Heifetz playing the same tune? It's easy to play, but deceptively difficult to master.
In your blog post you laid out the steps to triangle success, what would you say are the most important steps?
To be clear, I say that term somewhat facetiously. Nobody makes a significant salary by solely playing the triangle. Orchestral percussionists, however, often play this handheld instrument.
But to go along with the humour of it, the three critical tasks in climbing the ranks of triangle stardom are:
1. Acquire said triangle, beaters, and a clip for suspending the instrument.
2. Develop hand and finger muscles as to gain speed, agility, and consistency.
3. Be a boss.
How have people responded to it?
Non-musicians really found the article amusing. Musicians found it amusing and educational, and sometimes hyperbolic (I can imagine their eyes rolling now). One fellow percussionist disagreed with me, saying actually that you just have to hit the darn thing.
I agree with the philosophy of not overthinking simple tasks, that's my motto, but I think it's fruitful to look at triangle playing both ways.
True, are there actually any famous triangle virtuosos?
Well I'm the only one I know that has given a triangle lesson on NPR News Weekend Edition. Other than that, probably Ed Grimley.
I don’t think he counts somehow. What makes the triangle unique as an instrument though?
Lots of things! The triangle has a unique make-up, acoustically. All pitches are contained in the sound of a quality triangle so that it blends with any tonality in the ensemble. A bad triangle sounds like a dinner bell, like a sing-able pitch. A good triangle on the other hand has a complex set of overtones, which produces a rich, shimmery sound.
How do non-musicians react when they find out that you play the triangle?
They laugh, naturally. Or if they're polite, they just don't say anything and look confused.
What about the other players within the symphony?
They probably think something like - 'he and I get paid the same?'
Will we ever see instrument equality in the orchestra?
Well we all get paid equally from instrument to instrument. Other than that, I guess asking everyone to have the same opinion is pretty scary.
Follow Dan on Twitter: @KeenDang