Finger Sticking

  1. Do you Udu?
  2. All too short
  3. Pan Day Ro? Shaker Ray!

Finger percussion duet ; 2011 ; Duration ca. 10 minutes 30 seconds

    Percussion instruments:
  • First movement: Player one: udu ; Player two: one octave crotales; vibraphone; large and small tom toms
  • Second movement: Player one: djembe ; Player two: darbuka
  • Third movement: Player one: pandeiro ; Player two: shekere; two bongos; two congas

During a discussion one day in the spring of 2010 with percussionist Michael Burritt, I noted my current interest in writing music for two accomplished soloists, and also, at another point, marveled at the explosive proliferation of virtuosic young percussion players during the past decade. Michael suggested that I write a duo that focused on finger percussion performance techniques, and also gave me a quick demonstration on a few of his instruments.

In this resulting work I sought to incorporate some of the unique performance resources and traditions associated with the udu, the doumbek (and its cousin, the darbuka), the pandeiro, the shekere, and bongos and congas. At times the music accentuates an independence between the two players and the musical threads that each develops, often through cross-rhythm subdivisions such as three-against-four. At other times, however, the music is intended to sound and feel as though it were being played by a single performer with four hands.

One of the most intriguing aspects of finger percussion is the manner in which various types of strikes (e.g. bouncing, slapping or swiping one or more fingers) against various parts of these instruments can result not only in a multitude of colors, articulations and accents, but also in subtle (or not-so-subtle) variations in pitch. It is a medium in which pitch, rhythm, color, inflection and loudness are wonderfully intertwined.

At the same time, however, attempts to notate these often rapid and continuous variations in strike types and strike points can quickly lead to a very complicated, recondite-looking score, with so much intricate information for the performers to process, prepare and execute that it becomes difficult for them to play with spontaneity, energy and enthusiasm. This notational conundrum -- how much of the desired articulative, coloristic and accentual variety and subtlety to incorporate into the notation, and how much of these aspects of the musical expression to leave to the musical imagination and intelligence of the performers -- slowed me down considerably while I was writing this piece. Some passages went through several revisions, not in the basic content or structure of the music, but in the level of detail of the notation. In attempting to resolve this dilemma I even toyed with devising a new tablature-type notation that would indicate where and how to strike the instruments, rather than the intended sound of the music, but quickly abandoned these pictograms because they seemed to raise at least as many ambiguities and encumbrances to lively performance as they solved. The score excerpts below indicate the kinds of compromises on which I finally settled, and with which I am generally (but not completely) satisfied.

To a greater degree than in most of my other compositions, however, certain passages have benefited from or required some discussion with the players. In a few cases they have suggested performance techniques that proved better suited to conveying the desired sweep of the music than what I originally had notated.

Additionally, udus, pandeiros, shekeres, djembes and dabukas come in a variety of sizes and shapes, and can be constructed from different materials, with corresponding differences in pitch and tone color. Goatskin pandeiros may have a deeper, more resonant sound than pandeiros with plastic heads, and a greater differentiation between center strikes with the thumb and edge strikes with the other fingers. But plastic heads may produce more defined, incisive rhythms in rapid passages. Some pandeiros have bright, ringing platinellas (jingles) like those on a tambourine, while the jingles on other pandeiros are much more muted. The side and top holes on udus may sound like bass and treble tones, respectively, or there may be little distinction in pitch and color. Bongos and congas can be tuned to produce a bright, "pinging" tone color or a deeper, more resonant, less accented sound. Thus, the rhythmic and timbral qualities of a work such as Finger Sticking can vary considerably from one performance to another depending up the players' choice of instruments, or simply upon what instruments are available for a performance.

PDF score excerpts

MP3 audio excerpts
Sean Conners and Christopher Clarino, percussionists

  • First movement
    This excerpt begins approximately 40 seconds into the first movement. Player 1 is playing an udu and player 2 is performing on vibraphone, a one octave crotale set and two tom toms. Duration : 57 seconds; size 1.8 MB; encoding 256 kBit stereo

  • Second movement
    This excerpt, featuring djembe (player 1) and darabuka (player2) begins about 1/3 of the way through the second movement. The soft swishing sounds (e.g. 12 seconds into the excerpt) are produced by the performers dragging or swiping their fingertips quickly over the drum head membranes. Duration : 74 seconds; size 2.3 MB; encoding 256 kBit stereo

  • Third movement
    In this excerpt, which begins about 50 seconds into the third movement, performer 1 is playing a pandeiro and performer 2 a shekere. During a brief pandeiro solo (beginning 16 seconds into the excerpt) performer 2 switches instruments, re-entering 26 seconds into the excerpt and performing the rest of the movement on 2 bongos and 2 congas. Duration : 62 seconds; size 1.9 MB; encoding 256 kBit stereo

This work was premiered by percussionists Sean Conners and Christopher Clarino on a March 29, 2011 concert presented by the Ossia new music ensemble.

For performance information on this work please send e-mail to the composer at

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Copyright 2011  Allan Schindler
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