NIME: On Parallel Performance Practices: Some Observations on Personalizing DMIs as Percussionists

| Summary and reflection on the article with the above title by: Timothy Roth, Aiyun Huang, Tyler Cunningham – University of Toronto.

As Digital Music Instruments (DMIs) are usually designed and used by technicians rather than everyday musicians and performers, the authors of the article carried out a case study with classically-trained percussionists to analyze their intuitive approach to using digital technology.

In their research of other studies, the authors found performance practice to be an important aspect while creating a DMI. Further on, customizability of electronic instruments could be a helpful way to offer classical musicians (used to only acoustic instruments) an easier way to incorporate electronics into their work.

The study was following the practice-based research methodology and “grounded theory”, carried out as a 2-day introductory workshop, free time to experiment and a final questionnaire. The participants were 10 musicians with many years of musical experience, but almost none with DMIs.

They were all given Arduino Uno microcontrollers with some electronic components and speakers, and an introduction into building and programming a simple instrument with them. Afterwards the participants had two months to experiment, build and expand their setup on their own.

All 10 participants went in different directions, their results can be seen in the following YouTube playlist: Participant Étude Excerpts

YouTube playlist of the study participants’ final performances

The study authors refer to the two approaches from a study by T.Mudd, adressing the “entanglements of agency” in musical interactions, namely: communication-oriented and material-oriented perspectives.

They could categorize the participants in these two groups according to their approach of experimenting. Mapping buttons to create a scale, using visual gestures like a finger vibrato on buttons or playing a predefined groove with the Arduino while playing on drums as well could be defined as clear communications of their musical expressions.

Though the majority of participants aimed for the material-oriented approach, experimenting with the speakers, cables and other physical components to alter the dimensions of sounds generated by the Arduino.

From the experiments, the authors could draw conclusions and parallels between percussion and DMI performance practices. According to composer Vinko Globokar, percussionists can be separated into two groups: ones who use separate instruments for different timbre when striking, and others who use one instrument in several ways to create different timbre. This can also be seen in the study, as the manipulation of timbre played a significant role in the majority of the experiments. This was seen within the “material-oriented” participants.

Another finding of the study was the importance of practice and the influence of improvisational music creation attitude. The participants could develop their playing skills on their DIY built instruments within the given weeks of experimentation. This was crucial for precision in the same way as it is with acoustic percussion instruments.

As a result it was underlined that percussion, being a relatively young discipline, can be an optimal area to incorporate digital musical instruments – though braking, or better said “re-adjusting” their tradition.

My Conclusion

Combining the digital DMI with analog percussion instruments can be an interesting way of creating a hybrid digital-analog music by a single percussionist on their own. From this study group, I would have expected a larger number of participants to try the multi-percussion approach and not only focus on the digital components. Additionally I also expected more experimentations with rhythm and melodies, altough there were no real constraints and almost everyone was improvising while creating their music.

I find the approach with Arduino to be a perfect method of getting into simple MDI design, which was also justifyied in this study. I am not quite sure about the further takeaways and lessons learned from this case study, but it is interesting to see the results of experienced musicians when stepping into the new era of using basic digital equipment and trying to express themselves in this new way. Personalisation possibilities of digital interfaces are almost limitless today, which can play a big role not only in getting used to new technologies but also in the performance of the musicians. As music is a very individual and subjective field, DMIs could have a bright future.


Roth, T., Huang, A., & Cunningham, T. (2021, April 29). On Parallel Performance Practices: Some Observations on Personalizing DMIs as Percussionists. NIME 2021.

Retrieved on 15.06.2022 from

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