Life as a percussionist: a conversation with Sacha Johnson

At a recent concert we had a rare treat on the programme: Ney Rosauro’s Concerto No 1 for Vibraphone, one of the few vibraphone concertos around. And we were honoured to be performing it with renowned percussionist Sacha Johnson. And he has kindly given us a bit of an insight into the life of a percussionist.

At what age did you start playing percussion and what made you decide to become a percussionist?

I started playing the snare drum at the age of 7. I was also playing the piano at the time, but percussion took over by the time I was in secondary school. I think I liked the variety of all the different instruments because it allowed me to show off a bit.

There are so many instruments in the percussion section. As a percussionist, do you have to be able to play all of them, and which one is your favourite/ least favourite?

As a percussionist, you are expected to be able to play the full range of orchestral percussion instruments (snare drum, tuned percussion, timpani, tambourine, triangle, cymbals, bass drum) to an extremely high standard. In addition, we might also be asked to play the drum kit and a range of Latin percussion instruments as well as a whole host of auxiliary percussion instruments. The range of percussion instruments is so huge that it is almost impossible to be proficient on all of them. In the last 12 months I’ve had to play the Bodhran (Irish folk drum), the spoons and the steel drums. I like playing all of the instruments, but the vibraphone has been a favourite since my student days.

What is the most challenging part of being a percussionist – either as a soloist or playing as part of an orchestra?

For me, the challenge of being a percussionist is in providing the right sound for whatever music I’m playing. This means that I’m always listening to myself while I’m playing in order to make the music the very best that it can be. I also make it a personal challenge that whenever I’m playing, I want those that I’m working with to have a positive response. That also helps the music to be good.

Have you ever taken out your frustration on the timpani?

Not yet!!!!!

In your bio, you call yourself a self-confessed percussion anorak. What would you say are the most common misconceptions about percussionists?

The single most popular misconception is that percussion is easy. After all, don’t you just hit them?!!! While it’s true that some of the percussion instruments are quite easy to play, other instruments like the snare drum or tuned percussion require a lot of practice in order to play them well. Remember, most musicians only need to be skilful on one instrument whereas a percussionist has to be as good on several instruments.

What achievement in your musical career are you most proud of?

That’s an almost impossible question to answer at the moment. There are so many things that I’m proud of in my career, it would be hard to single out just one.

Do you have a favourite piece of music, and what is on your bucket list of “pieces I’d love to play”?

My musical taste is quite eclectic, so I have lots of favourite pieces of music. As a kid, my interest in classical music was such that I’d go to my local library and copy out the timpani and percussion parts to symphonies by Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Mahler. I also love anything by The Modern Jazz Quartet and of course, Stevie Wonder.  At the moment, because of my children, I’m having a bit of a Michael Jackson renaissance. In the classical world I am lucky enough to have played many of the pieces that would have been on my ‘bucket list’ but I’d also love to play some more of the jazz repertoire.

If you could choose to play any other instrument, what would it be and why?

I really liked the sound of the bassoon and the cello when I was a kid, but the French horn was my firm favourite. It looked really cool and always sounded so heroic, especially when the section played together. It’s still my favourite, after percussion.

Best advice you’re received in your musical career?

  2. If in doubt…always ask.

Any advice you’d give to aspiring percussionists?

  1. PRACTICE as often as possible.
  2. LISTEN every time you play and practice.
  3. ENJOY yourself and have fun.

And a few quick-fire questions

Beach holiday or city break?


Starter or dessert?


Most disliked instrument?

Don’t have one. Sorry

Dog or cat?


Famous person (dead or alive) you’d most like to meet?

Lionel Hampton- Drummer and vibraphone player who made the first vibraphone recording in 1929.