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If all the percussionists are occupied playing more demanding parts, would it be reasonable to expect someone in a nearby section not playing anything to, e.g., play a clear sustained triangle hit on key beats?

Intuitively the answer would seem to be "yes", but having been surprised by the difficulty and nuance of percussion instruments before, I didn't want to assume.

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    I think it depends on how good you want it to sound. Also it will depend on what kind of group you’re working with - If they are unionized musicians there may be rules or extra fees involved. Finally, during a performance or recording, actually moving around at all can have significant sonic consequences. Basically the best option might be to revisit your orchestra and budget for percussionists and either add a player or rearrange things. For recording you can easily overdub or use samples. – Todd Wilcox Feb 19 at 16:27
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    The triangle can be hard even for specialists: youtu.be/ebf6_7nHciw – PiedPiper Feb 19 at 16:48
  • I always laughed at the triangles until I was confronted with getting a good sound out of one, at the right time... that thing is evil! it looks deceptively easy, but don't be fooled :) – Thomas Feb 20 at 21:55
  • Tambourine is probably another instrument that engenders the same untuition that just about anyone can play it. – Barmar Feb 21 at 14:45
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    Depends on the group. It would probably cause a union grievance in an orchestra to have a non-percussionist play percussion. In a rock and roll band, anything goes. – Tony Ennis Feb 22 at 1:19
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This is common in high school, non-conservatory college, and community orchestras and bands. In a professional group, or in a conservatory where the students are working towards being professionals, percussion parts will always be played by percussionists. But outside of this, personnel may be limited, and particular pieces may call for more players than are available, and so unused players of other instruments may be asked to go back and play the easiest parts. Usually they won't do it from their seats, they'll become percussionists for that piece. I would bet that most harpists and orchestral pianists have done quite a bit of it.

As @musicamante described, triangle has a lot more nuance than you'd think (although the cost and choice of the instruments isn't important--a real percussionist will simply lend them the equipment), and so the simplest parts may actually be elsewhere. In particular, pianists will be able to take relatively simple mallet parts.

This kind of thing is also common in musical theater. On top of normal instrument doubling (woodwind doubling being the most common, with many parts asking for 5 or more instruments), sometimes percussion toys are given to players when they're otherwise unused. Sometimes this is asked for in the music, but often it's due to reductions in personnel.

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How much does it take to learn how to play the triangle?

10 seconds.

How much does it take to know how to play the triangle?

Hundreds of hours of practice, years of experience.

Just like many "simple" activities (such as taking a photo), while the concept is simple (just push the button on your camera), it takes knowledge and experience to get it right - or, better, to not get it wrong.

The problem with the triangle is that is a little devil:

  • it has a very precise percussive sound, so it's much more clear if it's played out of time;
  • it can be clearly heard, even when struck softly, and even when the full orchestra is playing;
  • it's small and it's easy to miss it if you don't control it very well (professional percussionists have dozens of different tools, pliers, claws, forks that they choose according to the situation) - and, let's say it: if you have been sit for 30 minutes, then you finally stand up just for a single "ping" and you miss it, everybody will laugh at you;

As other have pointed out, if you're playing in a non professional orchestra/band, nobody would tell you that "you cannot play it" - and in many amateur groups is common to have a "non skilled musician" play percussions ("they do less damage" - but we know that's not always true).

Doing it in a professional situation is a completely different thing.
You have to learn how to choose the instrument and learn how it behaves (no triangle is the same), choose the appropriate beaters and learn different techniques in order to provide the good result - no matter if less than 1% of the audience would realize the difference. Most importantly, precise control is the hardest thing: you have a range of few millimeters that separate very different sounds and dynamics - or decide if you're actually playing or missing.

Finally, consider that while a "simple" triangle usually comes at less than 15$, professional triangles have a price of over 100$, a professional percussionist usually has more of them, and a set of beaters can cost between 50$ and 100$. A non percussionist certainly wouldn't be aware of the value of such tools, nor she/he would be able to make any difference of them.

Edit

Some have rightfully pointed out that the choice of a good instrument or even its price are not the matter at hand. Yes, it's true, as much as you don't normally need a degree in Medicine to say that you're ill.
That wasn't my point: saying that there are professional instruments that cost a lot and/or are normally chosen by professionals doesn't mean that "cheap" instruments (or players that use them) are of no value.
But the fact that most professional players mostly use professional instruments, even when dealing with a simple instrument like that, is important. It's not about being "picky", or "we all [professionals] do that": the point is that it's a very peculiar instrument that, due to its nature, many would underestimate its value and usage.

Knowing that there are billion-worth cars doesn't mean that you can't drive any, or that you must be a billionaire in order to tell that they could drive well any car (we all know that's not true).

Knowing how cars and driving work is the point. You can still look like (and be) an idiot even while driving a billion worth car and crashing it, as much as you would while playing a 200$ worth triangle, if you don't know how to play with it.

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  • Presumably, OP has decided which triangle will be used, and what it will be beaten with, so that's out of the equation for this question. Good points otherwise. – Tim Feb 19 at 17:25
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    @Tim you're right, but I think you know as well as I do that choosing right tools doesn't always works. Timing is a very subjective matter that depends on education (and being used to certain types of instruments also matters: consider the difference between pipe organ and clavichord players, despite both play keyboards). Deep knowledge of physics and their result is fundamental to any player that tries to play any instrument (s)he's not used to. I've known very good musicians that are indeed good on "their own", but still fail with a simple triangle, no matter if it's a good one. – musicamante Feb 20 at 2:41
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    As a percussionist, ding took ten seconds. ta-ta-ding took about an hour. But playing whatever all those other notes are during the whole song Intruders, FFVIII would take the rest of my natural life. I had no respect for triangles until I walked into a music store and someone was getting seven different sounds from the same two pieces of metal. – Mazura Feb 21 at 0:41
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As a trombonist who also played piano I used to get a lot of this in my Youth Orchestra days. A triangle part, a few notes on a glockenspiel. It's hardly advanced technique, you can learn how very easily. But I was sometimes surprised by my capability of messing up such a simple job! Possibly because I was laying too much importance on it.

Playing a Sunday one-nighter at London's Drury Lane Theatre a few years ago (no big deal, the West End houses often rent out to community shows on a Sunday) I looked into the 'Oliver' pit. By the trombone chair was a small MIDI keyboard. I often wonder just what he was filling in! And if he got doubling money.

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Playing a triangle is not difficult: playing a triangle at the right time is rather more complex. Most musicians are playing a large part of the time, with relatively short rests: it is not too difficult to keep track of where you are in the score.

Percussionists often have dozens of bars of rest. If you only have the percussion score, it requires a rather different mindset to keep track of where you are within vast tracts of nothing.

Playing one's own part and also playing an occasional triangle note is probably easier.

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It might take all of five minutes for a cello, violin, oboe, double bass player (not ignoring others!) to acclimatise themselves with a triangle. Especially if it was to be a single 'ting' at the appropriate moment. A tremolo may take a little longer, but basically, like all in the percussion section, all players have to be able to count really well, so any should be able to cope, especially as the conductor will probably cue them in.

Trombone or French horn players may be the best geographically, being closest to the rest of the percussion.

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    It might take them five minutes to think now they know how to play the triangle. And then they would proceed to play it horribly out of time! In particular string players tend to have a notoriously skewed sense of rhythm, due to their instrument's non-instantaneous response and the way good ensemble playing requires to play in fact not playing on the beat but somewhere that makes the whole section sound smooth. – leftaroundabout Feb 21 at 12:14
  • @leftaroundabout - so maybe we won't let any string players get their hands on the triangle! Or, the conductor could compensate with an early cue! – Tim Feb 21 at 12:18

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