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Preparing Percussion for Adjudication

Mark Lortz | February 2018

    A major task each year is preparing an ensemble for instrumental music adjudication. Directors often focus upon assessment captions (tone quality, intonation, precision, technique, balance, blend, and musicality) for wind and string students but neglect the percussion section because of time constraints or lack of understanding of percussion techniques. Here are some practical solutions for percussion concerns, especially as applied to assessment criteria.

Tone Quality

    Whether playing a pitched or non-pitched percussion instrument, tone quality is key in enriching the ensemble’s sound and creating a characteristic timbre for each instrument. Assessment of the sounds of each player, the section, and the entire ensemble will occur, so each student must attain an aural representation of preferred tone quality. Percussion tone quality is defined by choice of implement, technique, and playing area. 
    Wind and string players often define their tones with such descriptors as dark, round, warm, or light. Percussionists can replicate these sound qualities using a variety of mallets, which are to percussionists what colors are to a painter. If conductors are unfamiliar with the proper mallet selection for each instrument or are unsure of a mallet’s degree of hardness, size, or weight, they should contact a percussion specialist for guidance or to give a masterclass; this is an excellent way for both the conductor and the students to learn about mallet characteristics. Most mallet and stick manufacturers prescribe specific mallets for particular percussion instruments so percussionists can produce their desired tones without damaging the instruments.
    Bells require a hard plastic mallet, but for a brilliant tone, specialty metal mallets are best. Chimes sound best with a designated chime mallet made of rawhide, plastic, or hard rubber. A vibraphone should be played with a hard cord or yarn mallet, because hard rubber, plastic, or metal mallets will damage the instrument and cause it to emit an uncharacteristically harsh sound. A plastic or hard rubber mallet works well for a xylophone; a yarn or cord mallet will likely cause the xylophone to be inaudible in large ensemble situations, and a metal mallet will damage the instrument. A marimba sounds best with a yarn or cord mallet, but be careful to use a softer, more resonant mallet in the instrument’s lower register, where the bars are thinner. Plastic, hard rubber, and metal mallets will damage the instrument. 
    The choice of mallet for timpani should reflect the volume and articulation notated in the music, offer proper articulation for rhythmic passages, and provide the timpani’s characteristically deep, warm sound. A mallet that is too hard for legato passages or rolls will result in a harsh tone, and a mallet that is too soft will compromise the timpani’s rhythmic clarity. Use concert snare sticks for a snare drum, because drumset sticks or nylon-tipped marching sticks will produce uncharacteristic sounds. A bass drum requires a heavy mallet with a large beater for the dark, robust tone that characterizes the instrument.
    A suspended cymbal sounds best with soft yarn marimba mallets or specialty suspended cymbal mallets, as timpani mallets or drumsticks will not produce the desired suspended cymbal roll. To initiate the roll, imagine the suspended cymbal as a dial clock and place the mallets at its edge at the 5:00 and 7:00 positions to start. As the player rolls and crescendos, move the mallets to the 3:00 and 9:00 positions. Triangle beaters for soft, medium, and loud playing should be available. Acquiring beaters in pairs is best, in case an especially fast passage requires two beaters. A beater that is too large or small can cause a thin or strident tone.
    Always strike a tambourine with the hand, fist, or fingers; use mallets or sticks only if indicated in the music. Use a designated tam-tam beater, not a bass drum mallet or any other stick or mallet. The tam-tam beater is larger and heavier than any of the others and will produce the instrument’s characteristic deep, resonant sound.

    Intonation and tone quality are interdependent; each is necessary for the other. Most percussion instruments have fixed tones that cannot be adjusted during a performance, but snare drums, bass drums, and tom-toms can be tuned and sound best when their heads are in tune and balanced. There are devices that enable players and conductors to tune drum heads quickly and accurately by measuring drum head tension so they are resonant and in tune. Concert percussion tuning at least once a week is advisable, because percussive pressure on the drumheads, humidity, and temperature changes can adversely affect head tension, which affects pitch. 
    Timpani are the sole percussion instruments for which the player can alter and tune the pitch. This process involves clearing the timpani head, or tuning the membrane so each spot on the head in front of each tuning bolt has the same tension as the others. A cleared timpani head produces a pure, sustained pitch, which is necessary before trying to tune the timpani to a specific pitch.
    Tune timpani quietly by putting your ear close to the timpani head and lightly tapping it with your finger. If the timpani have tuning gauges, set them weekly to ensure pitch accuracy. Many adjudicators will note conductors and students loudly tuning the timpani or taking an unusually long time to do so. Just as wind and string students are expected to tune their instruments by themselves, the timpanist must do the same. 
    Mallet instruments can develop pitch problems from overplaying, improper percussion technique, or the age of the bar. Check the accuracy of the bar with a digital tuner. If it is out of tune, either replace that specific bar or hire a professional percussion repairman to tune it.

Precision and Technique
    Because most percussion instruments are non-pitched, an adjudicator’s focus is often rhythmic precision. To master percussion technique, focus on proper grip and rebound stroke when striking the instrument. Because percussion is a highly visual instrument section, the adjudicator and audience notice it. Improper technique may cause an adjudicator to focus on that player and ignore stronger elements in the performance. Always consider proper posture, grip, and basic playing techniques of the instruments your students perform on during the assessment, and be sure to observe the following.
    Stroke. A proper strike of the instrument always results in a rebounded stroke unless the music specifically indicates a dead-stroke technique.
    Dampening. Properly dampen a bass drum by using the hand, knee, or a towel. Also, make sure the snare drum sounds dry, with no superfluous ringing that could detract from the ensemble’s performance. A muffling ring, towel, tape, or even student ID card can be put on the drumhead to dampen the tone. Timpani and metallic instruments must be properly dampened as rests within the music indicate.
    Roll Technique. Mallet instrument rolls are performed as single-stroke rolls, and only when designated. Play only what is indicated in the music, and do not add rolls unless the score notates them. Proper timpani rolls are single-stroke (not buzz rolls) at a speed that creates a smooth, sustained sound with an appropriate mallet that is neither too hard nor too soft. Closed snare drum rolls are a quick, evenly sustained buzz-stroke. Bass drum rolls are executed with two matched bass-drum mallets as a slow single-stroke roll. Suspended cymbal rolls are executed with a matched pair of soft yarn mallets on the cymbal’s edge. Triangle rolls sound best with one beater in one of the closed areas of the triangle; avoid moving the beater around the triangle in a circular motion. Tambourine rolls can be shaken with a wrist-flex, or a thumb or finger can execute the roll. If a thumb/finger roll is used, be sure to rub beeswax or bass rosin on the tambourine head to make it sticky and cause friction. Tam-tam rolls are possible on the same side of the gong or on opposite sides using two identical tam-tam beaters. 
    Sticking and Articulation. Just as bowing and tonguing are imperative to a successful string and wind performance, so is percussion sticking. Conductors must familiarize themselves with any difficult percussion sticking passages, or consult a percussion specialist. Implement selection (softer or harder mallets), dampening, and technical stroke can affect articulation, causing accented, longer, shorter, lighter, and/or heavier notes. 
    Music Stand and Instrument Height. Ensure the students’ music stands are tall enough for them to see the conductor. Frequently, percussionists’ stands are too low, forcing them to look down at their music and miss important directorial cues or communications. Since students are of varying heights, adjust all instruments to proper playing height, which is generally at the student’s waist level.
    Playing Areas. Every percussion instrument has a sweet spot at which it sounds best. Strike mallet instruments in the center of the bars and for fast passages play on the edge of the accidentals, avoiding the nodal point (where the string goes through the bar); strike chimes on the top cap, perpendicular to the tube; and strike the timpani approximately one-third of the way from the edge of the head to the center, or two to three inches from the rim.
    Envisioning the snare drum as a clock, the player strikes the drum at the top edge (12:00) for a softer sound and moves toward the center for a louder one. The snare’s strainer throw-off lever should be at the front of the drum near the player’s waist (6:00), so the player can turn snares on and off easily and play in the sweet spot, just above the snares, which would run vertically from 6:00 to 12:00. Be sure to turn the snare lever to the off position when not playing to avoid the sympathetic vibration of the snares from the buzzing of string and wind instruments when they match the drum’s pitch.
    Strike the bass drum and the tam-tam slightly below the center of their heads, and crash the cymbals by avoiding the air lock that causes them to be drawn toward each other and stuck together. Just before the right cymbal makes contact with the left cymbal, tilt the latter slightly away. Strike the suspended cymbal on the edge for normal playing technique, strike the triangle at its bottom, away from its open end, and strike the tambourine over the wooden rim on top of a jingle for softer playing and in the center of the head, for louder playing. 

Balance and Blend
    Players should consider their balance within their section and their blend within the entire ensemble simultaneously and look to the conductor for immediate feedback on how well they are doing. Percussionists should strive for a unified sound that makes the most important percussion line fully audible without overplaying the ensemble or obscuring the composition’s primary melodic line. Directors should make sure percussionists know which instruments have the primary melodic line so they can hear the melody when playing. If the melody is inaudible, the accompaniment is too loud and must balance properly with the rest of the ensemble. If the percussion section balances within itself but upstages the ensemble, consider softer implements and adding muffling to the instruments. Towels can line the bass drum and snare drum heads if they dominate the ensemble. 

    Include percussionists in all warm-up procedures. Full-band warmup exercises, including chorales, can help the entire ensemble to reinforce dynamics, style, articulation, shaping, phrasing, balance and blend. Conductors can communicate important musical elements that transfer to contest pieces, reinforcing proper implement selection and playing technique. 
    When rehearsing pitch and musicality, conductors utilize the technique of singing. Be sure to include percussionists when singing and to have them play warm-up exercises on pitched (timpani and mallet instruments) and rhythmic exercises on non-pitched instruments (snare drum, bass drum, and accessories) while the strings and winds play, to emphasize musicality and enable the percussionists to match the ensemble’s shaping, phrasing and dynamic contrasts.

Other Considerations
    These usually constitute the assessment form’s final section, but they may profoundly affect the ensemble’s final rating, as they often contribute to poor percussion performance. 
    Stage Set-Up. Most assessment performances do not occur on the ensemble’s home stage. Therefore, to prepare for the adjudication, the director seats the players in their regular seating arrangement according to the established seating chart. The set-up must include the percussion instrument arrangement and the precise number of music stands the ensemble normally uses. Research conventional percussion layouts to ensure the logical staging of the percussionists so they are near their instruments during the entire adjudication. Mallet instruments are grouped together, usually to one side of the battery percussion, to facilitate quick changes, and are placed near the upper woodwinds, because composers usually orchestrate woodwinds and percussion together. Vibes and marimba are closer to the front of the stage, as they are less audible. 
    Timpani usually play with the low brass, so their juxtaposition will improve ensemble intonation and rhythmic precision. The bass drum and crash cymbals work as a team, so the cymbals are on the right of the bass drummer for overall ensemble balance. Snare drum, bass drum and cymbal parts work in tandem, so the snare or tenor drum is stage right of the crash cymbal player. Suspended cymbals are often notated on the same part with crash cymbals, so juxtaposing them allows either player to cover the part if quick alterations are needed. Accessory percussion instruments are beside the cymbal players on a padded or covered trap-table.
    Equipment. Bring all sticks, mallets, and accessory instruments used regularly for rehearsals, so the adjudication performance can reflect the ensemble’s other performances. As with string and wind instruments, the quality of an ensemble’s percussion instruments and equipment helps to determine its performance characteristics. Accessory instruments such as triangle and tambourine should be made of high-quality materials and stored in designated instrument bags. Tambourines should always have heads; headless tambourines are generally used in popular music and not considered appropriate for concert assessment. Crash cymbals should be the appropriate size for the music, as well as for the player to properly control. 
    Trap Tables, Towels, and Mallet Bags. A mounted mallet bag or trap-table covered with a towel or carpet is best for resting sticks and mallets. Never set implements on a chair or the floor. A designated padded or covered percussion trap-table or a music stand draped with a towel can hold tambourines and triangles. Crash cymbals rest on a crash-cymbal stand or on a table with a large padded towel.
    Part Assignments. Create percussion assignments before the first rehearsal, post them in an area clearly visible to all players, and give copies to each player. When rehearsing sightreading, assign a specific snare, bass, timpani, accessory, and mallet players, to alleviate confusion during the sightreading performance.
    Chairs, Stools, Entering, and Exiting Stage. Concert band and orchestral literature may have minimal or tacet percussion parts in which the player will not play for a period of time. Percussionists sit in chairs or stools when not playing. They may exit the stage when resting for a prolonged period, but they must exit and re-enter quietly so they do not disturb the performance. 


    Instrumental music adjudications are relevant, meaningful opportunities for both students and conductors to receive feedback and measurable evaluation. Educators who employ the above methods and procedures enable successful performances from their percussionists.