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Improving Percussion Sounds

Elizabeth DeLamater | October 2012

    Percussionists are responsible for so many instruments that incorrect techniques can easily creep in. Here are some common mistakes percussionists make, along with simple solutions.

Snare Drum
    If the snare drum sound is thin, make sure the snare strainer and release lever is in front of the student. That will make sure that the snares (on the underside of the drum) run in a straight line from the student to the music stand. If the student plays properly, the sticks will be over the snares.
    Make sure the student is playing just outside the center of the drum and not too close to the edge of the head at the rim. Many elementary school drummers are taught to play with low sticks near the edge, which produces a quieter sound and does not drown out beginning wind players who cannot produce much volume. Some percussionists carry this habit into high school, and produce a sound that is too shallow for a mature band.

Bass Drum
     The bass drum stroke should be straight, not circular. If the bass drum has an airy sound, is almost inaudible, or sounds late, make sure that students are beating right outside the center of the head. One exception to this is if the ensemble is playing a march; then the drum should be played right in the center. The center of a drum head produces mostly attack without overtones to the sound; it is the vibration node from which all of the tension is pulled. The short decay of a note played in the center is desirable for marches.
     Students will need to muffle most bass drum heads with a cloth. Most of the time it is only necessary to muffle the batter head just a few inches into it. For marches, students should muffle the resonance head with their hands, and the batter head with the cloth or a knee.
    Some orchestral professionals prefer playing the bass drum. Have students explore what sounds they like, and they will enjoy the bass drum much more. Finding the appropriate sound for a piece will make a student feel brilliant.

Crash Cymbals
    Both plates should vibrate; there should be an attack and a decay. If a student keeps producing a choked sound, he probably lacks control of the cymbals, and is hitting them flat together with the edges are lining up. The most common cymbal problem students have is inability to feel comfortable holding and controlling cymbals. If students feel like they have two garbage can lids rolling around their arms, the crashes will sound like garbage. The cymbal grip is the same as a drumstick grip; the fingers do not go through the strap, but wrap around it instead. Students can gain more control on large cymbals by putting their thumbs on the bell. That makes a substantial difference in ability to control the instrument, particularily for younger players. School bands do not need 20" crash cymbals; it is possible to get lush, fff crashes from an 18" pair, and they will be more manageable.
    For a great sounding crash, the cymbals must be set up at opposing angles and over lapping edges. When they come together, one pair of edges should hit before the other, for a ca-rash attack. Some cymbal manuals show elaborate maneuvers or figure eight motions used by the top orchestral players, but I follow the marching band rule that a straight line is easier than a curve. The weak arm holds its cymbal at an angle and stays still. The strong arm holds its cymbal straight and moves in one direction: either start from above and move vertically straight down, or begin from the side and move horizontally in. Upon impact allow the cymbals to move freely, but just after impact move your arm straight back to the start position.
    Students need a place to rest the cymbals, such as a cabinet or a good cymbal stand. Tired arms make for bad crashes, and even the strongest students need to rest to play well. Some directors are strict about keeping chairs out of the percussion section, but if nothing else is available to set cymbals on, a student can put a foot on a chair and rest the cymbals on the leg.

Suspended Cymbal
    If you cannot hear the suspended cymbal notes, it might be a mallet problem or a poor choice of beating spot. Cord mallets, designed for the metal vibraphone, are ideal for the suspended cymbal. The beating spot is usually near the edge or right on it, depending on the cymbal. Some cymbals need to be warmed-up with a couple of finger taps to respond quickly. Each cymbals is unique, so players should experiment to see how to produce the best sound.
    For shimmering rolls space the mallets out about a third of the way around the cymbal. Roll slowly near the edge. The slow roll lets the player control the dynamic and prevent an unwanted crescendo. In tutti ensemble crescendos, the cymbal, snare drum, and timpani should delay their crescendos to avoid drowning out the rest of the ensemble. For a cymbal player, this may mean playing a mp roll for eight measures, and then crescendoing to ff in three beats. This will sound incredible if the student is familiar with the cymbal.

    The triangle should be able to ring freely. If the triangle timbre is tinny or weak, make sure the player is holding it rather than clipping it to a music stand. Not only will the stand muffle sound, it also might ring along with the triangle. Check the string to make sure it is not too long; if the triangle is able to twist on the string students will be unable to strike in the same place twice. The correct beating spot is on the bottom horizontal arm. The stroke is the same as a drum stroke, and the beater should connect with the metal at a 45 degree angle for maximum overtones. Have the student hold the instrument at eye level so that she can look at the instrument, music, and the conductor at the same time. This will also make it easier to produce a consistent sound.
    If the triangle sounds like a bell with a clear pitch, the student may be using a small beater. Throw away all small beaters; they are not heavy enough to produce sufficient clashing overtones for an indefinite-pitched note. Students can learn to play softly and delicately with large beaters.
   Another common problem is triangle rolls that sound like 16th notes. Check the position of the hand holding the triangle; some young players drop their wrists and accidentally rest the heel of their hands on the triangle. Rolls should be played in the side corners, not the top where there is a restrictive string.

Cowbell and Woodblock
    If the sound is thin or slappy, students are getting too much contact sound and not enough instrument sound, possibly from playing with the wrong sticks. Use hard rubber mallets on the center of the woodblock and cowbell to produce an ideal sound. The only time to play on the edge of the cowbell is salsa music.

    If tambourine notes are too long, the attack is mushy, or the notes are late, the player may be playing his hand with the tambourine, rather than the other way around. The arm that holds the tambourine should not move. The tambourine is held stationary and at a slant so that the jingles rest on the wood and don’t ring as long. Strike the instrument with one or more fingertips, or make a loose fist and strike with the flat middle section of your fingers. It helps to remind students that the tambourine is a drum plus a shaker, and their hands are the mallets. They can change the shape of the mallet, play the drum in different spots, and add or reduce the amount of shaker in the mix.
    Brittle or slow shake rolls can often be fixed by asking the student to shake the tambourine at waist level or a bit higher. This allows the student to keep a more relaxed arm. The most lush rolls happen when the player can execute a rotary wrist motion while waving goodbye from the elbow.
    There are specific times where it is appropriate to shake 16th notes and hit the other hand on the beat, such as a rock-and-roll tune in pep band or a gospel choir piece. In these cases the player should have a relaxed arm, limited motion, and practice, or he will be out of time quickly.

Tam Tam and Gong
    Most tam tams need to be warmed up, which means set in motion, before playing; usually one gentle tap with the beater is enough. If the tam tam is extremely large, tap it in three or four places. When warmed up, the instrument will respond immediately when struck; played cold there will be delay and distortion.
    Tam tams are flat and indefinite pitched. They should be struck halfway between the center and the edge. Gongs are pitched instruments with buttons in the center; they should be struck on the button. Unfortunately, some composers indicate gong on the score when they write for the tam tam. If a part has long rolls or functions like a cymbal or bass drum part, it should be played on the tam tam.
    For controlled, smooth rolls on the tam tam and bass drum, separate the beaters quite a bit. Do not roll with the beaters directly across from each other because each note will stop the previous note’s vibration. Tell the students to think of the drum head and tam tam as clock faces: If one hand is on twelve o’clock, avoid putting the other at six o’clock, move it to seven or eight.

    Timpani notes are like string bass pizzicato notes in that they have a percussive beginning and then a ringing pitch. If you hear a thud on attacks or rolls sound choked, make sure the timpanist’s beating spot is two to four inches from the edge depending on the size of the drum. Timpanists should not play in the center of the heads unless the composer asks for it as a special effect. Remind students that timpani rolls need to be open rolls, not buzz rolls. Young students can forget this if they play timpani infrequently.
    The most efficient way to dampen timpani is by touching the drum head on the beating spot or any point on the head that is the same distance from the center. It only takes two or three finger pads pressing straight down to stop the sound, so the player can dampen with pinkie, ring, and middle fingers and maintain a grip on the sticks. Timpani mutes are unnecessary unless the score calls for them. Tell timpanists that their notes should match the lengths of whoever they are playing with, usually the low brass. If you charge the students with the responsibility to choose proper mallets and find the right note lengths, they will not get bored.

Keyboard Instruments
    I give students rules for picking mallets: hard plastic on the bells, hard rubber or light plastic on the xylophone, and wrapped mallets only on the vibes and marimba, specifically, yarn on the marimba and cord mallets on the vibes. These choices produce the best sound.
    I encourage all ensemble directors to experiment with sounds on their percussion instruments. Try a variety of mallets and play on different parts of the head or cymbal. Encourage your students to do the same; As a result you will be able to ask percussionists for a greater spectrum of color.