Teaching Total Percussion

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(Stressing The Fundamentals : Getting a Good Sound with a Relaxed Technique)
Presented by Bill Cahn – member of NEXUS

Time: 60 minutes

Requirements: bass drum on a cradle, xylophone, glockenspiel, 2 tables, 4 music stands

Fundamental Principles for Selection and Setup of Percussion Instruments:

1. Have a variety of instruments to increase musical options;
2. Select specific instrument(s) appropriate to the music;
3. Position the instrument(s), whenever possible, on a direct line with the music stand and the conductor;
4. Have appropriate beaters/mallets/sticks to produce the desired sounds – in concert music, as resonant and full-toned as possible; (see ‘The Percussionist’s Stickbag‘)
5. Always have a padded stick tray near the instruments being played;
6. Find the beating spot on every instrument (‘sweet spot’) that produces the desired sound.
7. On the title page of all printed percussion parts:
* in the upper left corner – pencil-in a checklist of all instruments needed
* in the upper right corner – pencil-in a checklist of all sticks and beaters needed

Fundamental Principles of Technique On All Percussion Instruments:

1. Percussionists should always try to be generally relaxed and to avoid tension in the shoulders, arms, wrists, and hands. Teachers should ALWAYS be on the watch for muscle tension (especially in the hands and wrists) and distorted body position in students;
2. Percussionists should listen always and notice as much as possible about the sound(s) produced (pitch, volume, rhythmic articulation, timbre, blend with ensemble) in order to make necessary adjustments while performing to obtain the most resonant sound.

1. Concert Snare Drum

Concept 1: Setting Up the Concert Snare Drum:

a) Obtain the correct stand height; all adjustment screws accessible to right hand.
b) Obtain correct playing angle (tilt) on the stand for matched or traditional grip.
c) Place the snare drum on the stand so that it rests on rubber insulators
d) Position the snare strainer at 7-o’clock (easily reachable by left hand).
e) Place a padded (quiet) stick tray in an easily accessible position.

Concept 2: Tuning the Concert Snare Drum:

a) Each head ‘cleared’ (equal tension all around – not too tight on the playing head)
b) The snare head is normally looser than playing head; neither head dampened;
c) Adjust the snares – from ‘loose’ tension, adjust upwards to correct crispness.

Concept 3: Producing the Normal Concert Snare Drum Sound:

a) The player should relax; avoiding tension (especially in the hands and wrists) while holding the snare drum sticks;
b) Determine the proper beating spot – normally at 12-o’clock and in about one-half of the distance from the rim to the center of the drum head;
c) Never play in the center (anti-node) of the drum head;
d) Know/learn how to turn the snares ‘off’ and ‘on’ quickly and quietly.
e) Dampening (when indicated) – use felt mutes attached to lugs for quick ‘on’/’off’.
f) Rim-shots – stick-on-stick is normal; stick-rim occasional for ‘style’ as necessary.

2. Concert Bass Drum

Concept 1: Setting Up the Concert Bass Drum

a) Place the bass drum in a suspension cradle or on a cushioned stand;
b) Remove unwanted rattles or noises (from the drum and the stand).

Concept 2: Tuning the Concert Bass Drum

a) ‘Clear’ both heads (tune at each lug to the same resonant low pitch);
b) Normally, tune the resonating head roughly a major-second higher than the playing head;
c) On each side of the bass drum, bring the T-handles into exact alignment with each other;
d) Normally, a resonant and full (not dampened) tone is desired on a concert bass drum (THINK TIMPANI), unless specifically indicated otherwise in the music;
e) Tune for the best tone as often as necessary.

Concept 3: Producing the Normal (Resonant) Concert Bass Drum Sound

a) The player should relax; avoiding tension (especially in the arms and wrists) while holding the bass drum beater;
b) Normally, use a direct stroke (THINK TIMPANI);
c) The normal beating spot is at about 10- o’clock, about one-half of the distance from the edge to the center of the head (THINK TIMPANI);
d) Normally, do not play in the center of the head because the tone will be
much less resonant;
e) Normally, the concert bass drum should not be dampened;
f) Normally, use felt beaters appropriate to the size of the bass drum head.

Concept 4: Muting/Dampening the Concert Bass Drum (when necessary)

a) Use a felt or wool muting mitt when dampening or ‘shading’ the tone;
b) Normally, do not over-dampen (knee dampening is not normally required);
c) Normally, the mitt can be used only on the playing head, allowing the resonating head to provide a fullness of tone;
d) Dampen the resonating head with the (non-playing) hand, if necessary.

3. Concert Cymbals

Crash Cymbals:
Concept 1: Selection of cymbals for the pair:

a) The two cymbals may be similar or different (sizes, pitches, etc.)

Concept 2: Producing the crash sound:

a) Relax especially in the wrists; avoid tension
b) Grip the cymbal straps tightly with the fleshy part of the tip of the thumb
c) Place the cymbals against the chest in the ‘setup’ position – with the edges of the cymbals SEPARATED by about 1-inch. The is where the cymbals should strike.
d) Keeping the cymbals parallel to each other, make small ovals with the arms;
(the right hand moves clockwise and makes contact at the 9:00 position – the left hand moves counter-clockwise and makes contact at 3:00)

Suspended Cymbals:
Concept 1: Setting Up Concert Suspended Cymbal(s)

a) Ideally, suspend the cymbal(s) with cymbal strap(s) on ‘gooseneck’ (or boom) stand(s);
b) Otherwise, place the cymbal(s) directly on cymbal stand(s) (post or boom stand);
c) As a possible alternative to a gooseneck stand, hold the cymbal in one hand by its strap.

Concept 2: Producing the Normal Concert Suspended Cymbal Sounds

a) The player should relax; avoiding tension (especially in the arms and wrists)while playing suspended cymbal(s);
b) Normally, a suspended concert cymbal is played with a yarn mallet(s) near the edge of the cymbal (rolls are normally single-stroke rolls);
c) If ‘wood stick’ is indicated, use the neck (not the tip) a snare drum stick
on the edge of the suspended cymbal; (rolls are normally single-stroke);
d) If the musical style is Jazz or popular, the tip of a snare drum stick(s) on the bow (near the edge) of the cymbal is normal; (rolls may be bounce-stroke rolls)

Concept 3: Playing with Special (or Designated) Beater(s):

a) Metal rod(s) or brush(es) on the edge of the cymbal; (single-stroke rolls)
b) Metal rod(s) or brush(es) on the bow (or near the edge) of the cymbal; (single-stroke rolls)

Concept 4: Scraping the Cymbal Surface with Special (or Designated) Beater(s):

a) Scraping with metal rod(s) or brush(es) from the bell to the edge
b) Scraping with the tip of snare drum stick(s) on the bow (or near the edge) of the cymbal

Concept 5: Scraping the Cymbal Edge with a Violin Bow or Bass Bow:

a) Place the cymbal on a post stand or hold it in the free hand by the strap
b) Steady the cymbal (at the cymbal dome) in the free hand
c) Rosin the bow liberally
d) Move the bow perpendicular (at a right-angle) across the cymbal edge

4. The Concert Triangle

Concept 1: Suspending the Triangle

a) A fairly strong electrical spring clamp is recommended with a single thin string (30-lb. test mono-filament fishing line) insulated from the supporting clamp by thin (1/8′ o.d.) rubber tubing
b) A thicker (catgut) secondary/safety string should be looped on the clamp outside of the supporting string so that it will not touch the triangle when playing.
c) Normally (for a right-handed player) suspend the triangle on the clip with the open corner on the lower left side.
d) Hold the triangle at eye level – looking right through the triangle at the music and conductor – and so that it can be dampened by easily closing the hand around it.

Concept 2: Striking the Triangle

a) Normally, use a metal rod beater – striking the triangle on the lower side, about one-third of the length away from the closed (right side) corner.
b) Normally, the triangle roll is played in the lower right corner, back-and-forth between the bottom and right sides of the triangle
c) ‘Shape’ the sound decay (after ring) with the pinkie finger touching the triangle near the upper corner.

5. The Concert Tambourine

Concept 1: Selection of Tambourine

a) Choose the appropriate diameter size (10-inches is normal);
b) Choose the types of jingles (single/double row, thin/thick, flat/serrated);
c) Choose the type of head & tensioning (skin/mylar, thin/thick, tacked/lugs).

Concept 2: Producing the Characteristic Sound:

a) Relax; avoid tension while holding/supporting the tambourine in one hand;
b) Determine whether to hold the tambourine flat (head up, secco jingle sound), partly tilted (marcato jingle sound), or fully vertical (legato jingle sound);
c) Strike the tambourine head with knuckles, finger tips, thumb, palm;
d) Strike the tambourine rim or edge with finger tip(s);
e) Suspend the tambourine on a foam cradle to play with both hands;
f) A shake roll in one hand is normal for most passages;
g) A thumb/finger scrape roll is normal for softer passages;
h) Determine the head position at the end of each passage (to prepare for the next passage and to avoid unwanted jingle sounds when not playing);
i) Have a soft/silent resting place (padded table, music stand with cloth).

Concept 3: Other Sound Options:

a) Attach the tambourine to a cymbal post-stand to play with sticks;
b) Strike the tambourine with an open hand stroke for emphasis;
c) Flick the jingles with a finger;
d) Support tambourine vertically with head surface facing away to play with fingers (hand-drumming style).

6. The Concert Wood Block/Temple Blocks

Concept 1: Selection of Wood Block & Method of Support

a) Size, thickness, type of wood, and shape all affect the sound; most wood blocks have a clear specific pitch;
b) For most normal playing, a medium-sized, solid-block instrument is appropriate; generally avoid high-pitched wood blocks;
c) Support the wood block on a foam cradle; a two-prong wood block holder is less desirable;
d) Temple blocks should be supported on an adjustable-height stand.

Concept 2: Producing the Normal Orchestral Sound:

a) Strike on the top surface, just off the center, near the edge of the slit-opening side with a medium-hard rubber or yarn xylophone/marimba mallet; normal rolls are single-stroke;
b) If using wooden snare drum sticks, strike on the top edge over the slit-opening with the neck of the stick;

Concept 3: Other Tambourine Sound Options:

a) Play on the top surface, near the edge over the slit-opening, with the tips of snare drum sticks to produce a ‘Vaudeville’ or ‘soft shoe’ sound; normal rolls in this method are bounced.

7. The Concert Tam tam / Gong

Concept 1: Selection of Tam tam or Gong, Beater & Method of Suspension

a) Suspend the tam tam or gong from a solid stand so that the beating spot (just off the center) is at waist height; always double-check that the suspension cord/line is not chafed – if it is, replace it;
b) Select a beater that is appropriate to the instrument and the requirements of the part; a softer note may on occasion require a slightly harder than normal beater to achieve a clear articulation.

Concept 2: Producing the Characteristic Sound:

a) Strike the tam tam (not having a specified pitch) just off center – too close to the center produces a ‘fundamental’ tone with fewer harmonics; too close to the edge produces more harmonic (‘sss’ or ‘sh’) tones;
b) Use the free hand to ‘shape’ the sound (control the after ring);
c) Gongs (having a specific pitch) are normally struck in the center to produce the clearest ‘fundamental’ tone;
d) Gently produce some vibration (‘warm up’) before a first stroke;
e) Gently dampen vibration before re-articulating each new stroke in a series.

8. The Concert Xylophone / Marimba / Glockenspiel

Concept 1: Setting Up the Concert Xylophone and Marimba

a) The instrument(s) should be waist-high, with the music stand centered on the instrument and set low (about 3-inches above the keyboard sharps)

Concept 2: Getting a Good Sound

a) The player should stand erect (not bent over at the waist) and relax – avoiding tension (especially in the arms and wrists) while holding the mallets;
b) Normally, on the xylophone and glockenspiel use hard plastic mallets (not wooden, brass or yarn). The plastic beaters may be covered with a single-strip layer of ‘moleskin’ (adhesive-backed felt) to slightly soften the stick-attack noise.
On the marimba use hard yarn or rubber mallets (not wooden). Medium-soft yarn mallets should only be used in solo or very lightly orchestrated passages.
(Note: softer yarn or felt mallets normally used for marimba solo repertoire may not produce a sound that is audible in large ensemble passages.)
c) play slightly off-center on each bar. The sharp bars may be struck near the close end for rapid passages.
d) Stickings should be carefully thought-out to avoid left/right crossovers, if possible. Avoid playing over the nodes (at the bar-suspension strings).
e) Normally, the mallets should be kept low – only 6-inches above the keyboard.
f) Carefully dampen the glockenspiel bars (only if necessary) using the forearm(s) without unwanted noise (from shirtsleeve buttons, bracelets, etc.)

© 2006 William L. Cahn
8740 Wesley Road, Bloomfield, NY 14469 USA

The Percussionist’s Stick Bag

(as Recommended by Bill Cahn)

The following list indicates the minimum in sticks and percussion equipment that should be owned by percussionists playing regularly in a band or orchestra. These should be carried to all rehearsals and concerts.

Elementary School

1) one pair of snare drum sticks (medium size)
2) one pair of medium yarn marimba mallets
3) one double-ended felt bass drum beater
4) one pencil with eraser

Junior High School

all of the above plus

5) one pair of hard plastic xylophone/glockenspiel mallets
6) one pair of brushes
7) one pair of general (medium-hard felt) timpani sticks
8) one pair of hard felt timpani sticks

High School

all of the above plus

9) one pair of medium-hard rubber xylophone/glockenspiel mallets
10) one pair of heavy (marching) field drum sticks
11) one set of 4 matched soft-yarn marimba mallets
12) one set of 4 matched hard-yarn marimba mallets
13) one pair of medium triangle beaters
14) one medium triangle and clip/holder
15) one tambourine with single-row medium jingles
16) one white or black towel (for use as a stick tray, or instrument bed)
17) one snare drum tuning key


all of the above plus

18) one pair of medium felt bass drum beaters
19) one pair of tubular chime beaters
20) one pair of soft felt timpani sticks
21) one pair of wood timpani sticks
22) one pair of timbale sticks
23) one pair of pianissimo triangle beaters
24) one medium gong/tamtam beater
25) one medium-low woodblock
26) one pair of wood castanets, mounted on handles
27) one castanet machine (with wood castanets)
28) one tambourine with pianissimo single-row jingles
29) one tambourine with forte double-row jingles
30) one bass bow & bass rosin
31) one bass drum muffling mitten (wool or felt)
32) extra pencil with eraser
33) repair kit (cymbal stand felt, wing-nuts, nylon 1/8′ cord, 1/8′ rubber tubing, dental floss or fishing line for triangle clips, extra triangle clip)

In addition, the following are recommended at any level for jazz/Latin music:

A) one pair of maracas
B) one pair of claves
C) one ganza (metal or plastic tube-shaker)
D) one guiro with scraper

© 2001 William L. Cahn
8740 Wesley Road, Bloomfield, NY 14469 USA

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