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With the new school year just beginning, it’s not too late to look around the high school music room and take stock of your percussion equipment, both to make sure you have what you thought you had, and to see that the equipment you do have is in good working order.

Proper storage

But before you do anything, make sure that you have a neat, well organized storage area with sections for different instruments and mallets clearly labeled. Then – and this is the most important part – make sure that your students return all the instruments and mallets they use to their proper place after each class.

Okay – I know it’s not as easy as it sounds. But I can’t emphasize enough the importance of instilling a respect for the instruments in your students, as well as the importance of maintaining a well-organized percussion section. If you don’t want students constantly telling you that they don’t know where, say, the bass drum mallet is, or if you don’t want to be regularly ordering new equipment or putting up with a student hitting the triangle with a snare drum stick because the triangle beater is missing, then get this part right from the very beginning.

Inspecting the auxiliary percussion instruments

Your collection of auxiliary percussion might include tambourines, wood blocks, triangles, maracas, castanets, claves, guiros, shakers, sleigh bells, whistles, slapsticks and ratchets. I suggest you make a list of what you’ve got. And make sure that when the instruments are not in use, they’re stored in that well-marked cabinet discussed earlier. You may want to store some of the smaller, less frequently used instruments in your office.

A few points with regard to specific instruments and accessories:

Tambourines – If you only have one tambourine, make sure it is round, relatively light, and has a head. Make sure the head is tight. Tambourines with no head – be they round or crescent-shaped – are fine for playing eighth notes in a rhythm section, but they produce little impact in the concert band when you need to hear single tambourine notes played at a forte level. (Nor can they be used to play thumb rolls.)

Triangles – Make sure that you have proper metal beaters for your triangles. Hitting a triangle with a snare stick produces an initial bang and that beautiful shimmering effect will not be heard. Also make sure that you have proper clamps to suspend it with, and that the strings supporting the triangle are in good shape (you really don’t want the triangle to go crashing to the floor during a concert!) Note: If you’re looking to buy a triangle, I highly recommend that you invest a few more dollars and buy an instrument that sounds great. Cheap triangles sound like toys. You will notice a difference.

Wood blocks – Check to see that they are not cracked. If you are investing in new wood blocks, you’ll find products called “jam blocks” made of plastic. They sound very good and will last.

Cymbal stands – A very important note here: make sure that your cymbal stands have the round metal and felt pieces that support the cymbal, as well as the cylindrical rubber pieces that cover the section that extends up through the centre of the cymbal. Without these parts the cymbal will not produce an optimal sound, and you will eventually end up with either a cracked cymbal, a cymbal with a badly worn centre hole, or both.

If your budget allows, invest in a percussion table. You will want to keep something soft on top of it (a folded towel, foam) so that instruments can be picked up and placed back quickly without creating noise.

Taking stock of your mallets

You’ll find an in-depth discussion on mallet choices in my article Making Sound Choices.

It is extremely important that you have the right mallet available for each instrument. Playing a bass drum with a timpani mallet will not do. And you won’t produce the cymbal roll you’re looking for using mallets that are too hard. You’ll need a selection of mallets that includes:

A bass drum mallet – Buy a good quality mallet, with substantial weight and a dense felt.

A pair of bass drum mallets – These are to be used to play rhythmic passages and rolls. Timpani mallets are generally too thin and light.

Xylophone mallets – These should be made of hard rubber, plastic, or tightly woven yarn over a hard core. I personally like mallets with rattan handles.

Vibraphone and marimba mallets – There are many vibraphone and marimba mallets available. If they’re too soft, you don’t hear the attack; too hard and you hear too much of a bang on impact.

Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to hear the different keyboard mallets on an instrument: stores that have a few to choose from don’t often have an instrument to test them out on. So you have to rely on the manufacturer’s description. On some sites, such as Vic Firth.com, you can actually hear demos of the different xylophone and some vibraphone and marimba mallets.

Cymbal mallets – You’ll need good soft, yarn mallets for cymbal rolls. Never use timpani mallets for this purpose as the sound produced will be poor and you will ruin the felt.

Timpani mallets – Ideally, three pair of mallets are needed: a general purpose pair, a pair with a heavier, softer head for lower notes, and a hard-headed pair for staccato passages and greater definition on high notes and quieter passages. Your budget may allow for the purchase of a good quality, general purpose pair. The felt should be checked from time to time and any loose pieces should be cut to maintain a smooth surface.

Inspecting the timpani and drums

You’ll want to know not only that you’ve got the instruments you need, but that your instruments are sounding as best they can.

For the drums, that means they must be tuned properly. None of the non-pitched drums should be tightened to the point that they sound choked, but they shouldn’t be so loose that they produce a “thud”. But in order for a tom tom, snare or bass drum to truly “sing”, the drum must be in tune with itself. What this means is that if you tap lightly on the head, about an inch from the edge in front of each of the lugs, the pitch should be pretty much the same as you go around the drum.

Drum tuning is a complicated process, and a proper explanation of it goes beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say that while you may be able to accept a tom tom that doesn’t “sing”, a timpani that is not in tune with itself will never be capable of producing a clear pitch. If you strike the drum, and the tone dips, then try tapping near the lugs as described above. Try to even-out the pitches by slightly twisting the lugs closest to the areas on the head that are most out of tune. But be careful tuning timpani. If you’re not sure how the spring mechanism works - the mechanism that creates the tension between the pedal and the rim of the drum - you may run into some trouble. If there are major problems with the timpani - they’re grossly out of tune and/or the foot pedals are not holding at either the top of bottom of the range - you may need to call in a professional for help.

Any broken or badly dented heads should be replaced (you can try replacing the tom tom heads yourself; you may need someone experienced to replace the timp heads).

As far as the snare drum is concerned, you’ll also have to check the snares themselves. There should not be any single snares that are bent out of shape. The snares should have an even tension so that they are all sitting snugly and in full contact with the bottom head. If, when the drum is hit, the snares continue to rattle, then either there is something wrong with the snares, as just described, and they need replacing, or the strainer – the screw mechanism on the snare throw-off – has simply not been tightened enough.

Check the bottom heads of all drums for any tears. A hole in the bottom head will produce buzzing and contribute to the production of a very thin sound.

Students will only learn to care for their instruments if they see that we place importance on their maintenance. With a little effort on our part, they will understand that even the smallest instruments should be treated with respect.

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