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Have you ever stopped during a rehearsal to ask your percussionist, at a point just after he or she played a long, dramatic suspended cymbal crescendo, just why that particular cymbal was chosen for that particular part? Try it, and chances are the response, prefaced by long pause and a quizzical look, will be something like, “it was the closest one on a stand”. Ask why those specific mallets were chosen and you’ll probably receive an equally disappointing answer.

Unfortunately, many students are satisfied just getting through their part without making any obvious mistakes. They’re hoping that their snare drum roll is fairly even, that they play the loud, exposed bass drum notes in the right place, and that they don’t fall behind the rest of the band or orchestra during any tricky, rhythmic passages. Whether or not a cymbal roll played with a particular combination of cymbal and mallets is going to sound any good doesn’t generally merit much consideration.

But it should. When it comes to the availability of equipment that impacts on the quality of sound production, percussionists have more choices available to them than any of the other instrumentalists in your band – and the finest percussionist in the world won’t be able to play a good double forte cymbal roll on a fourteen-inch cymbal with a pair of worn-out timpani mallets.

While we spend a great deal of time encouraging our students to develop the technique necessary to play a fortissimo snare drum roll or accented triplet passage or clean flam paradiddle, we don’t emphasize and develop this other very important aspect of playing percussion: the careful consideration of sound. Your students must be encouraged to judge the tonal qualities of a specific instrument, the effect different mallets have on the quality of sound, and what combination of instrument and mallet is best suited for a given piece. To most people, a cymbal is a cymbal, but for the serious percussionist, the choice is critical. When former Toronto Symphony percussionist Robin Engleman performed Debussy’s La Mer, he surrounded himself with numerous carefully chosen cymbals – large, small, thick and thin, with some dangling on a rope one on top of the other – and struck each one with just the right mallet in order to bring that magical score to life.

Assessing your basic inventory

The wide availability of cymbals in most schools provides your percussionists with a great range of sonic choice.

Thinner, smaller cymbals have a quicker response than thicker, larger ones, and are generally suited for quick splashes and lighter, softer rolls. For that long crescendo roll building to a fortissimo at the climax of a phrase, you’ll want to use a larger cymbal. Your school should be equipped with suspended cymbals ranging from about fourteen inches to twenty or twenty-two inches. Make sure too that their stands are stable, that the cymbal is resting on felt, and that the part of the stand that goes through the centre of the cymbal is covered so that the cymbal does not come into contact with metal. A poor quality stand, or one in need of repair, often creates serious buzzing noises, and metal rubbing against the cymbal can, aside from being noisy, cause serious damage.

While your school will not likely have three or four different sized snare drums constructed of different materials, you may have a standard metal and wood drum that sound quite different. (Though sound quality also depends on other factors, such as the degree of tension on the heads as well as their thickness.) Your school may also have at least two wood blocks pitched very differently, large and small triangles, snare drums, whistles, tom toms or tam tams in your inventory. Assuming they’re all in good working order, your students should be basing their instrument selection on musical considerations. Is the timbre too dark to cut through the band? Does the brighter instrument have enough presence?

And if the instruments in your class aren’t sonically up to snuff, you might tell you students how the Cleveland Orchestra’s Robert Matson resorted to ripping baseboards out of his kitchen in order to create an instrument that would achieve the precise “slap” required by an uncompromising George Szell. Imagination and resourcefulness are often an overlooked characteristic of the successful percussionist.

Keep in mind that it is often not a question of a right or wrong, good or bad sound. The sound quality of a six-and-a-half-inch deep wood snare may be equally appropriate for a particular piece as that of a five-inch metal snare. But they definitely will sound different. And the choice of a deeper and warmer, or brighter and more brilliant sound should be a conscious one.

Selecting the right mallets

Percussionists facing a newly assigned part must at the very least consider which of their mallets would produce the best sound on the given instrument. A serious obstacle for many percussionists is that the choice is limited. While there are a multitude of mallets available for every possible purpose, students likely have their own snare drum sticks, and maybe a pair of timpani mallets, but that’s usually as far as it goes. Ideally, your school’s inventory should include a suitable selection of mallets to draw upon.

For cymbal playing, you’ll need some good yarn mallets. While a more tightly wound, harder head may provide the articulation and quick response needed to play a particular cymbal, rolling on the same cymbal may require a softer, larger mallet head so you don’t hear the attack. Students should experiment with different combinations, listening for the brighter and darker overtones that can be drawn from different cymbals. You’ll want to be careful rolling on a cymbal with timpani mallets as they may produce a “bangy” sound (not to mention that doing so will ruin the felt).

Unfortunately, many of the standard issue bass drum beaters I’ve seen in classrooms are often too light and do not produce a great sound. Make sure you have a decent quality, bass drum beater with a felt head. To play bass drum rolls or rhythmic passages, you’ll need a pair. If two bass drum mallets are not available, timpani mallets may get you through quieter passages, but with their small heads, the sound will be bangy and thin during louder sections.

Make sure, too, that you have good quality triangle beaters of different thickness available. Hitting a triangle with a snare drum stick – which I’ve seen all too often – produces more of a “boink” than “ping”.

When it comes to snare drum sticks, you’ll find an enormous array available, in all kinds of shapes and sizes, made from a number of differing woods or other materials. They may be differentiated by numbers and letters (e.g., 5A, 2B, etc) or they may be a percussionist-designed model. Thinner sticks will be too light for concert playing. Heavy sticks with large beads that work well for concert band produce an ugly cymbal sound and are not suitable for drum set. A good starting point, and a stick that will work well in most situations, is a 5A model. Each manufacturer’s 5A will have a somewhat different taper, bead and length, but watch out for cheap sticks: more likely to be warped and mismatched, they may produce different pitches on the drum.

Mallet instruments will sound best played with mallets designed for them. Obviously, you don’t want to play a vibraphone with a plastic xylophone mallet – though that plastic mallet may sound just fine on a glockenspiel. Xylophones, glockenspiels, vibraphones and marimbas all have a range of harder and softer mallets available to them. Make sure you have at least one quality pair of mallets for each of the instruments that you have. (Keep in mind you’ll need a set of four mallets if you have any advanced players.)

With a selection of well cared for instruments and mallets to draw upon, your percussionists can be encouraged to think about the colours available to them. They can experiment, perhaps looking for the snare drum or tambourine that speaks more clearly during quiet passages or searching for the mallet that gives them the best response from a suspended cymbal.

So get your students thinking and listening. And involve the rest of the class too. Ask if they hear the differences when various pieces of equipment are used, and which sounds they like best.

There’s no doubt all your students will benefit by making sound choices.

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