Percussion Methods for the Non-percussionist Teacher

Mike Lawson • Performance • November 1, 2002

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Reprinted with permission from Hal Leonard Corporation. The exercises presented are excerpted from “Essential Elements 2000″ percussion book series by Willis M. Rapp. All of these exercises appear in “Essential Elements 2000 Percussion Book 2,” except for exercise 10, which appears in “Essential Elements 2000 Keyboard Percussion Book 2,” also by Rapp.

This article addresses performance issues associated with the snare drum, cymbals, triangle, tambourine and keyboard instruments. It is designed to help music educators guide their students through the challenges of performing on these instruments.

Common Performance Problems on Snare Drum

Rolls. Virtually every private percussion student I have ever taught has asked for assistance with developing the quality of his or her snare drum roll. Historically, we read of young drummers having to perfect the “Dad-dy, Mam-my” Long Roll as a prerequisite to learning anything else about the art of ancient drumming. The distinguished percussionist James Blades states, “These strokes have formed the basis of rudimentary practice for the attainment of the long roll over a lengthy period. There seems no reason why the double beat, known quite early to the Continental kettledrummers as double tonguing, should not have been employed on the military side drum of the same period.”

Over the years, rudimental drummers have learned a sequential approach to developing a consistent open roll, but the clear pathway to achieving a homogenous multiple bounce roll sound is still quite divergent. Karl Peinkofer and Fritz Tannigel state, “Thoughtful and diligent practice is essential to achieve an even and dynamically expressive roll in which no individual strokes can be discerned.”

After several years of reading excellent articles on the subject, I began to work on developing a method of assisting my students with this particular performance problem. While students may understand the concept of how a multiple bounce roll sounds, they are often confused as to how it relates to the tempo of the piece they are performing.

Using the same concept of a sequential approach as in rudimental drumming (where 16th note single strokes are gradually converted into 32nd note double bounces), I present the student with a 16th note triplet pattern which is then gradually converted into a multiple bounce roll (at the speed of 16th note triplets). The phrasing that results from using 16th note triplets exhibits far less audible roll pulsation, and yields a fuller sonority. The suggested range of tempo for the following exercises is: quarter note equals 68-98.

Flams. There seems to be a common misunderstanding among student percussionists as to the role of the flam in percussion music. Notated as a grace note followed by a principal note (of rhythmic value), this embellishment often leads students to believe it has something to do with the process of playing an accent. In truth, there is a rudiment called “flam accent” in which the flam happens to be accented. Over the years, there has also been a proliferation of accented flam figures appearing in numerous marching percussion arrangements.

In his manual, “The Trumpet and The Drum,” John Philip Sousa makes specific mention of the fact that the flam was an embellishment of length. John Krell further illuminates the role of grace notes in his flute player’s notebook, “Kincaidiana,” in which he refers to the master teaching of his mentor, William Morris Kincaid: “Never accent or play the grace note louder than the principal note; the musical gesture is always one of resolution. The speed of execution should be related to the context of the movement – gentle, for instance, in an adagio and snappy in a scherzo.”

Traditionally, flams were taught according to these musical practices with emphasis on correct stick-positioning for each flam. A right-hand flam would begin with the left hand close to the drum in grace-note position and the right hand fully extended in principal note position. (A left-hand flam would begin with the right hand close to the drum in grace-note position and the left hand fully extended in the principal-note position.) Then, moving the hands at the same speed, the hand in the grace-note position would speak first (continuing to rebound into the principal-note position) followed by the hand in principal-note position playing a much fuller sounding note. The hands are then perfectly positioned to play the next note, whether it is a flam, stroke or tap.

In order to make flams “look more uniform visually,” there has been a change of teaching pedagogy when applied to marching percussion situations. Students are now being taught to position both hands at the grace-note level, then lift the principal-note hand and play the flam without any rebound. The same motion is then repeated with the opposite hand. Thus, the sticks both end up in the same grace-note position. While the new approach does look better visually (and helps to define the length of the embellishment in ensemble performance), it is important for students to be capable of playing flams with the traditional stick-positioning technique. Students are thereby able to master the “embellishment of length” concept as well as the ability to change the spacing between the grace note and the principal note for different styles of music.

Sticking. Selection of sticking for a certain snare drum passage can affect the music in the same way as selecting the fingerings or bowing for string passages. (After all, stickings are really the fingerings of the snare drum.) Several pedagogical systems have developed over the years with regard to sticking systems.

Alternate Sticking: A hand-to-hand sticking pattern that can begin with either the left or right hand.

Right Hand Lead: A sticking pattern beginning on the right hand that keeps the right hand on strong beats.

Left Hand Lead: A sticking pattern beginning on the left hand that keeps the left hand on strong beats.

Natural Sticking: A sticking system that begins as an alternate sticking pattern; then stickings are removed where rests occur to achieve a natural feel. This is commonly applied to 6/8 rhythms.

Doubling: A pattern in which two consecutive notes are played with the same hand. This pattern may begin with either hand.

Ideally, a percussionist should use the system that produces the best musical result for the passage being performed. This means that, over a period of time, students should be exposed to the different sticking systems in order to increase their breadth of knowledge and, therefore, their interpretive choices.

In some cases, the use of single hand sticking represents an interpretive choice for a percussionist to artistically perform rhythmic passages, ranging from the opening statement in Anthony Cirone’s “Portraits in Rhythm No. 18″ to the fourth movement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.”

The accompanying exercises illustrate how sticking affects musical phrasing.

Grace Note Embellishments. Once the flam has been learned, students need to continue their development with additional grace note embellishment figures. While the drag (three stroke ruff) is fairly simple for those students who have good control with double bounce figures, the four stroke ruff presents a more challenging embellishment.

While it is perfectly acceptable to use a 16th note triplet interpretation to play the three grace notes that precede the principal note, this approach usually forces the percussionist to use a fast single stroke technique. When faced with the need to play four stroke ruffs at a faster tempo (or at a softer dynamic level), a more relaxed feel can be achieved by using the controlled bounce to form the embellishment.

Begin by practicing controlled bounces with both hands together.

While this produces a somewhat unnatural feel on the drum, you can compensate by moving the sticks near the edge of the head to produce more of the overtones on the “spongy” portion of the head. (Essentially, you are already playing four notes; they are just on top of one another.)

Once you gain a level of comfort, begin to move one hand just slightly ahead of the other each time you begin a set of controlled bounces. (The natural response is to start moving both hands ahead, which is not the intended objective.) As soon as you get one hand slightly ahead of the other, you will immediately hear the four notes articulated clearly.

The exciting part is that you have now accomplished this embellishment by playing two sets of controlled bounces (one with each hand) instead of using four fast single strokes.

Another challenging embellishment is the sforzando roll, especially when expressed in the music as sfzp cresc. The instinct to play the beginning of the embellishment with a sudden accent often leads percussionists to “bury” the stick into the head, choking it until the stick is pulled away in preparation for the p roll that follows.

Using the model of the flam as an embellishment of length that results in a fuller sound, students should learn to begin sfz rolls with both hands, then make the quick transition to the p roll with cresc.

Common Performance Problems on Cymbals

The subject of note lengths in music conjures up quite a different meaning depending on which student you ask. Wind and brass players immediately think of the amount of air needed to play full-value quarter, half or whole notes, while percussionists tend to think of these notes in terms of how much space will elapse between them. This is not difficult to understand, given the fact that many percussionists begin their musical life on the snare drum. Here is an instrument where a single eighth, quarter, half or whole note doesn’t sound any different.

It is little wonder that percussionists initially neglect to think of instruments that can produce long sounds (timpani, bass drum, cymbals, and triangle, to name a few) when they are working on basic tone production on these instruments. Clearly, a system is needed so that students can approach notes of different lengths in different ways.

Hold the left cymbal in front of you at a slight angle. Allow the right cymbal to be positioned slightly above and slightly in front of the left cymbal. Using a glancing stroke (and gravity), allow the right cymbal to drop into the left cymbal and follow through, producing a quarter note. This same motion is used for half notes, but slower in speed. For whole notes, the same motion is slower than for half notes.

Once the basic stroke is established on cymbals (this is not necessarily a cymbal crash), then this stroke can be applied to different note lengths. The basic concept is to allow the edges of the cymbals to remain together longer in order to achieve the longer note values. The best way to practice this technique is to read from beginning method books for snare drum but play the rhythms on cymbals. For best results, select etudes that use a variety of note lengths as well as rests.

Composers and arrangers of contemporary educational literature are making a conscious effort to use notation in cymbal parts that correctly reflect the intended length of note. Older pieces, however, must be subject to interpretation by either the performer or conductor.

The key to determining the proper note length is to listen perceptively to the music and make interpretative decisions based on what you hear. In that way, one is truly an advocate for the composer. In his “A Radical Orthodoxy for Musicians,” Erich Leinsdorf states, “My conclusion is that a conductor is effective if intent and result are identical, or as near to it as possible.”

Common Performance Problems on the Triangle and Tambourine

While there are a number of wonderful triangles available, there is not one instrument that will be suitable for all styles of music. The important thing is to have several choices available and allow the performer to initially decide on which instrument seems to be most suitable for the music being performed. You can then share your ideas as a conductor regarding the appropriateness of the selection.

Based on my years of experience as both a guest conductor and adjudicator, the biggest problem facing the triangle player seems to be a proper method of suspending the instrument. Anthony Cirone, co-author of “The Logic of It All,” states, “Almost as important as the triangle itself is the clip that suspends the triangle.” Several strands of light-gauge fishing line or thin nylon strand line tied to the triangle clip allow for the full overtone series of the instrument to speak. Anything thicker begins to dampen these overtones. The performer also needs to properly “present” the instrument when playing (if you can see it from the audience, you can probably hear it).

A selection of triangle beaters is also essential if the performer is going to have the opportunity to experiment with different sound colors. While one might normally equate a light beater to a soft dynamic marking and a heavy beater to a loud dynamic marking, one only has to experiment with beaters of different weight (played at the same dynamic level) to reveal the possibilities in regard to color.

The playing area as well as the angle of the triangle beater when making contact on the instrument has a pronounced effect on the timbre of the instrument. Experiment with the following sounds:

  • Lower leg with beater at a 45-degree angle: strong overtones.
  • Lower leg with beater perpendicular to leg: more fundamental.
  • Middle leg with beater at a 45-degree angle: more overtones.
  • Middle leg with beater perpendicular to leg: strong fundamental.

These four sounds alone (combined with different weight beaters) open up a whole new range of interpretive possibilities for one playing the triangle.

While there are also a number of wonderful tambourines available, there is not one instrument that will be suitable for all styles of music. Again, the important thing is to have several choices available and allow the performer to initially decide on which instrument seems to be most suitable for the music being performed. As with the triangle, you need to share your ideas as a conductor regarding the appropriateness of the selection.

Once again, based on my years of experience as both a guest conductor and adjudicator, the biggest problem facing the tambourine player seems to be the selection of an appropriate instrument. Let me illustrate through analogy. The synthetic xylophone has been manufactured for just over 30 years, and it has found its way into most educational programs as well as many professional concert halls. Our ears have become so accustomed to this synthetic sound that we have almost forgotten how a rosewood xylophone sounds with a wind band or symphony orchestra.

The same thing is happening to the tambourine through the widespread use of headless models as well as those shaped like a crescent moon. It should be remembered that these new models are a result of the popular music culture and do not necessarily represent the sound that the composer had in mind when writing for the tambourine. Remember that a tambourine (with a head) is a combination of a membranophone and an idiophone, and as Cirone states, “The sound of the jingles determines the overall sound of the tambourine.” The performer also needs to properly “present” the tambourine when playing (if you can’t see it from the audience, you probably can’t hear it clearly).

Students can use a system of playing to remind them of the dynamic indications printed in the part. Experiment with the following sounds:

  • Soft light sounds: Use one or two fingertips near the edge of the head.
  • Medium loud sounds: Use the tips of all fingers one-third of the way from the edge to the center.
  • Loud sounds: Use knuckles on the head, halfway between the edge and the center – a motion similar to knocking on a door.

As with the selection of different weight triangle beaters, these tambourine techniques do not have to be limited to specific dynamic markings. The important thing is for students to begin to think with more imagination when they are performing on cymbals, triangle or tambourine.

Transferring Stick Techniques to Keyboard Instruments

As the bars of the keyboard percussion instruments do not provide the same kind of rebound as a drum, it is important that some time be spent in developing an approach to playing these instruments. While the touch, feel and resistance of bells, xylophone, marimba and vibraphone are all different (these properties vary from rosewood to synthetic bar xylophones and marimbas as well), it was Elden “Buster” Bailey who was the first to provide any direction of exactly “how” to play.

From his method book, “Mental and Manual Calisthenics for the Modern Mallet Player,” Bailey’s explanation of legato and staccato strokes is quite a valuable study for percussion students, especially for those who have a background in drumming.

Starting with mallets in the up position, play legato quarter notes, hands together, in octaves. (Begin on C, repeat eight times, and move upward chromatically.) The motion of the mallets should feel like a slow “down, up, down, up, down, up, down, up,” moving in a smooth eighth-note motion (downstrokes on the beats, upstrokes on the eighth notes between the beats).

Returning the mallets to the up position, play staccato quarter notes, hands together, in octaves. (Because this is a bit more demanding at first, only repeat the notes four times, then move upward chromatically.) The motion of the mallets should now feel like a fast “down-up” with an eighth note space in between each set (downstrokes on beats, upstrokes on the next 16th after the beat; hold mallets for the last half of the beat).

In addition to scales and arpeggios, the development of sequential patterns should also be encouraged, thereby improving the ability to apply double sticking on keyboard percussion instruments.

Sticking Systems

As with the snare drum, there are numerous sticking systems that have developed for keyboard percussionists over the years. While the following systems are analyzed for the benefit of the non-percussionist teacher, an experienced keyboard percussionist will apply these systems intuitively as they work out the best sticking for a particular musical passage.

Alternate Sticking: A hand-to-hand sticking pattern that can begin with either the right or left hand.

Doubling: A pattern in which two consecutive notes are played with the same hand. These patterns may begin with either a double right or double left sticking.

Combination: A sticking pattern that combines both alternate and double sticking.

Right Hand Lead: A sticking pattern beginning on the right hand that keeps the right hand on strong beats.

Left Hand Lead: A sticking pattern beginning on the left hand that keeps the left hand on strong beats.

Melodic Sticking: A musical approach to sticking involving any of the previous patterns according to the contour of the melodic line.

The following examples illustrate how sticking choices can affect musical phrasing.

Dr. Willis M. Rapp is chair of the Department of Music at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania in Kutztown, Penn. He presented these percussion methods at the Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic in 2000, courtesy of Hal Leonard Corporation.

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