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Performance: Percussion Accessories

Neil Grover • Performance • September 17, 2014

Musical instruments or weapons of mass destruction?

A common mistake made by non-percussionist music educators is the relegation of weaker percussion students to the bass drum and cymbal chairs. While it may seem reasonable to assign the “harder” parts to stronger percussion students, in actuality it is the accessory instruments that are often more challenging to play and which provide the important rhythmic backbone of a musical composition. John Phillip Sousa knew this all too well. It was reported that his bass drummer, Gus Helmecke, was the highest paid member of the band! In Sousa’s own words:

“The average layman does not realize the importance of the bass drummer to a band… I sometimes think that no band can be greater than its bass drummer because it is given to him, more than to any person except the director, to reflect the rhythm and spirit of the composition.”

The “March King” knew that nothing could sink a performance quicker and more completely than a bass drummer whose sense of rhythm is poor and to whom time is only a spice.

 

LETS GET READY TO RUMBLE! Ladies and gentlemen, in this corner, weighing in at 185 lbs. is Mr. or Ms. Band Director. And in the other corner, weighing in at a mere 95 lbs. but carrying a big stick, playing the bass drum, is Little Johnny Poorhythm. (For the record, my money is on Johnny for a TKO in the seventh measure.)

 

It is critical to create an environment where your percussionists recognize the great importance and musical contribution of playing all of the percussion instruments, and this includes accessories. Rather than have students (who often view the accessories as unimportant) feel unappreciated due to their constant assignment to the “crappy parts,” consider the benefits of rotating your percussion section and distributing the “fun” parts (such as the snare drum and marimba) among each member of the section. This will accomplish a number of positive goals, including building confidence among the players, creating a more collegial atmosphere, and developing a broader skill set among all the members of the percussion section.

The perception of the percussion accessories as secondary in significance is so endemic and so deeply ingrained in percussion student DNA that I find I have to convince college percussion majors of the importance of learning to play the accessory instruments. I remind them that an orchestra typically has a five-person percussion section; a timpanist plus four general percussionists. All four percussionists are called on to play a myriad of small instruments, officially called the “batterie,” but often referred to as the “kitchen sink.”

To help identify specific issues pertaining to the percussion accessories, let’s focus on the cymbals and the bass drum.

 

Cymbals

The cymbals are powerful instruments that are difficult to master, especially for younger students whose physical abilities are still developing. While many of your percussionists enjoy playing and may practice, I can assure you that none of your percussionists have spent even 10 minutes working on cymbals. While in a “noise pollution” sense this may be good news, it does not help players develop skills that are badly needed in the concert hall.

Try this the next time you work on scales and intonation with the ensemble: rather than have percussionists destroy your chances of making things better by playing along, instruct them to take a pair of crash cymbals onto the football field and work. (This is especially effective if you despise the football coach.) Set up a competitive environment by challenging students to play 64 bars of steady quarter notes in march tempo. Have one of the students use a smart phone metronome app to keep track of accuracy. Make it a contest to motivate the whole section.

It has always astounded me to observe very large, heavy cymbals in the back of a high school band room. A common misconception is that large cymbals are needed to produce an effective, explosive crash. This is not true. The fact is that up until the development of the big band era, most cymbals available were smaller in diameter. In addition, giving a student percussionist a large (for example, 20”) pair of cymbals and expecting the young player to successfully handle these leviathan discs of bronze is setting yourself up for a road hazard. It would be akin to handing a member of the junior varsity baseball team the same size bat that is used in major league baseball. Imagine a 15-year-old student standing at home plate having to swing the same sized professional bat used by the Red Sox at Fenway Park. Believe me, by the time the youngster swings the bat across the plate, the ball will already be on its way back to the pitcher. The reality is that little league bats are smaller and lighter than those used by the pros.

So why is it that students are often expected to perform with “major league” size cymbals? Perhaps we should take a lesson out of the high school baseball playbook. (I’ve even come across some school cymbals that I would have problems handling!)

Better to provide appropriate sized cymbals for the student’s age. This will enable the student to have a chance at playing in time and on cue. A good rule of thumb, especially when playing marches, is to use cymbals equal in diameter to the student’s age. Of course weight comes into play and I strongly recommend a medium-light weight when choosing cymbals. This will help the player manipulate the plates and also provide plenty of power and sound production.

Larger cymbals, in the hands of a skilled student percussionist, can often provide great results, and I am not against the use of large cymbals as long as the student is capable of handling them without dragging the tempo. To be honest, the older I get, I find myself gravitating back toward smaller sized cymbals and no one has even noticed.

 

Bass Drum

There are as many ways to play the bass drum as there are players, but a few basic shared principles can provide a basis for good sound production and execution.

  • Generally, the bass drum should be oriented in a vertical position.
  • The player should use  the right knee to muffle on the beating side and the left hand on the resonant side of the drum.
  • The “sweet spot” is typically off-center but no closer to the edge than halfway.
  • Make sure the player is in direct sight line of the podium.
  • Orient the drum and music stand so that the player can see both the music and the conductor.
  • Bigger drums are harder to control. I recommend 32–34” diameter drums for school use.
  • Tuning the drum is both complex and paramount to good sound production. If possible, ask a percussion educator to tune the drum and instruct the students to leave the tuning alone! (Also consider replacing “T” handles with ordinary tension rods to reduce tampering).

While there are scores of other percussion accessories, this guideline will provide a platform for positive growth of your percussionists. Today, students have the benefit of learning from a wealth of free information available on the web. Educational videos, articles, and other training tools are abundant and easily found. A good place to start is on our website: GroverPro.com. The education material found throughout our “Tech-Talk” section can be viewed and downloaded for free distribution.

 

Neil Grover is the former chair of the percussion departments at the Boston Conservatory and the University of Massachusetts. He started his professional career as principal percussionist with the Opera Company of Boston. Since that time Grover has played with the Royal Ballet of England, Boston Musica Viva, Boston Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Bolshoi Ballet, Boston Symphony Chamber Players, Boston Symphony and for over 30 years he has been a fixture in the percussion section of the famed Boston Pops.

Grover has recorded with the Boston Symphony, Boston Pops, Philip Glass Ensemble, Aerosmith, Empire Brass, Old South Brass, and Music from Marlboro. Grover can be heard on John Williams’ soundtrack for the blockbuster Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Philip Glass’ Mishima. In addition to touring with the Boston Pops across the globe, Grover has toured the U.S. with the Music from Marlboro chamber series, Boston Symphony Chamber Players, and as mallet soloist with the Broadway production of Pirates of Penzance. Recently, he toured North America as Principal Percussionist with the musical extravaganza Star Wars In Concert.

Neil is the author of Four Mallet Primer and co-author (with Garwood Whaley) of Triangle, Tambourine and Cymbal Technique, both published by Meredith Music. He is also the founder and president of Grover Pro Percussion. Learn more at groverpro.com.

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