Timpani & Percussion - Part
Its use with the modern Brass Band –
by Dave Griffiths
Dave Griffiths continues his series of articles on the art of percussion
playing, with it's use in the modern brass band.
See also: part 1 | part
3 | part 4
The use of percussion in today’s brass band scoring is treated
with the utmost effect, contributing to the gamut of emotions and
spectrum of colours which has since become accustomed to the marvellous
and most characteristic sounds which are all part of the brass band
As I mentioned in my previous article, it is with gratitude to
the continually fresh compositional outlook of Vinter, R.Vaughan
Williams, Ball, etc during the 1950’s & 60’s that
the somewhat traditionally conservative writing for bands was revolutionised
and at long last the brass band repertoire was brought into the
twentieth century. This paved the way for the composers and arrangers
of today who followed to enjoy the freedom to fully express themselves
in musical languages that would otherwise have been inconceivable.
Thus, today’s writers continue to experiment with new percussive
concepts and sounds, demanding diverse techniques of playing with
the use of additional percussion instruments which would perhaps
be alien to the brass band idiom, together with larger groups of
required players in order to perform such works. Along with the
modern symphony orchestra and chamber ensembles compositions, brass
band composers are fully utilising the use of percussion in their
works which once again further paves the way for up-and-coming composers.
By the careful planning of the parts by the principal percussionist,
along with the best possible use of the most suitable instruments
and correct number of players, percussion can add that all important
‘sparkle’ or finesse to your band. With such an assortment
of instruments to choose from players should remember to experiment
using the different mallets and stickings that are readily available
and at their disposal, so adding a personal touch to the interpretation.
In the words of the composer Hector Berlioz: “the triangle
can turn a ‘RED’ hot orchestra (band)) into a ‘WHITE’
hot orchestra (band)!”
With all these new playing techniques and effects now being called
upon in the brass band scoring, together with new instruments being
introduced, it is important for any budding percussionist to keep
up-to-date with all the latest developments that are happening in
the world of percussion. For me, for an example, with my work now
being heavily involved with commercial music and musicals etc, it
is just as important for me to know about electronic drums, sound
desks/mixers, microphones & recording techniques, as it is with
the usual traditional and Latin percussion instruments. The same
applies to an enthusiastic percussionist with a brass band –
find out about new drums, mallets, and shakers etc that are being
introduced onto the market. Drum magazines can help you greatly
here as well as them offering some helpful playing guide lines and
tips and history notes.
Percussionists who have been introduced to playing with a brass
band may not have had the training and advice passed onto them as
some players in other top bands might have received. This is fine
of course, however, popular instruments such as the concert bass
drums, triangle, tambourine, and so on, are sometimes taken for
granted and some of the basic techniques and playing skills are
sadly missing in some players’ performances.
As with my previous article focussing at timpani playing and how
to achieve the best ‘sounds’, in this article I will
hopefully shed some light on some of the best techniques and tips
used by professional players in playing such instruments with the
view that some players will give more thought to their approach
to the various percussion instruments. Happy playing!
The Bass Drum Goes BOOM!
It wasn't so long ago that using "mufflers" to dampen
a drum's natural resonance was in style. In fact, you didn't need
a fancy felt muffler; just a roll of masking tape would suffice.
By just adding a strip or two of felt from a fabric store - and
you were in business! Creating great designs on the drumheads with
masking tape and felt seemed to many as half of the fun! If you
can recall this era, you might also remember that many drum set
tom-toms had only one head (taped and muted). Most players took
off the bottom head for that flat attack sound with little or no
resonance. This type of approach to tuning drums was definitely
in vogue during the 1970's, but things have changed, for the better
I might add. Drums are meant to go BOOM! Not MFFTTT! (Can you hear
that in your head?).
The Concert Bass Drum
Let's discuss the concert bass drum, probably the best example
of the infamous BOOM. The performer needs to be able to control
the ring (or boom) of the concert bass drum. A bass drum should
not have a muffling device attached to the rim or (heaven forbid)
masking tape on the head. Nothing should be placed inside the drum
for muffling purposes either. There have been times I have visited
some band rooms in the past only to find the bass drum stuffed with
newspaper (and a few other odds and ends that will fit through the
air hole...) for muffling!! Here are a few checkpoints for your
1. Inspect the drum and the condition of the heads.
If the heads are old, replace them with new ones. If some type of
muffling is present, remove it.
2. In choosing new heads for your bass drum, consider
the Remo Fiberskyn-3 heads. These heads are great for bass drum
use within the brass band (I think Premier Percussion now also make
a similar range). They are thicker than plastic and help to give
a nice low fundamental to the bass drum of sound.
Some professional orchestras keep a calf skin head on the beating
side of the bass drum and
Fiberskyn-3 head on the resonating side. However, Calf skinheads
are expensive and more difficult to maintain.
Remo's Fiberskyn-3 heads are moderately priced and will hold up
well under to to to the situations. Be sure to wipe the inside of
the shell clean when you change the heads.
3. Some players prefer that the resonating head
be slightly higher or lower than the head that is played. Experiment
with your tuning to find a full rich sound. I suggest that the resonating
head be slightly lower to in pitch. In the first week or so, these
new heads will gradually loosen, especially the head that is played.
So check the pitch occasionally and make tuning adjustments when
4. Inspect your concert bass drum mallets. If the
felt is old and worn, replace the mallets. There are some excellent
concert bass drum mallets on the market these days, all quite reasonably
priced. Keep these mallets in a case or drawer for protection.
The Bass Drum Stand
Now that you've got your drum tuned, listen for any extraneous
sounds coming from the stand when you play the drum. These rattles
and squeaks can usually be eliminated once you know their origins!
The best type of stand for ease of playing and a minimum of extraneous
noise is a suspended bass drum stand. These stands allow for maximum
BOOM since the drum is suspended freely from rubber straps. Many
percussion companies offer suspended bass drum stands at a variety
of prices. If you are considering these stands, consider the Yamaha,
Ludwig and Premier Percussion models.
Remember, concert bass drums will usually fit on any suspended stand
of corresponding size.
If your bands budget will not allow you to purchase a suspended
stand you might want to consider a small frame stand (made by the
above named companies)., which you may wish to add some kind of
cushioning to help prevent unnecessary rattles. Never use a chair
to support your drum.
Controlling the BOOM
OK, now your bass drum has a nice long boom, what does the performer
do with it? Let's first define the playing position:
1. Approach the drum from the shell side with a
bass drum mallet in your right hand.
2. Put the head of the mallet on the bass drum
head about four inches from the centre.
This playing spot will probably give you the fullest ring with the
lowest fundamental sound. Experiment on your drum with playing spots.
The centre of the drum will give a “punchy” less-resonant
sound while playing spots closer to the rim will offer a thinner
boom with higher overtones. Think ‘timpani’ when playing
the bass drum.
3. The left hand will be used for dampening the
played head and occasionally dampening the resonating head. If a
piece of music requires two mallets, the left hand will join the
right hand on the batter head.
Do not play a concert bass drum like a marching bass drum (playing
on both heads).
4. Place the right foot on the leg of the bass
drum stand or on a chair or stool. This should place the right knee
near the beater head. The right knee should be able to dampen the
BOOM by pressing into the beater head when necessary.
5. Place the music stand directly between the player
and the conductor.
Now that you are in the in the proper playing position, it’s
time to play the music. Unfortunately, most percussion music is
vague when it comes to the bass drum. Composers usually indicate
dynamics and when to play. However, they don't consider how long
the bass drum should ring. For example, the bass drum part might
have quaver notes on beats one and three of a bar in 4/4 while the
low brass is playing minim notes. These sounds are meant to blend
yet the composer has written two different types of duration. Here
are a few things to consider when playing bass drum.
1. Listen to the band/ensemble. Which instruments
play at the same time as the bass drum? How do they articulate the
music? Imitate this articulation on the bass drum by dampening with
your left hand.
2. How does the bass drum match the balance and
blend of the above instruments? Should it be the loudest, softest,
or somewhere in-between the other instruments? Make adjustments
while you play to adjust the blend and balance.
3. Does the music indicate a deeper sound from
the bass drum or a thinner sound? Discuss this with the conductor
if need be. Experiment with different playing spots to know all
of your options.
4. Does the bass drum mallet(s) fit the style of
the music? Switch to a different mallet if necessary.
The bass drum can be an expressive musical instrument if you keep
your ears open to the musical possibilities.
The type of tambourine best suited for book use with a brass band
should be a good quality wooden instrument usually 10" in diameter
with 2 rows of jingles, DEFINITELY with a head!
Headless tambourines are almost never appropriate in general playing.
However, they are more desirable in lighter pop music arrangements
The tambourine is held in the players weak hand, i.e. left if you
are right handed. This allows the performer to play most parts with
the stronger hand. The thumb goes on top of the head (slightly muffling
the head) and the other four fingers go underneath the instrument.
The hole is used for mounting the instrument to a stand in special
situations such as multiple percussion set up or pit performance.
Keep the tambourine at a 45 degree angle. This prevents the instrument
from making excess noise as the player moves around.
ALWAYS move your free hand to the tambourine; NEVER move the tambourine
to your free hand. The sound you want to produce is a clear, crisp
sound. Moving the tambourine produces noise before the actual sound
is to occur.
Rolls are produced through shaking or through the thumb roll. The
shake roll should always begin with a tap from the free hand. This
creates a clear and definite start to the sound (how strong that
tap is depends upon the music that is going on at the time).
Hold the tambourine perpendicular to the floor and shake with a
rotation of the forearm, back and forth as quickly as you can. Practice
shake rolls to get them sounding smooth and even.
Thumb Rolls are used for very soft rolls. This sound is produced
by lightly rubbing the head around the edge to cause the jingles
to vibrate. This takes some experimentation to get it just right.
Don't worry if you don't get it at first - many people don't get
it until many tries. Once you do, you'll be able to do it again.
It helps to wet your thumb or finger just a little with your tongue.
Also, you may want to lightly apply some beeswax (get at sewing/fabric
store) or violin rosin. However, these materials build up on the
head over time, and you'll have to occasionally scrape the excess
Some special techniques are used for extreme dynamics and fast passages.
For extremely loud and fast passages, the knee is often used in
combination with the hand. When playing, use the knee only when
necessary. For example, when playing a passage such as in the finale
section of Dvorak’s ‘Carnival Overture’ or Howard
Snell’s arrangement of ‘Folk Festival’, the player
should use the knee only for the semi-quaver notes.
Also, it is important that the player plans and marks in the music
where he/she will flip the tambourine over. I would typically flip
it on the last note played before the knee section. As you hit the
last note, flip it over. Now it will be in the correct position
for the knee. You must also plan where to flip it back again.
Also experiment with the hand at different dynamic levels. Perhaps
a few fingertips works (play fingertips right on top of the shell).
At other volumes or accents, use the knuckles.
There are a number of manufacturers who make tambourines of good
quality. The favourites for many professional players are made by
Grover (for tambourines with heads) and Latin Percussion for headless
Cymbals are among the most dramatic and magical of all percussion
instruments. Each cymbal has a unique musical personality governed
by many parameters including types of metal from which the cymbal
is made, the process used to make it, and the type of playing and
care that the cymbal has been exposed to.
Cymbals are also among the most misunderstood of percussion instruments.
Poor cymbal playing can be more musically destructive to a performance
than poor performing on almost any other percussion instrument.
Over the years I have heard some otherwise solid and intelligent
players give poor performances on the cymbals both technically and
interpretively. Perhaps this is due to the amount of strength that
it takes to simply hold the instruments.
It is also quite possibly due to certain concepts of ‘over’
showmanship! Many percussionists imitate what they have seen other
players do with cymbals seemingly without listening to the results
they get. Players imitate a slicing motion that frequently results
in a thin sound, or at worst, an air pocket sound.
0ften players try to force the sound from a pair of cymbals killing
many of the necessary overtones. In my view, the art of cymbal playing
is achieved through the development of motion and balance along
with a clear concept of what a beautiful cymbal sound really is.
It helps to approach your cymbal playing with confidence, knowing
exactly the kind of sound that you want to produce.
There are probably as many techniques of playing the cymbals as
there are players. The techniques in this article certainly aren't
the ONLY ways to produce good sounds on the instrument, but I have
found that they work for me and for many of my professional colleagues.
Remove any kind of leather or lambs wool padding from the strap.
These only dampen the sound, and inhibit the crash that we are trying
to produce! Also, if the cymbal has a protective grommet on the
inside hole, remove it using a screwdriver, being careful not to
scratch the instrument. These are put on to protect the cymbal from
wearing against a cymbal stand, which is made from harder metal.
Since crash cymbals use only a strap, we don't need it. They often
make an unwanted buzzing sound!
Holding the cymbal
Hold each cymbal by placing your first finger under the strap close
to the cymbal. Then, hold with a pinch between your first finger
and thumb, wrapping your other fingers around the strap. DO NOT
place your hands inside the straps! That is a marching band technique,
used to make carrying the cymbals easier. Since we can (and often
need to) put them down when we aren't playing, there is no need
to do it.
Position the bottom cymbal on about a 45-degree angle. Position
the other cymbal on a more vertical angle, and slightly off-centre
from the other cymbal.
An effective crash must get the cymbals to respond at their fullest
vibration, while not letting air get trapped between each of the
plates. Ideally, we'd like to do this with the least amount of energy
expended by the player (after all, there can be a lot of crashes
in a march!)
Think about the sound that you want create BEFORE you crash the
To avoid getting air trapped, the cymbal player will actually strike
the cymbals twice, very fast so it sounds like one note. This should
feel similar to a "flam" on the snare drum. Holding the
cymbals at arms length in the air 20 seconds after your strike is
pointless as the sound has already been released.
Playing cymbals is something which is perfected through lots of
practice. Whilst at college I remember having an hour long lesson,
holding a pair of 22” French Symphonic cymbals – without
being allowed to put them back onto the frame. In the final part
of the lesson I then changed to a much smaller and lighter pair
(15”). It was like doing a session with the weights down the
From this lesson I Iearnt about control of the instruments and generally
became a lot more confident in using them. From then onwards I have
always approached cymbal playing knowing that I was going to control
the cymbals and not visa-versa, which is often the case with novice
Recently many brass bands have fortunately been aided with national
lottery grants which have helped them buy new percussion instruments.
If your band is one, I would strongly recommend that you spend your
money wisely in purchasing a nice set of crash cymbals, or even
two pairs – one larger pair (20”) for big loud crashes
and a smaller pair (17-18”) for general use (marches etc).
Suspended Cymbal Techniques
For effective cymbal rolls, you DO NOT need to roll quickly. In
fact, you want to create the best sound using as few strokes as
possible. The less contact with the cymbal, the more freely it can
Place the mallets on the far edges of the cymbal, at about 3 O’clock
and 9 O’clock. Roll using even, slow strokes.
For creating fast swells and suddenly fast crescendo rolls sometimes
a faster roll using more strokes creates the desired effect.
To dampen the suspended cymbal, you may want to feather the sound
out more gradually by adding your fingertips one at a time, and
then finally stopping the sound by closing your hands around the
cymbal. For quick dampening, you can use your hands and you body
by leaning into the instrument as you dampen it.
Many techniques are used on cymbals to create other effects. You
may be asked to make the cymbal "sizzle" - if you do not
have a sizzle cymbal, try adding a small chain link on the top.
Quite often the use of a coin to scrape across the cymbal is used.
You'll need a cymbal with lathed ridges (most are this way) in it
for this effect.
Sabian and Zildjian are the top makers of quality cymbals. Paste
also makes some fine cymbals.
The triangle should be an exceptional quality instrument. Few other
percussion instruments get used as much, so make a good investment
in one. My favourites are the Grover 6" or Abel 6" Symphonic.
The triangle should have a lot of overtones. One prominent overtone
could be mistaken for a definite pitch, disrupting the intonation
of the group. For instance, imagine your band playing this beautiful
B flat major chord, and there is the triangle sounding B natural!
Try to make sure the instrument has no one distinct tone.
If the player wishes to hold the triangle, its best held in the
player's non-dominant hand (i.e. left for right-handed). Cradle
the clip between the thumb and third finger below with the index
finger above the clip. This will permit the player to dampen the
instrument by simply closing the hand. The open end of the triangle
should be nearest the hand holding it.
Using a Clip
Several types of clips are usable, and can be purchased especially
for the instrument. The most common is a clamp from the hardware
store (a bulldog clip), attached to a music stand. Hang the triangle
from the clip with Heavy gauge fishing line, or rotary valve string.
Never use string as this dampens the instruments sound. Allow just
barely enough room in the loop for the triangle to fit. This will
prevent the triangle from rotating while playing.
Stands are also available to hold the triangle instead of attaching
a clip to the music stand.
If the triangle is being held, it should be at mid to high height.
You should be looking through or just above the instrument at the
conductor. There is some debate on where the best place is strike
the triangle, but it is mostly played about an inch from the top
or the on the bottom cross bar in the centre.
Avoid moving the triangle up and down while playing, or using two
separate holding heights for playing regular strokes and rolls.
This up and down motion causes the Doppler Effect, or the perceived
bending of the pitch (the same effect which makes a train horn sound
like it has changed as it goes by).
It is important that you use a good beater on the instrument (a
good choice are a set as made by ‘Chalklin Mallets’).
I generally play with a fairly large beater, even when playing soft.
This produces a more full sound.
It is NEVER acceptable to play a triangle with
such items as keys, a screwdriver, a drum tension rod, or a wooden
drumstick. There should never be any instances where because of
quick changes that the triangle is struck by a wooden stick. Careful
preparation and planning will prevent this from occurring.
As with the bass drum, composers can sometimes be a little vague
in writing for triangle. Composers usually indicate dynamics and
when to play. However, they don't consider how long the triangle
should ring. See my notes above on bass drum playing regarding this.
The same applies to playing the triangle.
Also remember that the triangle can add that all important and much
discussed ‘sparkle’ to a performance. Ensure that the
triangle is heard at the very back of the concert hall by not being
too coy in your approach to playing it!
Rolls are produced by quickly moving the beater back and forth
in the closed lower corner. Start the roll with a stroke, so the
beginning of the sound is clear.
Some special techniques are used for extremely fast or difficult
For extremely fast passages, the triangle may be mounted onto the
stand so the player can play with two matched beaters. The clip
MUST be insulated to prevent the music stand from vibrating with
the instrument (some hardware store clips have rubber padding on
them). You may also insulate with a piece of cloth, or with surgical
You may mount on one clip, or mount from both closed ends with two
clips. Remember that although mounting with two clips reduces the
motion of the triangle, it reduces the resonance of it as well.
Use your best judgement for each situation.
Should I sit or stand?
Those of you who have watched symphony orchestras perform may have
noticed that a majority of players chose to play many percussion
instruments sitting down, usually on a high stool. Obviously, when
a part requires the player to regularly change instruments sitting
down is not really an option.
However, there are opportunities when playing with a brass band,
particularly whilst performing older test pieces where a section
of three players are required to play the traditional bass drum,
cymbals/triangle & snare drum/triangle set up that it may not
be necessary for the players to stand for long periods of time when
they could comfortably support themselves by sitting down.
In fact, playing the bass drum whilst sitting on a high stool can
be advantageous in that your knees and arms are conveniently placed
for effective dampening. I personally feel it also looks more professional
and pleasing to the eye to see a section sitting rather than standing
up, sitting down, standing up again etc, or even worse standing
for 16 minutes just to play a few notes on the triangle!
Of course this is down to personal preference. Remember, however,
whether sitting or standing to have adequate number of parts so
that a player doesn’t need to lean or look over another players
shoulder to read the part – each player should have their
own part placed on his/her own music stand and therefore have no
need to share parts.
In my future article I shall be looking more closely at the responsibilities
of the Principal Percussionist, including correctly advising his
section of players on performance ideas, tuning drums as well organising
music and instruments in concert and contest situations etc.
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