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Timpani & Percussion - Part 2

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

Introduction

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 psyche.

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 bass drum:

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 necessary.

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.

Listen!!

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 Tambourine

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 etc.

Holding

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.

General Playing

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 off.

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.

Manufacturers

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 (pop) tambourines.

CYMBALS

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.

Crashing

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 cymbals together.

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 gym!

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 cymbal players.

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 vibrate.

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.

Special

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.

Manufacturers

Sabian and Zildjian are the top makers of quality cymbals. Paste also makes some fine cymbals.

The Triangle

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.

Holding

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.

General Playing

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

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 passages:-

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 tubing.

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.

Dave Griffiths

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