Percussion instruments offer the widest spectrum of possible sounds. They can be played extremely loud, whisper soft, harsh, dark, beautiful and everything in between. However, we generally do not spend a lot of time focusing on the quality of that sound. We tend to focus more on placement and rhythm. Can you imagine being happy with a trumpet player who only played the correct rhythm? Of course not! The sound quality coming out of the instrument has a very large role to play in our music making.
Generally, percussionists have a lot of time to sit in the back of the ensemble, so when they do play we should give them the opportunity to experiment and be creative with their sound options. If their experimentation works… great! If their experimentation doesn’t seem to be appropriate, then let them guess again, offering them direction if needed. Rather than accept mediocrity and have a group of stereotypical percussionists, let’s empower them to be artists, just like the rest of the musicians in the group.
There are three points of emphasis I would like to focus on to make this a reality:
- The Physical: The physical options we have to produce sound
What sort of mallets are we using? What sort of tuning are we using? What techniques are we using? How can we get multiple sounds out of the same instrument from a purely physical perspective?
- Listening: Being more aware of the sounds being produced
How can we train our ears and our student’s ears to listen for better sounds? How can we listen and anticipate the most appropriate sound?
- Direction / Questions: Leadership from the teacher
What questions can we ask and how can we give better direction to our students to get those sounds?
In the limited space I have here I will address these issues with two of the most commonly used percussion instruments: mallet instruments and snare drum.
Be careful not to associate articulation with dynamics. Mallet selection and dynamics are our main tools to control sound on these instruments. Unlike snare drum, there isn’t a lot of adjustment we can do to the physical instrument. I think of the mallet as the articulation. The stick height or force into the instrument is how we get dynamics. This means that loud doesn’t always mean to use a hard mallet and quiet doesn’t always mean to use a soft mallet. A loud passage could need a very round, heavy sound. A hard mallet would be way too bright and piercing. A soft passage could need very articulate, crisp articulation. A hard mallet, played soft would be appropriate. This is why the direction “Can you use a softer mallet?” just to get a quieter dynamic isn’t always the right choice.
There are actually quite a wide range of timbres on a xylophone. Sure we want to play the right notes but we also want to have a consistent sound. If we play on different areas of the bar we can sometimes be unaware of what a drastically different color is being produced. By paying attention to our playing area we can play with a much more consistent sound.
Directions and Questions
I like to think of mallet playing like painting. If you told me I had to paint a landscape of the California coastline, I would hope you would provide me more than 2 or 3 colors to use. Comparing colors to sound can work for a lot of students. Even if that analogy doesn’t work, the concept of having lots of options still does. Ask questions relating back to articulation. I’ve never understood why conductors dumbed down musical directions for percussionists. Ask for exactly what you want! A question like “Can we try to get a darker sound in this passage?” will yield much better results than “Can you use the red mallet?”
Let’s set ourselves up for success. Let’s make sure the drum sounds good before we strike it. How the drum sounds is largely due to how it is tuned and set up. No matter how good the player is, if the drum is not tuned properly, it just isn’t going to sound good.
Concert Snare Drum Head Tuning
- Top Head: roughly an A natural (as high as a B natural)
- Bottom Head: roughly a B natural (the main goal is for it to be noticeably higher than the top head)
- This is half the battle! Most schools I visit the drum clearly hasn’t been tuned in months, if at all!
- Don’t overly complicate this process. It’s not as hard as people think it is.
- Start with the snare mechanism turned on but the snares so loose they are not engaging.
- Slowly tighten them while tapping on the drum.
- Keep tightening the snares until they sound too tight and choked.
- Back them off until the snares have found a happy medium between too loose, and too tight.
This truly is half the battle! Even on a below-average drum, if you tune the heads properly, I guarantee you will get an above-average sound from your students.
Once the drum is tuned we don’t have a lot of options for the sound of the drum outside of our control of rhythms and the roll. Snare drummers focus primarily on rhythm. But, I believe the roll is physically the most difficult technique on snare drum. We are trying to make an instrument that does not sustain…. sustain.
Understanding what a roll should sound like is actually very easy. An even, uninterrupted, consistent sound. Getting a student’s roll to sound that way can prove to be very difficult. My book, The Modern Concert Snare Drum Roll, offers a step-by-step guide to developing the roll. A big focus of the book is on how to use our ears to perfect the roll. I use rhythms to practice the control of the roll both to solidify technique but also to train the ear what a smooth roll should and should not sound like.
Directions and Questions
All “f’s” are not created equal!
To help students realize that “f” doesn’t always mean to play as loud as possible, I like to ask questions that encourage students to think about their role at that moment in the ensemble. This helps student think about their part in the context of the ensemble and not just as an individual part.
- “What are others doing right now?”
- “Should I be leading or following right now?”
- “How important is my part right now?”
- “What is my role in the ensemble right now?”
- Granted, there is still a time and place for “can that be softer”
I hope these tips provide some tools you can use with your students to create better sounds from the percussion instruments. Treating the instruments like real musical instruments instead of toys is a great start. Having them in tip top condition and giving percussionists the same directions you give other instruments will go a long way. For more resources on all of the percussion instruments please visit my website.
William J. James is the principal percussionist of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. He won the position at the age of twenty-five while a member of the New World Symphony. Will received his M.M. from New England Conservatory, where he studied with Will Hudgins, and his B.M. from Northwestern University, where he studied with Michael Burritt and James Ross. Will is also an educator and author of the acclaimed resource The Modern Concert Snare Drum Roll. He uses Zildjian cymbals, Malletech sticks and instruments, Evans drum heads, Grover percussion instruments and Beetle Percussion products in all of his musical projects and performances. Check out his blog and other resources on his web page.