What is a good sound? Most instrumentalists learn these things early on in their education. How to get the best sound on the clarinet, the difference between good and bad sounds on violin, or what sort of touch produces the ideal sound on piano.
Too often, young percussionists are left out of this learning process; a percussionist’s education--especially in the band room--all too often focuses solely on whether they are playing right notes and rhythms in the right place. Little attention is paid to the tone being produced on timpani, the quality of the cymbal crash, or the timbre of the triangle.
You could say that while string, wind, and brass students are learning about good tone from very early on, most young percussionists are placed in a binary world, where everything is only right or wrong. They are learning only the objective elements of music. While these “non-negotiable” musical ideas--time, rhythm, pitch, and dynamics--are incredibly important, they are only the starting place in developing musicianship.
Objective—these things are “non-negotiable”:
TIME, RHYTHM, PITCH, DYNAMICS
I have encountered this phenomenon over and over. Routinely, I work with student percussionists, not only in middle school and high school, but even college students with very little concept of the subjective musical elements: tone, phrasing, style, character. Strangely, I’ve had several students in my studio at Omaha Conservatory of Music with stellar piano backgrounds, who had no trouble with phrasing or style at the piano, but struggled to bring these ideas to their percussion playing.
Subjective—these things are necessary, but open to the player’s interpretation:
TONE, PHRASING, STYLE, CHARACTER
So, how do we raise the level of musicianship for young percussionists? What can I do to make these ideas more concrete? What actionable instructions will help a student develop their ears to hear good versus bad tone? How can phrasing, style, and character be made accessible to even the youngest percussionists?
The first step is connecting motion with sound.
GOOD SOUNDS start with GOOD TECHNIQUE.
1. GRIP: GOOD TECHNIQUE begins with GOOD HANDS -- you must produce the exact same sound with both hands. The first step is to make sure your grip is the same in each hand. This applies to every instrument and every grip (except traditional grip snare drum, but that’s another post), whether it’s matched grip, Stevens grip, French grip, etc.
2. BEATING SPOTS: even perfect grip means nothing if your sticks aren’t striking the best and most consistent spots on the instrument. Play the exact same spots on the snare drum (edge, halfway, center), the center (or off center--be consistent) of the marimba bars, or the proper spots on timpani.
3. MECHANICS: you must move the sticks as consistently and relaxed as possible! Practice moving sticks in fundamental, simple ways, and on every instrument. It is crucial to remember that everything (EVERYTHING!) a percussionist plays is some combination of seven different strokes:
The Four Single Strokes—the building blocks of percussion:
Roll Strokes—“the illusion of sustain”:
SINGLE STROKE (timpani and mallets)
DOUBLE STROKE (snare drum)
MULTIPLE BOUNCE (snare drum)
Each of these strokes needs to be meticulously refined out of context. It would be impossible to do algebra without a solid understanding of addition and subtraction. These strokes are the basic math of percussion--if these are not good, the things you build with them won’t be good, either.
Be sure to ask yourself (or your students, if you are a music educator) are you making good sounds today?
Are your cymbal crashes GOOD SOUNDS?
Are your bass drum notes GOOD SOUNDS?
Are you making GOOD SOUNDS on the triangle?
I encourage band directors to address the subjective musical elements with their percussion sections in every rehearsal, simply to engage them. Ask for a different tone on the temple blocks, ask them to phrase the melody on xylophone slightly different, or ask them to add some style or character to their snare drum part.
Playing the right notes at the right time is the least that can be done. Anyone can “hit stuff”, but a percussionist is a musician who knows how to make GOOD SOUNDS.
Ask yourself constantly, “Am I making GOOD SOUNDS?”