One of the most rewarding aspects of being a percussionist is that you can develop a core set of techniques and apply your skillset to a wide array of different instruments. Unlike a violinist or trumpet player who is only expected to play one instrument, a percussionist in an orchestra or symphony is expected to play the bass drum, the snare drum, and the timpani, just to name a few. From the snare drum to mallet percussion instruments, below you’ll find some instrument-specific and general tips for playing percussion that’ll help you excel in any symphonic or orchestral setting.
Snare Drum: Tips and Advice
The snare drum is unique in that its players typically keep their stroke style closed rather than open. Not only is this style of playing more lyrical, but it blends better with the rest of the orchestra or symphony. It may feel odd to switch from an open to closed stroke style, but it’s something every percussionist must perfect. Since the snare drum tends to project well even when played softly, it’s imperative to match your playing ‘strength’ to the rest of the group you’re playing with. Listen to your fellow musicians, and play at a slightly lower dynamic level than you think you need to. The last thing you want to do is overpower the rest of the group with your snare drum. If you’re still playing too loudly, remember that playing near the edge of the head produces a softer sound than playing towards the center does.
The Timpani: Tips and Advice
The timpani is the only percussion instrument whose standard grip is the French grip. Although this grip is similar to the matched grip, the main difference is that your palms should be at right angles to the floor. When practicing percussion, practice switching from a French grip to a matched grip at back again, as you’ll be expected to do so quickly and efficiently when performing. If you haven’t yet developed an ear for tuning, the timpani practically demands it–so practice tuning without a tuning device. This can be done by quietly humming into the drum head; when the drum is tuned to the pitch you’re humming, you’ll hear it resonate back. Finally, never strike the timpani at its center! You want a timpani to resonate, and striking it in its center will produce a dull thud instead of the sound you’re striving for.
Concert Bass Drum: Tips and Advice
Unlike the snare drum, the concert bass drum requires a variety of mallet densities for different sections and styles of music. Although you’ll eventually build up your arsenal with a range of mallets, starting out with one soft bass drum mallet and one medium-hard mallet should suffice. Next, make sure your bass drum is properly set up and that you’re in the proper position when playing. Ideally, the bass drum head should be slanted so the head is at a 45 degree angle with the floor, and the mallet should be held with your dominant hand. Strike the head just off center with the mallet, and use your other hand to muffle the drum when necessary. As with other percussion instruments, knowing how to best produce sound is key. When it comes to the concert bass drum, strike the drum in a scooping motion, almost as if you’re “pulling” the sound from the drum.
Mallet Percussion Instruments: Tips and Advice
Instruments like the marimba, the xylophone, and the glockenspiel fall into this category, and all mallet percussion instruments use the rear-fulcrum grip. This is the same as the matched grip, except instead of pinching the mallet between your thumb and forefinger you squeeze the butt of the mallet gently with your ring finger and pinky. You should wrap your other three fingers loosely around the mallet to provide extra control. Just as you use different mallet densities when playing the snare drum, each mallet instrument requires a different type of mallet. For example, the marimba is played with soft yarn mallets, while the xylophone is played with rubber or plastic mallets. If you need more direction on which mallet should be used with which percussion instrument, speak with your music teacher or head to your local Music & Arts store for more information.
General Percussion Tips & Advice
When it comes to practicing percussion, always go into your practice session with a plan or goal. Whether it’s perfect a certain transition or to focus on your technique on one particular drum, having a plan will help you make the most of your practice time. If you can, get a practice plan from your teacher. Since they’re the person who is actually teaching you to play the drums, they should be able to point out your weak spots or what needs the most attention. Next, make sure to practice each and every day. Whether you’re actually sitting behind the drum set or playing on a practice pad, a little practice each day is better than not practicing at all. If you don’t have access to a practice pad, use a pillow until you can purchase one–many drummers find that it’s a suitable short-term replacement.
Want more info? Check out How to Extend the Life of Your Cymbals and How to Tell if You Need New Drum Heads. After all, properly maintaining your drum set is one of the most important parts of being a good percussionist!