How to Play Accessory Percussion Instruments

In a world of school percussion that is generally geared toward building essential snare drum and mallet skills, the techniques necessary to properly play the many accessory instruments your students will be asked to play are usually ignored. Save for the occasional line in a method book that includes an accessory part, it is very likely that the first time one of your students is handed an accessory part may be the first time they’ve ever played that instrument!

Here are the basic techniques your students will need to properly play most of the accessory percussion instruments in most band literature. I hope that this article will be a useful reference for both students and teachers alike.

The most-used percussion accessory instruments include tambourine, triangle, woodblocks, cymbals (crashed and suspended), cowbell, shakers, cabasa, maracas, claves, guiro, sleigh bells, castanets, mark tree (wind chimes), finger cymbals and vibraslap. Chances are you’ll come across additional instruments, but these cover about 90% of the current band literature.

Tambourine

The forerunner of the snare drum, the tambourine is probably the most often used accessory instrument. While there have been entire books dedicated to the multitude of tambourine techniques, I’ll stick to the basics here.

General concepts:

  • For most concert band pieces, a headed tambourine is preferred.
  • Whenever possible, it should be held and above the height of those seated in front (for projection and best tone).
  • Mounted using a tambourine mount is a second option when there is no time to pick up the instrument.
  • Do not play on the head with sticks, this will break most.
  • When handheld, the fingers grip the underside of the rim and the thumb reaches over with pressure on the head (pitch can be varied by thumb pressure). The thumb does not go in the hole in the shell!

Basic strokes:

how to play the tambourine
loudest
how to play the tambourine
medium

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Loudest — Use the knuckles at the center of the head. Strike harder for accents!
  • Medium — Make a duck bill with your fingers and strike halfway from center to the edge.
how to play the tambourine
soft
how to play the tambourine
even softer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Soft — Strike with tips of the fingers (duck bill or just thumb and two fingers) on the head, right over the shell.
  • Even softer — Turn the tambourine over and play with the fingertips directly on the shell.
how to play the tambourine
fast passages, medium to soft volume
how to play the tambourine
fast passages, loud volume

 

 

 

 

 

  • Fast passages, which are too fast to play with one hand, at medium to soft volume — Set the edge of the shell on top of a rolled towel on a trap table or firm music stand and use the fingers to play near the edge. Alternatively, the tambourine can be placed on the knee (put your foot on a chair) and played with two hands.
  • Fast passages at a loud volume — Hold the tambourine upside down and alternate striking the head on the knee and stroking the back of the head with the knuckles of a closed fist.
how to play the tambourine
rolls, easiest
how to play the tambourine
more difficult, smoother roll

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Rolls / easiest — For a shake roll, hold the tambourine at a slight angle and shake (like rattling a doorknob).
  • More difficult, but smoother roll — For a thumb roll, keep pressure on the pad of the thumb against the head of the tambourine and push it along the edge of the head. Moistening the thumb slightly or adding beeswax (board wax works, too) or a roll ring to the surface around the edge area can help maintain friction. This one takes practice but produces a very smooth roll.

Triangle

Next to the tambourine, the triangle is called for often and often played poorly. A key to playing triangle correctly is to have a proper set up to start with.

A triangle should be held with a thin cord. Heavy-duty monofilament fishing line or strong thin cord (such as the type you string a horn with) works well. A heavier string will affect the tone of the triangle. The loop should be about the size of the circle your first finger and thumb make when forming the “OK” sign. Two loops are preferred (one is a backup).

General Concepts:

  • A string that is too long will make holding the triangle difficult.
  • Triangles are much easier to hold when the loop is attached to a clip. There are many manufactured clips available, or you can easily make your own with materials available at your local hardware store.
  • Whenever possible, hold the triangle by the clip and above those seated for best projection and tone.
  • Always use a beater intended for the triangle. Rods of varying thicknesses and materials will not produce satisfactory results (such as using a wind chime bar or a tool). Larger, heavier beaters will produce more volume than smaller, lighter, thinner ones.

General strokes:

  • how to play the triangle

    Hold the beater near the end between your thumb and first two fingers. Use a wrist motion to strike the triangle, working to get off the triangle as soon as you hit it (rather than trying to play “through” it). The last ¼” of the beater should contact the metal. There are two spots to strike the triangle for general playing, and while opinions vary, use the spot that offers the best timbre for the piece you’re playing! Spot #1 is on the lower open third. This provides multiple overtones and a very shimmery sound. Spot #2 is on the closed third. This produces a bell-like tone with mostly the fundamental.

  • how to play the triangle

    Rolling on the triangle is done in the lower closed corner. Using a steady wrist motion, move the triangle up and down in a motion perpendicular to the closed corner (completing a “smaller triangle”). Closer to the corner is best for softer playing and moving away from the corner allows a larger stroke and more volume.

  • For very fast passages, two beaters may be used on the lower third of a triangle clipped to a stand. You can also use a second clip to secure the triangle by the closed corners, allowing for a stable, flat playing surface. The triangle is a sustaining percussion instrument, and as such may need to be dampened or muted. This is done by simply closing the fingers around a held triangle. Muting should be done during long rests or when indicated by a “+” symbol. An “o” symbol indicates an open, or unmuted, triangle.
  • how to play the triangle

    In some styles of music (many Latin styles, for instance), it may be appropriate to hold the triangle by the loop around the first finger, allowing for quick and easy muting and unmuting.

Wood Blocks

The wood block and temple blocks are simple instruments to play, but real wooded ones can be easily damaged if played improperly. There are also now many types of plastic blocks available that closely resemble the sound of wooden blocks but with greater durability.

While plastic blocks can hold up to being played by drumsticks, wooden blocks should be played with rubber to yarn mallets. Hard rubber is great for most smaller blocks, but thinner wooden temple blocks are best played with either soft rubber or medium yarn/cord mallets.

how to play the wood block

Single Wood Block: For general playing, hold the wood block in the non-dominant hand between the thumb and fingers. There should be a gap underneath the block to create a resonant chamber and avoid dampening the block. Hold the block with the open end facing the audience and strike it on top, toward the open side.

For fast passages requiring two hands the block can be mounted with a special woodblock mount or set on a towel on a trap table (this method will not produce the best sound, however). Plastic blocks will have a special attachment to mount to a cymbal or accessory stand.

Temple Blocks: Temple blocks (or multiple mounted blocks) are often mounted with the open ends facing the performer. Strike with a mallet on top near the open end.

Cymbals

There have been entire treatises written about playing the cymbals, but here we’ll stick to the basics of crash and suspended cymbal playing.

how to play the cymbals

Crash Cymbals: Take one instrument and hit it against another, what could go wrong? Well, a lot if they’re not properly held and struck, so let’s start with the grip.

For concert band, the standard method of holding cymbals is to grip the entire strap in your closed fingers, with the end of the strap at the bottom of your hand and the top of the strap secured by your thumb. The knuckles should rest against the cymbal, with the thumb as the guide to the cymbal angle.

Basic crash: There are a LOT of different methods that work well to produce a basic crash. This is one that I’ve found students pick up quickly. Key points to a good crash are:

  • how to play the cymbals

    Hold cymbals up with the tops just below the nose or face.

  • Hold one cymbal and move the other, usually in the dominant hand.
  • All edges should match up.
  • One edge should strike first, followed by the rest of the cymbal (almost like a flam).
  • A slight sliding motion after full cymbal contact gives a pleasant attack.
  • When teaching this motion, I find it helpful to have the students first match up the top, then the bottom edges of the cymbals, making a crunching sound like a hi-hat closing loosely, and then slide one cymbal down and away in a slightly circular motion, bringing the cymbal back to its starting position. These two motions are repeated, gradually becoming one smooth motion and one crash.
  • Sustained sound comes off the edges of cymbals, so how the cymbals are held following a crash will influence this. Letting both cymbals hang facing downward produces the most sustain, but there are other methods as well.
  • Dampening crash cymbals is accomplished by touching them gently to your sides or stomach. Sustain is often indicated by an open tie or “L.V.” whereas cymbals are dampened when followed by rests or when “choked” is indicated.

Suspended Cymbal

A good suspended cymbal is typically medium sized (about 16 to18 inches) and not too thick. It should be able to hold the sustain or a roll with sounding individual strokes easily, but also have a fast attack when struck with a mallet or stick. You can place one on a regular cymbal stand, but suspending one by a strap from a shepherd’s crook stand produces more overtones and sustain.

The implements of choice are yarn mallets made for cymbals (with stronger shafts and a specially designed core), although a medium hard marimba mallet will also work. Do not use timpani mallets, even if specified by the composer. Older compositions will designate “with timpani mallet” because it was not common for percussionists to have suitable yarn mallets, much less specifically designed ones. A timpani mallet generally will not produce a fast enough sustain, enough overtones and will get damaged by continued use in this manner. In some circumstances, a drumstick is used for a fast crash or playing on the dome of the cymbal. For special effect, a composer may specify scraping a coin or triangle beater across the grain of a cymbal.

how to play the cymbals

A simple crash can be played two ways: 1) For the fullest sound, strike the cymbal with both mallets simultaneously at the 3 and 9 o’clock positions, as close to the edges as possible. Move the mallets away quickly, making sure to not play “in” to the cymbal, but rather “off” of it. 2) An alternative (especially if one hand is already occupied) is to strike the cymbal with one mallet or stick near the edge.

For cymbal rolls, place both mallets at 3 and 9 o’clock near the edges, and use a single stroke roll. Experiment with roll speeds and you’ll find that you don’t need to move the mallets nearly as fast as if playing a single stroke roll on timpani or a drum. Rolls often start out almost silent but have a noticeable end, increasing volume more at the tail end of a crescendo, rather than evenly throughout it.

Cowbell

The basic cowbell is a simple instrument to play, but its tone can easily cut through the largest ensemble, so care should be taken to get the best sound!

how to strike a cowbell

Hold the cowbell in the non-dominant hand between the thumb and the remaining four fingers, with a gap left underneath to allow some resonance. The cowbell can be more completely dampened by allowing either the first finger or the palm to make more contact underneath.

The cowbell is usually struck with a drumstick (often the fatter butt end) across the top of the open end. Care should be taken to not angle the stick too much, or you’ll find your cowbell full of wood shavings! A higher pitch can sometimes be obtained by striking up near the closed end of the bell.

Most cowbells now include a mounting screw to mount to an accessory rack, cowbell mount or cymbal stand top. This is useful if the performer needs to get to other instruments quickly, but the preferred tone is handheld.

Shakers

There are many, many types and shapes of shakers, but the basic premise of them is the same; the filling material makes sound when it hits one surface, and can also make sound when it hits the opposite surface. The quality of this sound may be affected by the shaker material, the filling, the direction it’s shaken and the force it’s shaken with.

Shakers made of metal are usually among the loudest, especially when filled with metal material (often similar to small buckshot). Plastic shakers can vary in outside hardness as well as the hardness of the filling. Smaller shakers, such as egg-shaped shakers, will often have a more delicate, softer tone. Shakers made of wood or other natural material are usually the most subtle in sound.

how to play the shaker

The most direct and focused sound is produced when a shaker is moved horizontally, allowing the inside material to hit one wall with full force. Snapping the shaker back in the opposite direction will produce a second, upbeat sound. This is most effective when playing steady 8th- or 16th-note patterns. Playing a shaker vertically causes the filling material to rise and fall with a less focused attack, and no upbeat from the up stroke. This can be an effective technique in playing slower, steady quarter note patterns. A swirling timbre can be achieved by moving the shaker in a circular motion.

Maracas

how to play maracas

Technically, a maraca is a shaker, but the playing technique is somewhat different due to the shape. Usually in pairs, maracas can be held like drumsticks and played with a snapping forward-backward motion. More precise rhythmic patterns can be played with the maracas held parallel to the ground with the first finger of each hand extended over the top of each one, emphasizing a heavy, snapping downstroke.

Cabasa

how to play the cabasaThe cabasa is closely related to shakers and can produce a similar but more controlled sound. By holding the handle in the dominant hand and resting the beads in the cupped, non-dominant hand, the cabasa is usually played by rotating the handle back and forth in short, choppy strokes.

Claves

showing how to play the claves

The claves (not to be confused with clave, the rhythm they often play) are two short heavy sticks made of resonant wood or similar synthetic material. One is held in the non-dominant hand resting on the thumb and remaining fingers (I often liken this to a hot dog sitting atop a not quite open bun). It is important to not apply pressure to this clave, as it must resonate freely. The other hand holds the other clave gently and strikes the middle of both pieces to produce a very cutting tone.

Guiro

how to play the guiro

The guiro (sometimes referred to as a scraper or raspador) is usually made of a long hollowed out gourd, shaped wood or other synthetic material with ridges on one length of it. It can also be made of metal, and a merengue guira looks more like a ridged wide metal tube with a handle (like a large cheese grater!).

The guiro is usually played with a short, thin, wooden stick. The metal versions are usually played with a long-tined metal scraper that looks like a hair pick.

Held between the thumb and other fingers (if there is a hole, it is for resonance, not your thumb), the ridges of the guiro are scraped in quick down and up strokes. Varying the pressure and speed of the scraping can add emphasis and length to each stroke.

Sleigh Bells

While most often used in music with wintery undertones, sleigh bells are becoming a more common timbre in other works as well. Standard concert sleigh bells consist of four sets of bells sewn to fabric straps that are attached to a wooden handle. One common issue with sleigh bells is that they can make a sound when picked up from a trap table. To avoid this, some performers add a small, flat, round base to the bottom of the bell end so the entire handle can sit upright on a table. Another method to silence them is to place them upright in a towel-lined can (like a large coffee can). The four generally used methods of playing the sleigh bells are described below:

how to play sleigh bells
shaking the bottle
how to play sleigh bells
tapping the bottle

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shaking the bottle: For this method, the player holds the light bells upside down by the handle and shakes them with a short downstroke, like the way one might shake a bottle of catsup when trying to get out the last bits.

Tapping the bottle: Like the method above, the bells are held upside down by the handle, but are played by striking the bottom of the fist or palm of one hand against either the top of the handle, or the top of the hand holding them (like tapping the bottom of a catsup bottle to get out the last few drops). This method often produces the most accurate pulse, especially with younger players.

how to play sleigh bells
shaking the stick
how to play sleigh bells
cradle method

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shaking a stick: For this method, the sleigh bells are held upright by the handle at a slight outward angle and shaken with a sharp downstroke, as if trying to shake water off them. For some, this method produces a slightly louder sound.

Cradle method: This method can also provide a louder sound with less fatigue but requires a bit more finesse to control the sound. Holding the sleigh bells horizontally in both upturned hands, shake them with sharp down strokes, again as if trying to shake water off them.

Castanets

how to play the castanets

Castanets are usually used to evoke a Spanish flavor in music, or to enhance snap-like sounds. There are two versions typically available: handheld and machine.

The handheld version consists of one or two paddles with half of the castanet mounted on either side. They are held like drumsticks and are played with a snapping down-up motion. While tricky to control, they can be quite loud.

Machine castanets are mounted on a small board or clamp mechanism, and the castanet tension is maintained by a screw adjustable by a wing nut on one end. The device is usually either set on a sturdy trap table or mounted on a cymbal stand or accessory rack. The castanets are then played with the fingertips on top. This method allows for fast or more technical passages to be easily played.

Mark Tree

how to play the mark tree

Often incorrectly referred to as “wind chimes” or a “bar chimes,” the mark tree is the most common form of this instrument. It was created by Mark Stevens, and percussionist Emil Richards dubbed the instrument the “Mark Tree” after its inventor. It consists of a mounted wooden crosspiece with a single or double row of graduated round aluminum bars hung by string or plastic ties.

The mark tree is usually played with either a triangle beater or the fingers. A triangle beater will usually be louder. The chimes are gently struck across the bottom from highest to lowest, or lowest to highest. The direction is usually indicated by a glissando or line denoting direction. While the bars are easily dampened by gently placing an arm (or towel) across them, they are often left to ring after striking.

Finger Cymbals

Finger cymbals (sometimes called “Zills”) are iconic in some Middle Eastern dances but are commonly used for effect in concert band music. They are small metal cymbals with very short straps. The playing techniques used for concert band music are different than the traditional method utilized in dances.

There are several typical methods of striking finger cymbals for concert band music.

One method is to hold each cymbal strap between the first finger and thumb, and gently “crash” them together. This produces a small, high pitched antique cymbal sound, but is often not loud enough to be heard over an ensemble, so it is the least preferred method of playing them.

how to play the finger cymbals
second method
how to play the finger cymbals
third method

 

 

 

 

 

 

The second method is to hold both cymbals flat, then strike the edge of one over the other. This produces a clearer tone with more fundamental present.

In the third method, one cymbal is held vertically while striking the other cymbal’s edge on top of the held cymbal’s edge. This is often the loudest option.

Vibraslap

how to play the vibraslap

The vibraslap is a unique sounding percussion instrument. Having its origins in the sound of an animal jawbone, it produces a sustained rattling sound.

To play the vibraslap, hold the wire with one hand with the ball up, then strike the ball end with the palm of the other hand. Another method is to hold it ball end down, then strike the ball on your palm. After striking, holding the rattle end horizontally will produce more sound, but a shorter rattle. Alternatively, holding the rattle end down will produce more sustain. In either case, the instrument should be held high enough for its sound to project over the ensemble.

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