"Gain Some Distance, Get Better Sounds" by Tony Oliver
(Article originally on the Percussion Source Anthology)
Gain Some Distance, Get Better Sounds
"Plink plink plink, tap tap tap, boom boom boom, crash crash crash, ding ding ding." Sounds good to me, but does it sound good to them?
As we maintain our percussion instruments, by tuning or dampening or otherwise adjusting them to get the perfect sound, we often listen to them from only the player's perspective— that is, right next to the instrument. This of course makes a great deal of common sense: When we are alone tweaking and tuning it's somewhat difficult to stand 10, 15, 50 feet away and still play the instrument. But for the player or director who is interested in how an instrument will actually sound in the context of a large ensemble or in a room the size of a concert hall, listening to the sound AWAY from the instrument while it is played is very important. Even 10 feet can make a big difference. The instrument that sounds fantastic right up close might sound a little lifeless when you listen to it from 30 feet away. The opposite is also true: The instrument that you think is too loud or abrasive up close might sound great when heard from 30 feet away. (No doubt dynamics and mallet choices should be considered, too. Players are often amazed that what they think is fff on stage turns out to be somewhat mf by the time it gets to the back row, or that the pretty blue mallet that sounds good up close sounds pretty awful when heard at a distance.)
When you are choosing a new instrument to buy, or maintaining or selecting an instrument already in the collection, always insist that part of the process involve listening to the instrument under consideration from varying distances as it is played. If in a showroom, have the salesperson or friend play it while you go across the room and listen; if in a concert or recital hall, do the same, but go out into the hall to get an idea of how it sounds. Also ask others what they think while you play the instrument in question. When adjusting an instrument and you are by yourself, record the sound from a distance to help you gauge how it might sound from farther away. Along with this private listening, listening to recordings of your large-ensemble rehearsals or concerts is also very informative. Remember, though, that recordings aren't "live"; they might have been adjusted for broadcast or other reason, or the equipment might be bad overall. Either way, the sound of the recordings might not be quite real. Only use recordings in addition to your "live" listening.
By gaining some distance from them as you listen to your instruments, you will get an idea of how they actually sound. This information, when mixed with your musical tastes, those of a teacher, and those of your friends, might make your overall sound, sound better.
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"How to Do a Tried and True Thumb Roll: Part I " by Tony Oliver
(Articles originally on the Percussion Source Anthology)
Tried and True Thumb Roll How to Do...
This is an all-text, step-by-step guide, for those who are thumb-roll challenged!
The idea is to create a friction (pressure) between the thumb (or other finger) and the tambourine head so that as you slide/rub your thumb across it keeps the thumb from sliding smoothly, but does not quite stop it. When you find this balance between too much and too little pressure, the thumb will bounce (shudder might be a better word--have you ever worked the clutch on a manual transmission car?) across the head causing the jingles to vibrate.
I often find that it is easier to experiment with finding this bounce/shudder pressure away from the tambourine. Directions follow:
Read through these directions once or twice before trying.
Okay, a lot of words for something that is easy once you get it (imagine writing out specific written directions on how to ride a bike!). Take your time -- patience and practice -- You'll Get It!!
- 1. Find a smooth surface--table or counter top, piece of glass (desk, table top, etc.), wood furniture with a smooth finish, etc,that you can stand at and rest your hand relaxed on. When you get the idea it doesn't matter.)
- 2. Rest your hand, palm down, flat on the surface.
- 3. While keeping your hand relaxed and flat on the table (or whatever surface you are using) raise your palm so that only your fingertips and thumbtip are touching the table. It will look like a little spider--but it isn't a spider, so don't be afraid.
- 4. Lift off your fingers leaving only your thumb on the surface.
- 5. With your thumb on the table (and in the same spot--you aren't doing anything yet!) move the hand so that --if you aren't already--you are resting on the pad of the thumb (not the side or the knuckle part) with more of the contact toward (BUT NOT AT) the thumbtip (it's not unlike giving a thumb print). Your fingers should still be extended in a relaxed fashion--they are possibly to the right a bit (if right handed) in order to keep your thumb pad flat. No more tension than that, though.
- 6. Okay, you should now have your thumb pointing directly to the left and supporting the hand/arm (thumb points to the right if you are doing this with your left hand). Try to keep your hand relaxed. Try not to contort your fingers past where they are now. Keep them in the air, but relaxed.
- 7. NOW THE GOOD PART-- slide your thumb with VERY LITTLE--ALMOST NO pressure in the direction it is pointing (keep on the pad--not the side!). Keep your thumb somewhat stable as you slide, but don't tense up the hand or thumb at all. As you slide the thumb, it will "grab" and bounce, shudder, or vibrate. It might even be hard for it not to.
- 8. That's what you are after (even if it does it just a little bit). If it just slides with no bounce, apply increasing pressure in the smallest amounts possible until it does. If you apply too much pressure your thumb won't move. Or worse, it will just slide along giving you a friction burn. Chances are, if you are pressing that hard, you have stresses in your life other than your thumb roll. (Note: see number 9. Sometimes this helps if it absolutely won't bounce/shudder.)
- 9. Once you get your thumb shuddering/vibrating, experiment with different pressures and speeds to change how it vibrates. Even try different non-tambourine surfaces! Sometimes lifting the fingers higher (this sometimes changes the pressure a bit) produces different results. When you get comfortable, also try lifting your thumb and then setting (or even dropping) the thumb down at the same time you start sliding.
- 10. Sometimes it's necessary (on tambourines, especially) to make the thumb more tacky or grab-y to increase the odds of immediate shudder effect. To do this, simply breathe on the thumb when it is close to, or in your mouth. I don't lick my thumb because it makes the tambourine slimy. And, too much moisture can lubricate your thumb making it slide and not become more tacky. A LITTLE moisture is all you need.
- 11. Once you've figured out all of this bouncing and shuddering it's time to go to the tambourine.
- 12. Go to the tambourine.
- 13. Hold it in proper tambourine fashion (that's another question-- but basically held in the left--or right--hand with the head at a 30-45 degree angle. The holding arm should be relaxed. It doesn't do much in this instance.)
- 14. Try out your bouncing/shuddering with the non-holding thumb by sliding/rubbing it along the edge of the tambourine head on the opposite side of the holding hand. (Note: Right over the shell--the wooden or plastic hoop that the head is on--or close to it works best.)
- 15. If there isn't enough "grab" to make the thumb bounce, try breathing on the thumb--and/or, try a little(!) beeswax rubbed on the tambourine head to make it more tacky.
- 16. Experiment with different pressures and speeds to get the desired roll sound. Remember, the holding hand is just holding the tambourine (the flat surface) so you can rub your thumb. For now, hold the the tambourine firm enough to keep it from moving, but concentrate on changing the pressure with your non-tambourine-holding thumb/hand.
- 17. Remember, tambourine rolls usually have a start and a finish strike to define the note lengths. On a thumbroll, the start can be just dropping the thumb on as you start the roll or just starting the tambourine vibrating by starting the thumb moving (often good enough, unlike shake rolls). To finish, bring the thumb to an abrupt stop, or bring part of the hand (heel, side, etc.) down on the tambourine as you stop the roll.
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"How to Do a Tried and True Thumb Roll: Part II" by Tony Oliver
(Originally on the Percussion Source Anthology)
Okay, folks. For those of you who wondered if the information presented in Part One really works, I thought I would provide some genuine field-test results.
My Mom, who is not a percussionist and had never held a tambourine in her life, gave the directions a try. (If you haven't tried the original instructions yet go back to Part One of this article.) I thought some of what we found out might help. Here is what we found:
She got her thumb to bounce/vibrate on the table-top she was using. She found that a little moisture really helped (she breathed on her thumb).
When she went to the tambourine it was very difficult to make any sound because the head was so smooth. Moisture on the thumb helped a little, but the big problem was that her hand and arms were not nearly relaxed enough.The tension caused by "trying to make it work" made the thumb too tense to bounce freely. When she was very relaxed, she got a small thumb roll. Not ready for the stage, but not bad for never having held a tambourine. She also found that when she pressed down (versus across) a LITTLE more, it worked better. Make sure you keep your "holding" hand relaxed, too. Remember, it just needs to keep the tambourine still enough to bounce your thumb against.
I also noticed that she didn't hold the tambourine in "official tambourine fashion" (whatever that is) when she got her first thumb roll. She found that for some reason the thumb roll worked when she held the tambourine vertically. I suggest holding it however you need to hold it to make the thing vibrate during the roll. Once you get the hang of it, you can slowly get back to "normal" playing position. (when she did that later, her rolls were more consistent)
Remember to move your thumb along and parallel to the edge of a tambourine--it will move along the curve. I had her envision her right hand on a car steering wheel at the two or three o'clock position and then steering the car one-handed to the left. That's basically the motion (in a smaller version) that your hand travels on the tambourine.
Don't hold the tambourine awkwardly--keep your arms relaxed and only bring them high enough to get your thumbroll thumb to the tambourine.
And last: It will take time to get comfortable with this. Give it time. Practice and stay relaxed.
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PSA Editor's Column #5 "Play Now, Roy!" Words About Rental-Part Markings, by Tony Oliver
Following along in my part during a recent concert series, I noticed a penciled-in marking in the tam-tam player’s part that said, “NEXT TWO REALLY LOUD!!” This seemed a fine reminder since, in context, it was appropriate for the loudness. And it obviously was a necessary reminder for the poor soul who had failed to play the part loud enough when the parts were used last. I could almost see the anguish on the player’s face as the pencil marks were scratched on the page. Such is the pain of suffering a conductor’s wrath that such pain can live on in pencil forever (or at least until that set of parts is destroyed). But lest you encounter some wrath of your own, beware of blindly following penciled-in parts. Often those pencil marks were for one-time situations, or for an ensemble that had no resemblance to the one you are playing in now, and therefore there is a strong chance that the part shouldn’t be played that way in your situation. Why are the marks still there, then? It’s hard to say. The marks could have been left there due to laziness (on the part of any number of people), or it’s a common enough change in the edition that the rental place or music library leaves it in because sometimes it gets played that way. What to do then? I suggest wariness when playing works unknown to you and start with the ink, or what’s actually printed, and go from there. Sometimes you’ll find —either because of your own musical mind, or from consulting with a conductor (or observing what the conductor does in rehearsal)—that those penciled-in marks are quite correct and that the person before you has saved you some time spent in writing your own pencil marks. As already mentioned, though, sometimes those marks are completely wrong. Be smart, think about it, and do what’s best for the music.
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PSA Editor's Column #7 "Shaft - He is a bad...Shut your Mouth" by Tony Oliver
Shaft--he's a bad...Shut your mouth..., by Tony Oliver
But I'm talking about Shaft! Or rather I'm talking about shafts; more specifically, mallet shafts.
I've had several discussions lately with people looking to buy this or that mallet, and I have been faced with the question of shafts. Long, short, sealed, unsealed, rattan, birch, exotic-wood-of-the-day...
Having never been one to think that finding the perfect mallet will solve my problems (time in the practice room has always seemed more beneficial to me), I try not to get drawn in too far to these discussions. I've got all kinds of mallets and sticks in my various stick bags, and they've all got their time and place. Of course I have preferences. For example, I often prefer natural, unfinished birch shafts when I play marimba, and rattan handles (not too thin) when I play most other things. But if the sound I want is produced by the wierd 6-inch plastic-handled green sparkly mallet, that's the one I use; preferences be darned--it's all about the sound.
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PSA Editor's Column #11 "Honk, Plink, Boing, Whizzz, Kerplunk, Cuckoo...Cuckoo"
by Tony Oliver
Amendment Ten to the U.S. Constitution says, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” In other words, if the power to do something isn’t given to the Federal Government, it’s left to the states and people to take care of. Sound effects and percussionists are much the same way. That is, if there are instruments left over that haven’t been assigned to anybody else, they seem to go to the percussion section. Whistles, sirens, kazoos, taxi horns, wind machines—and various other what-have-you—invariably end up both delighting and frustrating percussionists. I can’t count the number of times I’ve played something in concert that has no relation to any of my basic “percussive” training. But, then again, maybe it does—or a least it relates to my percussionist nature. We percussionists seem to enjoy figuring out how to recreate all of those sounds that composers have in mind: Trains, ships, clocks, birds, etc. We take on all comers, as it were; if there is a sound to be made, a percussionist can figure out to make it. I encourage all young percussionists to enjoy the task of figuring out how to make those sounds that seem to be left to you to make. (And play them loudly! I guarantee you that they weren’t called for by the composer in order to blend in.) Also remember that there are no right and wrong answers as to how to do it—experiment; if it sounds like a duck, it sounds like a duck. We won’t ask.
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PSA Editor's Column #1 "Getting It Together" by Tony Oliver
Rehearsing for a concert a few weeks back, I found myself a little out of sync with another player during some unison attacks. Relative to the conductor and ensemble, I tended to play on the later side, but correctly timed to my ears; the other player tended to play on the early side, and I'm sure he thought he was timed correctly as well. But regardless of who was more correct, something needed to be done or it was going to sound bad. To solve our problem we ended up moving closer together in the section so that we could both sense better the rhythm of what the other was doing. I was also a little more conspicuous with my breathing to telegraph when I was going to play (I’m a big fan of breathing to get in sync with the flow of the ensemble—especially with wind players who have to breathe to play). Obviously there are many other ways to “get it together,” but that worked for us.
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