Think back to when you first started playing percussion in school. You may have had to carry your student snare drum and/or bell kit back and forth from home on the days you had band. Percussion, of course, encompasses more than just these instruments, however, and as you got older, you likely did not have to buy your own xylophone, marimba, bass drum, or timpani to cart back and forth from school. Fortunately, most middle schools, high schools, and universities have many of these larger and more expensive percussion instruments available to students. Unfortunately, students often take this for granted and do not treat these instruments with the proper care they deserve. In some cases, it may just be that a student lacks the proper instruction.
Percussion is an expensive artform, and we need to treat all the instruments with respect and care, especially if we do not own them. With some simple considerations, we can all do our part in helping to prolong the life of the percussion instruments we share or (if you are fortunate) own.
Larger percussion instruments, like mallet instruments and timpani, are most vulnerable when they are being moved. From my personal experience inquiring about instruments I see damaged, 99 percent of the stories begin with, “Well, I/someone was moving it when….” Additionally, these instruments can suffer from minor inconspicuous damages that build over time into something more serious. Much of this can be avoided by following some simple rules.
KEYBOARD PERCUSSION INSTRUMENTS
When possible, mallet instruments should be moved by two people. This will put equal force/stress on both sides of the instrument, whereas swinging it around by one side can be harmful. Secondly, move mallet instruments by the frame ends, not the bars or support rails. The frame ends are the most structurally sound portions of the instrument. Unless the mallet instrument has a field frame, it is not meant to be pushed over bumps or rough surfaces/terrain. Doing so can damage the wheels, casters, frame, and even loosen the rivets in the resonators, which creates that “buzz” sound you probably have heard on at least one marimba in your life. For this reason, you should always lift the wheels over thresholds; not doing so is probably the most common mistake made when moving a mallet instrument. Furthermore, if the instrument is height-adjustable, make sure it is raised high enough to where the resonators will not hit the wheels or thresholds as it is moved; the low end of a five-octave marimba is particularly susceptible to this. Last, it is important to understand that rosewood is becoming scarce and is considered an endangered species because of overharvesting. For marimbas with rosewood bars particularly, do not touch the bars with your hands, and do not lay anything other than a cover on top of it. If you must take off the upper-manual bars to fit the instrument through a door, do not set those bars on top the lower manual bars unless there is a cover cushioning in between.
Timpani also fall victim to mistreatment when being moved. Make sure you push the pedal to its highest position, so it cannot hit the ground. Doing this also minimizes any shifting the head might incur during the move. Also, grab the timpano by its struts (vertical bars running alongside the bowl), not the bowl or the hoop (rim). Struts are the most structurally sound component by which to move timpani. Moving timpani by the hoop can permanently damage and distort the pitch of the drum. Last, like mallet instruments, use a cover when not playing, and never set anything on top of the drum. Though most heads you will encounter are made of synthetic material, timpani heads are much looser than tom-tom or snare heads; thus, they can easily be dented or punctured if not handled properly.
Finally, a word about hardware, which are some of the most roughly handled pieces of percussion equipment. A frequent problem is the over-tightening of stands for snare drums, tom-toms, cymbals, etc. Tighten them just enough to be firm, but easily able to loosen. Over-tightening can strip the thread, rendering the stand useless. If you come across a stand too difficult to loosen, you can use two drumsticks for leverage to help—then yell at whoever did it, or kindly offer some advice. Also, make sure bases of stands are set at an appropriate width. If it is too narrow, there will not be enough stability. If it is too wide, you might be stepping on it, it might be in the way of other equipment, or it will be very difficult to undo and collapse. Most importantly, remember that percussion equipment is only as safe as the hardware holding it.
Percussion is unique, because unlike other instruments, it comprises many different instruments of all shapes and sizes. It is unreasonable to expect most percussionists, especially students, to own even all the basic large instruments, like mallet percussion and timpani. Because these instruments are shared and undergo a lot of use, it is important to treat them with the same care and concern as if they were your own. Like you, schools do not have an inexhaustible source of income, so instruments are not always easily replaced or repaired. Of course, normal wear and tear over time will attribute to the decline of an instrument’s upkeep; however, knowing how to properly move and handle common mallet percussion, timpani, and hardware can help maintain their quality so that financial resources can be used to acquire more instruments rather than used to repair what is already owned.
Dr. Alexandros Fragiskatos is Assistant Professor of Instrumental Music at Missouri Valley College. A proponent of contemporary music, he has commissioned, premiered, and performed new works across the U.S. and Europe. Alex also plays percussion and drumset for musical theatre, as well as steel pan, having directed the Arizona State University Pan Devils Steel Band while earning his Doctor of Musical Arts degree in percussion. For more information about Alex, visit fragiskatospercussion.com.