Thus far, the articles in this series have been devoted to care and performance of larger percussion instruments (e.g., keyboard, timpani, snare, etc.). Smaller handheld percussion is often cast off as “auxiliary,” not only in function, but in mindset. As a result, many young percussionists lack basic technique in playing these instruments. This article is dedicated to the triangle. Here we will examine how to properly hold the triangle and beater, produce a good sound, roll, and dampen.
The triangle is a metal instrument known for its brilliant sound; therefore, unless otherwise specified, in most contexts it should be suspended with a clip and a string or thin wire. Holding it with the hand mutes a lot of the overtones, which comprise the quintessential triangle timbre. If the player is right-handed, the triangle should be suspended so that the open vertex is on the player’s left, and vice versa for a left-handed player.
Preferably, the triangle should be held in the player’s nondominant hand by the clip. To do this properly, pretend you are holding a cup, rest the clip on top of the middle finger and thumb, and place the index finger on top of the clip for more stability. In some circumstances, the player must switch rapidly between the triangle and another instrument or use two beaters on the triangle. In these cases, clip the triangle to a music stand, and for the latter, use two clips at both closed vertices (so the closed side of the triangle is on top).
Hold the triangle at a comfortable distance out in front of the chest. Unless the composer calls for something else, make sure you are using an actual metal triangle beater for the best sound (not a nail, screwdriver, drumstick, etc.). Thinner beaters are better for softer playing, and thicker ones are better for louder playing. Hold the beater much like you would a drumstick: fulcrum between the index finger and thumb, and back fingers gently wrapped around the back. Aside from maybe the middle finger, none of the back fingers will touch the beater. Though a German or American grip can suffice, some might find French (thumb up) grip easier to control, as it allows the weight of the beater to do most of the work. When striking the triangle, think of yourself as merely a guide for the beater. Let the beater’s weight and gravity be the initiator of sound.
The goal is to find a “sweet spot,” and there could be many depending on the musical context. Common playing areas include the outside of the side with the connected vertex and the base of the triangle. In general, avoid playing on the side of the triangle with the open vertex or too close to the open vertex on the base. The angle of the beater can also affect the sound. Experiment with different sounds so you know what to expect before striking the triangle in a rehearsal or performance. Again, there can be many correct playing spots on the triangle, so having familiarity with the instrument will help you choose the right one based on the desired sound.
Triangle rolls require a technique that is unique to this instrument. They should be executed near the vertex connecting the base and the side of the triangle. For these, upstrokes and downstrokes are used in conjunction to create a tremolo or roll: the upstroke hits the side and the downstroke hits the base. Turning your hand to an American or German grip might make it easier. Practice the motion, without the triangle, by sticking your pointer finger out and wiggling your hand in about a 45-degree angle away from your body. When adding the triangle beater, you might find more control by keeping the pointer finger extended out. Make sure the forearm and wrist are relaxed, as any extra tension will slow down roll speed. For softer rolls stay close to the vertex and for louder rolls move farther away.
One final thing to consider is dampening. Often, the triangle is written for because of its brilliant and sustained sound, so it is best to let the triangle sound decay away naturally. However, sometimes the music calls for, either explicitly or implicitly, dampening of the triangle. To dampen the triangle, using the hand holding the triangle, close the pinky, ring, and middle fingers around the instrument. In general, you want to mimic the natural decay of the instrument by closing the fingers gradually, to avoid a harsh choking sound. Even for immediate cutoffs, the fingers can be staggered as they quickly close around the instrument. It is important to note that musical context can help inform both how triangle sounds should start and end.
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.