The tambourine is another instrument for which basic technique often eludes young percussionists. There are many ways to properly to play the instrument, but just as many (or more) ways to play it poorly. As with most percussion instruments, context determines the most appropriate approach. This article will introduce several of these proper approaches to concert tambourine performance, along with the contexts and correlating technique, while Part B (October 2019 R!S) will deal primarily with soft, delicate playing and tambourine rolls.
First, it is important to understand the two most common types of tambourines: the “traditional” tambourine and the “rock” tambourine. The traditional tambourine is most commonly used in concert band and orchestra. It has a head and jingles that lay nearly all the way around the instrument. The rock tambourine, on the other hand, is typically headless, and often has an extended portion without jungles where it should be held. Many rock tambourines form a half-circle with the held potion curving inward, similar to a crescent moon. The rock tambourine is generally more suited for rock/pop music that requires steady sixteenth notes produced by shaking the tambourine back and forth. This article will focus on the traditional tambourine, as it requires more specialized techniques.
For one-handed playing, hold the tambourine with your nondominant hand at the point in the frame without any jingles. Often, there will be a hole in the side of the rim in the middle of this section; this is not for your fingers or thumb, but rather to allow the option of mounting the tambourine on a cymbal stand. Place the thumb on top of the head and let the fingers gently wrap around underneath; the fingertips should touch the inside part of the hoop, NOT the underside of the head. Do not hold the tambourine so tightly as to restrict its free vibration. Raise the tambourine in the air in front of the body, about chin-height, with the head of the instrument facing towards the body. Angle it at about a 45-degree slant such that the jingles are resting in position and make no residual sound when the instrument is not being played.
For general tambourine playing, strike the head of the tambourine with the fingertips near the rim, using any combination of fingers, with the thumb tucked behind (like a sock puppet). Use fewer fingers for softer dynamics and more for louder dynamics. To play even softer, you can rest the heel of the hand on the center of the tambourine and strike the edge with fingertips. Playing this way mutes the tambourine head, drying up the resonance for a softer sound.
For loudest playing, use an open hand in the center of the head or strike the tambourine with a flat fist, like knocking on a door. To ensure a quality sound and avoid damaging the head when playing with the fist, strike the head near the center with the heel of the hand and the flat portion of the fingers between the knuckles. Regardless of method (fingers, flat hand, or fist), always make sure the playing hand moves toward the tambourine, not the other way around; keep the tambourine stationary.
When presented with fast and loud rhythmic passages, one hand might not be enough. In these cases, the tambourine may be played by alternating between the fist and the knee. The tambourine can be played either right-side up or upside down and on whichever knee you feel most comfortable. The tambourine should be angled away from the body over a bent knee (foot resting on a low chair or stool). Keep the forearm firm by bending at the elbow, and strike the tambourine with the fist near the center on all beats (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.) and off-beats (“&s”). For e’s and a’s, strike the knee with the tambourine directly on the other side of the head, opposite to where it was struck with your fist. Designating the fist for beats and &s, and knee for e’s and a’s, will achieve a smooth coordination and sound, no matter the rhythm.
A majority of passages, from soft and loud at slow to moderate tempi, to loud at fast tempi, can be properly performed using these techniques as specified. Being comfortable with each will sufficiently prepare you for most situations.
In Part B of this topic, we will primarily explore how to play delicately and quickly, and how to execute proper tambourine rolls.
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.