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 ways, or more, to play it poorly. As with most of percussion, context determines the most appropriate approach. Part A (August 2019) introduced various ways to play the tambourine, from soft and loud at slow to moderate tempi, to loud at fast tempi. In part B, we will primarily explore ways to play softly and quickly, and to execute proper tambourine rolls.
Resting the tambourine on the knee will achieve a softer, more delicate sound, as compared to holding it in the air. This is because some of the natural vibrations will be dampened, and thus the sound will be a bit more muted or staccato. This technique is ideal for very soft playing that calls for quicker rhythms, because minimizing the jingle sound will provide for more rhythmic definition and integrity.
To execute, rest a foot on a low chair or stool, just as you would to play fist-knee tambourine. With the head facing up, rest a small part of the bottom rim of the instrument on the knee. The tambourine will be angled downward, away from the body to the right or left, with your nondominant hand up in the air. Play the instrument as you would with it held in the air, with your fingertip(s).
As with loud playing, sometimes soft playing is required during passages that are too fast for one hand to execute. In this case, rest your foot on a stool or chair, and place the whole tambourine right-side up on your thigh. The more parallel the thigh is to the ground, the more stability you will find. The tambourine can either be wedged between your gut and thigh or stabilized by resting your forearms on top the instrument. Both ways will help create a drier sound. To play, simply pivot the wrists, and strike with your fingertip(s), just as people might nervously tap on a table on which their hands rest.
Often a composer will call for a tambourine roll. The two primary ways in which we create this appearance of sustain is by a shake roll or finger roll. The shake roll is ideal for louder volumes and can be executed by holding the tambourine vertically in the air, with the hand underneath. The shaking motion is akin to twisting a doorknob back and forth if the doorknob were above you. However, the motion should be very rapid and short, with the arm and wrist relaxed. The idea is to mask, as much as possible, each shake, just as we strive to do when masking individual strokes for closed snare drum rolls. For clean beginnings and endings of rolls, you can start and end them with attacks from the fingers or fist of the playing hand.
Finger rolls, or thumb rolls, are ideal for softer passages. These can be executed either using the middle finger with the thumb supporting underneath the middle finger’s first knuckle, or the thumb supported between the index finger’s first two knuckles in a closed fist. Lightly push the fingertip away from the body, along the rim of the tambourine—emphasis on “lightly,” as you don’t want to overpower the tambourine head’s resistance. The opposing forces created by the fingertip and tambourine head will produce a rapid tremolo. Moistening the fingertip either by licking or breathing warm air will help. Alternatively, a light coating of beeswax or rosin along the rim of the tambourine head can make it even easier. Finger rolls can be done both with the tambourine being held in the air or resting on the knee or thigh.
Here we have explored some ways to play softly and quickly, and to execute proper tambourine rolls. Between this article and the previous one, you have what you need to excel in almost any tambourine situation. It is important to note, though, that these are just some of the ways to execute different types of passages on tambourine. There are a myriad of valid alternatives and variations which you might find more comfortable and successful. If you have little to no formal training on the tambourine, start with what I have suggested, but please, continue exploring!
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 drum set 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.