I remember back in eighth grade when it came time for my high school marching band audition; it was one of the most frustrating experiences because I could not properly execute an open roll. Granted, up to that point, I was not fortunate enough to have had private instruction on percussion. Consequently, I got “stuck” on cymbals, because that is where the weak players get placed, right? Unfortunately, there seems to be this accepted caste system in marching percussion in which cymbals get placed at the bottom; this often carries into concert percussion as well. Little did I know back in eighth grade, cymbals are one of the most difficult percussion instruments to play well. Over the next two articles, we will discuss basic ways to produce quality sounds, first, on crash cymbals and then suspended cymbal.
Before crashing cymbals, we must consider the stance. Cymbal playing can be a very physical activity, therefore it requires a very stable stance. The foot opposite to your dominant hand should be slightly in front of the other, with both feet slightly wider than shoulder width apart. Knees should be slightly bent and your body weight placed squarely on both legs.
Now that we have a suitable stance, we can discuss grip. Unlike in marching band, you do not need to put your hands through the straps. Hold each cymbal by the strap between the thumb and the side of the index finger, like a snare drum grip. The grip should not be too far from the cymbal itself, or else the cymbal will flop around due to instability. However, if the grip is too close to the cymbal, it will choke the sustain of the cymbal. Ideally, there should be approximately a half-inch of space between your grip and the cymbal.
There are many valid ways to crash cymbals. The following is just one way to achieve a quality beginner concert crash. The goal is to reduce as many variables as possible that could have a negative impact. To start, hold the cymbals such that your hands are slightly below the chest and make sure both cymbals are perpendicular to the ground. The cymbal in the nondominant hand should remain stationary. The cymbal in the dominant hand will do most of the work, moving counterclockwise, in an upside-down teardrop shape. A good idea is to practice this without cymbals to familiarize oneself with the motion.
When crashing, avoid bringing all the edges completely together, as this will create an air pocket. The crashing cymbal should make contact slightly above or below the stationary cymbal. Only as crashes get louder (f and above) will the nondominant hand come into play. For these, it should move in the opposite direction of the dominant hand. No matter the type of crash, keep your arms relaxed, and let the weight of the cymbal do most of the work. Dynamics should be a result of velocity, not so much distance between the cymbals; softer crashes call for a slower stroke while louder crashes call for a faster stroke.
Dampening is also an important aspect of crash cymbal playing. Pay attention to the marked duration of the note, articulation, and if there is a let ring/vibrate marking (a small tie to nothing or l.v.). Let the cymbal ring for the duration of the note or let it ring longer if indicated. To dampen, simply bring the cymbals to your chest to cut off the sound. This is crucial for staccato notes and ensemble cutoffs. Sometimes composers and/or arrangers do not accurately notate duration or how long the cymbals should ring. For instance, sometimes in a march the cymbal part might be notated as alternating quarter notes and quarter rests, but it would not make sense to dampen between each crash. Always use your ears to listen to the ensemble to determine what makes the most sense. Context will provide all the clues you need to make an educated decision.
Some final considerations include “warming up” the cymbals and where to put them. If there is time, it is ideal to warm up the cymbals by lightly tapping them on your knees. Cymbals, after all, are metal discs. Activating the metal’s natural vibration before crashing them will help elicit the best possible sound so the crash does not sound “cold.” Lastly, make sure the cymbals are either kept on a crash cymbal stand or trap tray—somewhere where they can easily and silently be set down and picked up.
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.