Unless you are a trained percussionist, it could be very easy to overlook the importance of purchasing and maintaining high quality auxiliary percussion instruments. These items are often overlooked, but provide the most important voices in the percussion section in many higher level band and orchestral pieces. However, far too often, I hear high school bands and orchestras, honor bands, and wind ensembles not reach their full potential in the percussion section due to poor instrument choices. It is totally understandable why this is the case, by the way. Music programs have limited budgets, and there are plenty of other things on which money can be spent. I am sure that most band directors aren’t overly concerned with the tone their triangles or woodblocks are producing. However, it can be the difference in your percussion section giving a distinguished performance or not. Just as it is important that percussion students learn to play these instruments, it is equally important that we, as teachers, provide them with quality instruments. Here are a few things to think about so you can upgrade your percussion section.
A professional level tambourine is a thing of beauty, both in look and in sound. Does your middle or high school need a top-of-the-line Grover or Black Swamp calfskin head tambourine? No. Am I going to try to argue the finer points of using berylium copper jingles versus dry silver and bronze? No. All I am saying is that if you want that section of your festival literature with the tambourine part to not sound like an old fashioned Appalachian tent revival then you may want to pony up a hundred bucks and get something decent. There are several companies that make respectable intermediate-style instruments, I suggest taking a gander at those. GET ONE WITH A HEAD. It’s a constant point of frustration for me to see bands trying to execute complex tambourine parts using a headless tambourine. Those instruments serve a purpose, but that purpose is not on the concert band stage.
Is there a more belittled and made fun of instrument than the triangle? How hard can it be, right? Well, in all actuality, it’s not as easy as it looks. It’s easy to make a sound, and it certainly isn’t too hard to figure out. But, to truly produce a consistent quality of sound, and blend it with an ensemble is actually quite a challenge. This challenge is made even more difficult when you factor in that many of the triangles I have seen in middle and high school band rooms appear to have been purchased at Cracker Barrel. Nothing against Cracker Barrel. I love chicken fried meat as much as the next guy, but they should not be your number one choice for instrument purchasing. Triangles come in a myriad of sizes, metal choices, and weights, and each one of these things cause a different timbre to be produced. Typically, a good middle of the road choice would be a 6 or 8 inch steel triangle. Pearl, Black Swamp, Sabian, and Grover all make excellent products. Also, do not forget the importance of the triangle beater. Various weights, lengths, tips etc. can all affect the tone.
If you think all cymbals sound the same then you, my friend, need to get with the program. There is a galaxy of tones and colors that can be created by using different cymbals for different purposes. I suggest that you have at least two pairs of crash cymbals. A smaller pair for producing brighter tones and a larger pair for producing darker ones. This will cover most of your bases with the pieces that you are playing. Suspended cymbals should be plentiful as well. You should have at least three: a 16 inch, an 18 inch, and a 20 inch. Again, the goal is to be able to cover a wide variety of sounds and colors with your arsenal of cymbals. There are plenty of great cymbal making brands, but the two that are most popular are Zildjian and Sabian. No, the cymbals you are using for your marching band will not work for your concert and symphonic band. They are designed to produce big sounds to be heard across a football field. They may be a little aggressive for your middle school or high school band. Also, if you see the letters ZBT or B8 on your cymbals, slowly set the cymbals down, light the building on fire, and walk away. The tone of these cymbals do not accurately represent the true sound of what cymbals should be. You got a good deal on them for a reason, remember that.
I’m not really sure why it is, but many band directors seem to throw a drum head on a drum and think that will get them through until the rapture. Not the case my friends, not one bit. Call me crazy, but I typically like the drum head to be younger than the kid playing it. If you put a snare drum head on during the Clinton administration and it’s still there, you may want to think about dropping twelve bucks for an upgrade. Even if you don’t necessarily think your snare drum sounds bad now, go ahead and change the head and notice the difference. If you still can’t hear the difference, the kid playing it will be excited that it won’t feel like he’s drumming on jello anymore. When you change the head, use one that is designed for orchestral and symphonic use. The Evans Strata heads, and the Remo Renaissance heads are great options. Heads that are designed for drum set will work, but for basically the same amount of money you can find something a little better. Concert bass drum heads are also something to keep an eye on. Concert tom, timpani, bass drum and world percussion (congas, timbales, bongos) should not be neglected either. If you start to notice that they are worn or thin looking, or hard to tune (yes, tune) then it may be time to change them out.
These are some simple things to keep in mind when you are looking for ways to upgrade your percussion section. Will these upgrades cost a little money? Yes. But thats OK. These aren’t the kind of things to skimp on. Would you eat at a place that advertised discount sushi? Of course not, the quality of product is directly related to price. Good stuff ain’t cheap, and cheap stuff ain’t good, so go ahead and bite the bullet. You’ll be glad you spent the green on your percussion section, and I promise you’ll notice the difference.