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An Intro to Cymbals

by Michael Burritt

Lesson Category: Concert Percussion
Skill Levels: Advanced

Introduction to Cymbals:

I often find that young students are somewhat intimidated and uncomfortable when it comes to their cymbal playing. Most incoming freshman have spent hours working on the "R and R's" of percussion, snare drum, mallets and timpani. But when it comes to cymbal crash technique have spent very little time, especially in relation to these other areas. There is usually some kind of concept in place that was learned from a clinic or a brief summer seminar that was unfortunately not followed up on and in frequently rehearsed. The students approach physically and more important, aurally, is not nearly as developed as the other aspects of their percussion skills.

The first thing I try to do in the initial lesson is bring in some kind of commonality between crashing cymbals and other aspects of their training. For me this starts with holding the straps. I suggest that they think of the straps much like sticks and use a grip similar to their snare drum technique. Of course the straps will give and react much differently that sticks, but to me the overall concept of fulcrum in the two areas is quite similar. This helps with what I like to call the wrist drop. It places more of the weight of the cymbals in the same place as the fulcrum of your snare drum grip. Essentially between the thumb, index finger and middle finger. The rest of the hand contributes to gripping the cymbal strap, but not to the extent that the fulcrum does. This puts more of the control in your hand closer to the cymbal, which enables you to have better command of the angles in your crash as well as making the wrist movement more intuitive.

Once the cymbals are in you hands I have the student practice the wrist/arm drop by crashing the cymbal(s) off the floor. I stress getting a good crash while doing this exercise. By dropping the cymbal to floor the student is getting a sense of two significant concepts:

1 - The idea that I can control the cymbal through the use of wrist and arm, not just arm.

2 - The key to getting a good quality sound has a great deal to do with using the weight of the cymbal and not only your own force or strength. The most pure and beautiful sounds made by these instruments are accomplished through a very natural and comfortable movement that allows the cymbal weight and size to create the sound. Of course this kind of technique takes time to develop, but it's the understanding of this approach that I try to impress upon the student in the initial lesson.

Then comes the actually bringing the cymbals together to produce the crash. Early on I try to simplify their technique by having the student move only one cymbal to create the crash. It should be the players stronger more coordinated hand. Let's go with "righties" for this lesson. The left hand cymbal will be stationary at about a 45 degree angle while the right hand cymbal, in this case the moving cymbal, will be at a slightly greater angle. Let's say 30 to 35 degree as an estimation.

I then have the student drop the right hand cymbal into the left at the opposing angels creating the traditional flam attack in the crash. It is also important at this point to demonstrate the role of your legs in the crash. I position my left leg slightly forward supporting my stationary cymbal. I believe this helps with balance and saves in back strain.

I have the student begin by leaving the cymbals together at first (after the crash) creating a sizzle sound. This helps get them used the weight of the instruments and in developing a consistent dropping angle. Eventually pulling the cymbals apart after the crash. (Initially pulling the right hand up and dropping the left hand down, or away, following the crash.) The student should repeat this many times until they get a consistent sound and become comfortable with the both the weight and movement of the instruments. These crashes are at moderate mf dynamic levels. Working on bigger and softer crashes comes later.

I always recommend that my students practice cymbals for short periods of time following longer sessions on other instruments. I do not recommend cymbal practice at the beginning of sessions because it can be difficult to move to other instruments after an extended cymbal session.

Happy Crashing!

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