The Perfect Crash
by Dan Armstrong
Professor of Percussion, Penn State University
Sponsored by Sabian
How do you play a basic crash?
First, I think it’s important to have a pre-conceived idea about what sound should be produced when the cymbals are brought together. We usually use the word “crash” to describe the sound, but I think a good cymbal sound has more “rash” than “cr”. Some other descriptive words I like are “tchseen” and “sheer”.
Holding the cymbal strap properly is like holding a key. Lay the strap over the first knuckle of your first finger. Put your thumb on top. Let the last three fingers hold the strap.
Stand with your feet slightly spread, with one foot in front of the other for solid stance.
The cymbals must come together at an angle (or “V”) between the plates, with the edge of one plate.
Striking the face of the other plate slightly off center so as to avoid catching pockets of air and producing a thin sound.
The amount of angle (or width of “V”) is determined primarily by the volume desired – more angle for loud crashes, less for softer ones. The hands move in opposing ovals, with the high or “striking” hand making a larger oval than the low or “struck” one. Keeping the motion of the lower cymbal to the minimum necessary to maintain a relaxed feel will increase accuracy and consistency.
Let the cymbals come together, let the cymbals ring. Use as little tension as possible. Use gravity as much as possible. The motion should be slow, fluid, and steady. When the cymbals come together, bend (or release) the wrists and let the elbows come out to the side. Remember: Loose arms, loose wrists, let one cymbal fall on the other. As with most physical endeavors, one gets the best result when not trying too hard.
How would you recommend a basic set up to a music stand for young students?
Place the cymbals in front of you, just below the music stand, so you can pick them up and put them down while still looking at the conductor and the music. Also, always pick up and put down the cymbals in the same order and in the same position, particularly if you set them flat on a padded table rather than using a cymbal cradle.
Are there any other playing techniques that students should know about?
Yes, once you can consistently play with a good overall sound, the next step is to broaden the repertoire of various sounds and articulations:
- A “sfz” has a good deal more attack, with more “cr” than usual in the crash. Throw one cymbal towards the other one.
- Short, repeated notes call for more of a “choong” sound with a bit more attack. This is produced by making a quicker stroke, more like a punch, and keeping the cymbals rather close together, facing each other.
- Changing the length of time the cymbals are in contact as they are brought together can drastically change the tone colour. Holding them together longer produces a long articulation, and a sound which is full of highs and lows with very few overtones in the mid-range. This sounds to me dark and dry. I refer to this as a dirty crash.
What repertoire should one study when first learning the instruments?
The repertoire for the cymbals is the repertoire of the band and orchestra. Therefore when students are proficient enough to play crashes consistently well at all dynamic levels, they should be ready to play pretty much everything commonly written for cymbals as long as they can read and understand music well.
Why is it important to learn to play crash cymbals?
It’s important because (among other things) cymbal crashes are the most dramatic acoustic sounds available to composers of music for band and orchestra. Good cymbal players are often unsung heroes. A well-timed and nicely performed cymbal crash can truly put the icing on the cake in a musical performance. Conversely, a missed crash or a crash with an inappropriate sound can absolutely ruin a concert. My favorite reasons for learning to play crash cymbals are because it’s so much fun to play them and every note you play is a solo!
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