Consistency with Crash Cymbals
John R. Beck
Teaching cymbal technique is often a neglected topic in the course of study for many young percussionists. Due to time limitations and an overwhelming amount of information that is necessary to learn on snare drum, keyboards, and timpani, the topic isn’t addressed in lessons. The student is left to learn cymbal technique in the band or orchestra rehearsal, often under the direction of a non percussionist on the podium.
Having performed, observed, and studied with percussionists who use a variety of cymbal crash styles, as well as experimenting with techniques in many different ensembles and musical idioms myself, I have identified some principles at work in creating consistent and musical cymbal sounds. The following article presents some basic concepts about cymbals that are universal no matter what style of cymbal crash is played. I hope teachers and students will find these ideas and exercises useful in developing control over the sounds they create on the cymbals.
The first cymbal concept a student must understand is that cymbals will sound best when allowed to crash or move by themselves. The player only supplies the energy for the plates to make contact. If the performer tries to manipulate or push the cymbals together beyond this initial contact, air pockets, crunching, or thin glancing crashes will result. The following exercise will help teach students the correct feel for the crash, and give them the confidence to allow the cymbals react with each other.
Exercise 1: The long quarter note or “the buzz”
1) Pinch the straps on the outside (without pads) using the thumb and index finger next to the bell. Touch the cymbal with as little of your hand as possible to maintain control. Some knuckle contact is necessary.
2) Hold the left hand (or bottom hand) cymbal at a 30-45 degree angle resting your elbow on your hip. Rest the elbow here only for this exercise to reduce fatigue as you practice.
3) With the top cymbal offset slightly, (top edge 1 inch below the edge of the bottom) set or drop the top cymbal on the bottom gently and allow the plates to vibrate or “sizzle” as long as possible. Imitate the sound of bacon in a frying pan. Only play p-mp in volume.
4) Reduce the length of the “sizzle” gradually until you can play a full quarter note followed by a quarter rest at mm. 60. Drop-Lift. Drop-Lift etc. Try for long sizzles imitating water drops on the frying pan. This is similar to practicing one handed buzz strokes on snare drum.
Develop a “feel” for how the cymbals react to one another. Only supply the energy for contact and get out of the way.
Whether you crash top or bottom edge first, the physics of a good cymbal crash are the same. The player initiates the movement of the cymbals and allows the plates to react freely with each other after the initial impact. Any glancing, pushing or pulling motion after contact will not give the air between the cymbals time to escape resulting in air pockets or thin sounding crashes. Think of dropping the cymbals together, not pushing or slamming them together.
It is important to remember to get as much metal vibrating as possible by allowing all the edges to come in contact with each other.
Exercise 2: The Crash
Set the cymbals in loud crash position with top (or bottom) edge at a 30-45 degree angle. The cymbal plates must not be concentric (parallel) but offset slightly. The upper cymbal should overlap the bottom by a few inches. The upper edges will be closer in a top first crash or the lower edges closer in a bottom first crash. Provide the energy for the plates to make contact. When you feel the cymbals begin to “sizzle” and push each other around, draw them apart as you follow through the motion of the crash. One analogy is to think of opening a new jar of pickles that is stuck. Supply the energy to move the lid and relax as soon as you feel the lid pop free. Practice this at many dynamic levels and with varying amounts of energy. Listen to, and feel the cymbals move together.
Depending on the instruments you are holding, it may be necessary to allow the cymbal edges to touch for a longer or shorter amount of time to achieve a full bodied crash. The first exercise will give students a basis for developing this “feel” for the cymbals. The music will determine the length, volume, and attack of the crash. Follow through and larger arm motions can be discussed once control over the basic cymbal movement and sound is achieved.