Power Up! Percussion Accessories Fundamentals

Percussion Accessories

In the middle and high school setting so much time is devoted to the teaching of snare drum, timpani and the keyboard instruments that the proper techniques needed to play some of the smaller percussion instruments are often neglected or overlooked.  The purpose of this article is to give the band director and the young percussion student some insight into the proper techniques of playing these instruments.  

As a teacher, one of the hardest concepts to get across to a percussion student is that it takes time and practice to be able to play these instruments correctly.  Because each of these instruments has its own unique set of techniques, true mastery will only be accomplished through the practice of each individual instrument. 

Trap Tables

While a trap table is not a percussion instrument, its value to a percussion section cannot be underestimated.  Most of the instruments mentioned in this article cannot be played properly without the aid of a trap table.  Using the table will decrease, if not eliminate, extraneous noise that can occur when picking up or laying down accessory percussion instruments.  

Never lay any percussion instrument or mallets on the floor!  The less movement the performer has to make, the better.  If the performer has to bend over to pick up an instrument off the floor, it’s easy to lose sight of the conductor and lose their place in the music.  Using a trap table helps to keep the instruments and mallets looking clean and professional. 

Bass Drum

For general playing, tilt the stand slightly to the performer’s left.  The performer plays with the mallet in the right hand and controls the sustain of the note with the left hand.  The bass mallet grip is the same as matched grip: make sure all fingers are curled around the stick and the thumb is placed along the side.  The performer should position himself behind the drum, so that he/she plays with the flat part of the mallet.  This allows the performer to be in a position to muffle the resonating head along with the batter head.  Students often play while standing beside the batter head, facing the drum.  In this position it is difficult for the performer to see the conductor while playing, and the sound will suffer because of the angle of the mallet striking the head.  

Because of the resonance of the concert bass drum, the performer will need to control the length of the notes, so that the ringing of the head does not muddy the sound of the entire ensemble. Since the bass drum is such a resonant instrument, it does allow for expressive phrasing and varied articulation in the playing.  You can change the articulation of the drum by changing the placement of the muffling hand on the drum (edge or toward the center) and by changing how much of the hand is used (fingertips or entire hand).   

Hand/Crash Cymbals

The cymbal strap is held similar to gripping a timpani mallet, French grip. The thumb and first joint of the index finger should form a fulcrum, with the thumb on top and the strap in between.  The strap should be held close to the cymbal bell between the thumb and the first finger, with the remaining fingers wrapping around the strap.  Holding the cymbal close to the bell will help with the control of the cymbal and keep it from flopping around. Pads are not recommended for cymbals in a concert setting because they may dampen the sound of the cymbal.  If you choose to use pads, select the ones made out of thin leather.

Avoid using the grip that is commonly used in marching band where the hands go through the straps, this will dampen the cymbals, thus affecting the sound.  In the concert setting, where there is only one cymbal player, more resonance from the cymbals is needed.  The marching grip is also not conducive to quick changes, where players are moving from one instrument to another. 

Please understand that there is more than one way to perform an acceptable cymbal crash. REMEMBER, what is important is the quality of the sound from the crash.

The crash technique I use is often referred to as the flam technique, because the edge of the cymbals do not hit at the same time.  The bottom edge hits first and rolls quickly through to the top edge.  Students can practice this technique with their hands in front of their body in a V-formation:  the palms hit first, then quickly roll through to the finger tips with a nice fluid follow-through.  

The crash is performed by standing on both feet, approximately a shoulder’s width apart, with one foot slightly forward.  Hold the cymbals at a slight angle, with the right cymbal on top for right-handed players, and the opposite for left-handed players.  Often times young students will play the cymbals too far apart, with too much motion. This will cause the crash to be late within the context of the music.  

When the flam technique is applied to the cymbals, the grace note should be quick and undetectable.  A good cymbal crash must have a good attack, without an air pocket and a good sustain after the attack.  A good sustain can be achieved by continuing the follow-through and holding the cymbals parallel to the floor, this allows more of the cymbal sound to get to the audience. The sound of the cymbal comes off the edge because the vibrations move from the bell out toward the edge.  This is similar to throwing a rock in a pool of water and watching the waves move outward.   

A cymbal cradle or trap table is an invaluable tool when playing hand cymbals.  This gives the cymbal player a place to lay the cymbals other than the floor when not in use.  There is nothing more uncomfortable than holding a pair of cymbals during a musical selection with a long period of rest.  A cradle or trap table may be placed between the performer and the conductor, allowing the performer to keep his/her eyes on the conductor. 

Suspended Cymbal

When playing a roll on the suspended cymbal use a single stroke roll.  The student will also want to use yarn mallets, unless the instructions in the music ask for a different implement such as snare drumsticks or triangle beaters.  Several manufacturers make mallets especially for playing suspended cymbals.  If using marimba mallets, use mallets that are medium to medium-soft.  Place the mallets on the outer edges of the cymbal opposite one another: at 3 and 9 o’clock, approximately 2 inches from the edge.  This hand position allows the cymbal to vibrate quickly and gets the best sound.  Be sure the stand is adjusted to a comfortable height so the cymbal will not be hit accidentally with the shaft of the mallets producing unwanted sounds.  Never play the cymbal with timpani mallets because they usually don’t have the weight needed to produce a good characteristic sound and it will destroy the felt on the mallets.  This was often called for in older compositions before the marimba was a common instrument in the percussion section and marimba mallets were not readily available.  

Because of the cymbal sustain, you don’t need to move your hands very fast for a good sounding roll.  Moving the hands too fast will actually dampen the resonance of the cymbal.  Always listen, trying to produce a nice sustained sound with no attack sound from the mallets.


For concert use, you definitely want a tambourine with a head mounted on it so you can perform the various techniques required in a concert ensemble, such as thumb and finger rolls.  

For most playing, the tambourine should be held with the weaker hand out in front of the body at a 45-degree angle. Hold the tambourine by the frame, fingers wrapped around the frame with the thumb on top for support.  Play with the firm fingertips of the stronger hand a couple of inches from the outer edge.  The performer can change the angle of the tambourine for different articulations, more horizontal for a dryer sound (short jingle sound) and more vertical for a wetter sound (long jingle sound).   


The triangle should be held in the weaker of the two hands.  Hold the hand out in front of you, just as you would reach out to turn a doorknob.  Rest the back of the clip-on top of the thumb and the front of the clip on the middle finger, while placing the first finger on top of the clip to help stabilize it.  The ring finger and pinky are now available to aid in muffling the triangle, if needed.

When placing the triangle in the clip, always make sure that the closed side is facing the hand that will be striking it.  Have the closed side of the triangle facing the right, if the right hand will be holding the beater.  The two main areas used to strike the triangle will be the closed side and the bottom.  The closed side produces a purer tone while the bottom produces more overtones.  You will normally want to play on the bottom to produce more overtones.  When playing on the side, the purer tone could actually clash with some of the pitches that are being played in the winds or strings.  The angle at which the beater strikes the triangle can also affect the sound.  A perpendicular strike will create a purer tone, while striking at a 45-degree angle will produce more overtones.  

Always hold the triangle up in front of you to aid in projection of the sound to the audience.   When holding the triangle up, position your body so the conductor is in the same sight line as the triangle and the music.  Once the triangle is struck, continue to hold it up for the entire duration of the sustaining sound.  Often players will strike the triangle and immediately drop it down creating a type of Doppler effect for the audience.


When playing the woodblock use a rubber keyboard mallet that is softer than the wood. A rubber mallet will get the fullest sound from the woodblock and will not damage the instrument. Keep in mind that a smaller block may need a harder mallet than a larger woodblock.  Using a drumstick produces a thin sound and the small hard bead of the drumstick can dent the top of the block.  Eventually the block will start to splinter because of the indentions.  The plastic blocks can be played with a drumstick without worry.  There are manufacturers that make mallets specifically for woodblocks.  These mallets are sold in pairs, sound great on the blocks and won’t damage them.

Whenever possible hold the woodblock at chest level in one hand, and play it with the other.  This helps the sound to project over the band and gets the block up so the audience can see it.  When holding it up, point the opening in the block towards the audience for better projection.  Experiment with different playing areas on the block until you find the “sweet spot”.  This is the area on the block where you get the most resonance.  This spot will usually be toward the center of the block. 

If the rhythms are too complex to play with one hand, set the block down and use two hands with identical mallets.  Use a trap table that is padded or a sturdy music stand with a black hand towel over it.  Making sure the table is lightly padded will eliminate extraneous sounds when playing.

Each of these instruments could be a complete article by itself, but hopefully the information above will get you and your students started in the right direction.  When played correctly all of these instruments can enhance the overall sound of your ensemble tremendously.  Remember to talk to your percussionist about their sound the same as you would a wind player.  

sound percussion

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Mike Lynch retired in 2016 after thirty-two years of teaching band and percussion in grades five through twelve. The last twenty-four years were spent at Simpson Middle School and Lassiter High School, both Cobb County Schools located in Marietta, Georgia. Mr. Lynch’s middle and high school percussion ensembles have performed at The Georgia Music Educators Association In-Service Conference on seven different occasions, the Music for All Sandy Feldstein National Percussion Festival in 2000, 2002, 2010 and 2015, the Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic in 2005 and 2011 and the Percussive Arts Society International Convention in 2007. While Mr. Lynch was Director of Percussion at Lassiter, the marching band won the 1998 and 2002 Bands of America Grand National Championships and 12 Bands of America Regional Championships. The band also participated in the 1999, 2004 and 2010 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City and the 2001, 2005, 2013 and 2019 Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California. He is currently the percussion instructor at Creekview High School in Canton, GA. 

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