Bass Drum with Attached Cymbal Playing|
as Employed in Concert Bands of the Sousa Era
and the Modern Concert Band
by Brian W. Holt
Sousa's Band employed only three percussion players at any time during its entire existence. Since most music performed required four percussion players, one of the drummers would play both bass drum and cymbals. This was accomplished by attaching a cymbal to the top of the drum and playing on it with a hand-held cymbal. Gus Helmecke, Sousa's favorite bass drummer, was highly regarded for the sounds he produced on bass drum and cymbals.
Many pieces played by the modern concert band require more than four players; therefore an experienced player doubling on bass drum and cymbals is a valuable asset. The player must adapt to various styles and create the proper musical effect.
This technique is also used in orchestral playing for low-budget productions. Three players might be hired to play four or five percussion parts.
The ideal sound for most Bands is a 36" x 18" bass drum equipped with skin heads or fiber-skin heads. A combination of fiber-skin and calfskin is recommended, as the fiber-skin head will provide a consistent playing surface under all weather conditions. The drum should be tuned to the deepest sound possible, with no discernible pitch.
Since the player must be in total control of the drum, internal muffling devices should not be used. All muffling is accomplished by the player and will be further discussed under performance techniques. Bass drum beaters are selected according to music performed or personal preference. The beaters must have sufficient weight to produce a deep resonant sound. I prefer the Gauger #1 beater for most playing and the staccato beater for marches and other instances where greater articulation is required.
For ease of playing with attached cymbal, the drum should sit on a low cradle-type stand. This enables the cymbals to be played at just above waist level. In this position, the player will be able to employ orchestral cymbal playing techniques with the hand-held cymbal. The attachment must allow the cymbal to ring freely. Custom made cymbal attachments usually work better than standard commercial models. Cymbals should be 17" or 18" heavy, or 18" medium heavy, for clean attack and maximum sustain.
Band transcriptions of orchestral pieces and original band works are performed with the concept of creating the balanced sound of two percussionists working as a team on bass drum and cymbals. It is important for the player to be familiar with the original orchestral percussion score. I have on many occasions used the orchestra percussion parts when performing a transcription with a band.
The performance of marches merits much discussion, as the march is one of the traditions of the concert band. A good march played with style, precision and dynamics will be an uplifting experience. Visualize a band marching down Main Street, USA. Solid section playing by the bass drum and snare drum players is essential for an inspiring performance.
The printed parts assume bass drum and cymbals play together unless notated otherwise. However, cymbals may be left out in some passages; for example, when cornets are tacet. Also some printed parts may be edited because of misprints or for artistic expression. Listen to the band and use bass drum and cymbals to color the ensemble sound. Solid timekeeping will permit and encourage musical phrasing within the band. The drums play a large part in controlling the dynamics of the ensemble.
For general playing, the beating spot should be somewhere between the center and edge of the drumhead. Listen, and find the spot that blends with the sonority of the band. Avoid the center, except for cannon shot effects. Employing a staccato attack for timekeeping will help drive the band. This is similar to the technique a drummer would use on the ride cymbal to drive a big band. Full arm and wrist strokes are used for accents and solo attacks. Play off the drum, not into it, to bring out a full resonant tone.
Use the knee to control length of notes. By employing various degrees of pressure with the right knee on the batter head you can control the duration of each note played on the bass drum. When beating time, try to match the bass drum note duration with the tuba. The bass drum is a bridge between the tuba section and the percussion section. Other notes are sustained as notated or phrased with the band. Of course, bass drum rolls should not be muffled. A pair of roll beaters played at about halfway between the center and the edge will produce a full resonant sound. Try to match the speed of the single stroke roll with the vibrations of the drum head. When playing with attached cymbal, a double-ended beater will be necessary. The best sound will be produced if the beater has sufficient weight and both beater heads are the same size.
Cymbals are muffled by pulling the top cymbal against the body and using the body or right hand to stop the attached cymbal. Do not crush the cymbals together. I have been most successful in producing consistent good-sounding cymbal crashes employing the following technique. Drop the hand held cymbal onto the attached cymbal and turn the wrist at the moment of impact. Play off the attached cymbal to the left towards the back head of the bass drum. Practice playing relaxed and strive to achieve the sound of a well-played pair of cymbals.
Marches should be played at a marching tempo from beginning to end. Ritards and accelerandos detract from the continuity of the march. A solid tempo with good dynamic contrast will produce the most exciting performance.
Some accents are written in the parts, but improvised accents may be added at the discretion of the player or music director. Accents, played tastefully, will add much to the performance. There are several categories of accents:
- Natural accents occurring in the melodic line are played for emphasis at the relative dynamic level.
- Musical climaxes or unusual chord changes are accented with a full deep sound. These are most effective if played very slightly late and will add depth to the ensemble sound.
- Solo accents exceed the volume of the band.
- Accents may be played on an open beat to set-up a melodic phrase. Jazz drummers would refer to this as kicking the band. Leave the bass drum ring to the next beat on most accents, with the exception of staccato accents. Cymbals may ring through several beats. Listen to the trumpets for duration of cymbal crashes. It is a nice effect to sometimes play accents in a melodic style with cymbals on higher pitches and bass drum on lower pitches.
During the golden age of band music, virtually all cymbal crashes were executed by striking the held cymbal with the bass drum beater. This is a nice sound for some solo crashes and is also a flashy visual effect. However, with the proper equipment and technique, crashing the held cymbal off the attached cymbal will produce an excellent sound.
Listen and play with musical expression and the ensemble sound of the band will be greatly enhanced.
The following recordings demonstrate my application of the techniques imparted above. Virtually all of the bass drum and cymbal playing on these recordings is accomplished by one player doubling on both instruments.
"The Original All-American Sousa!"
Keith Brion and his NEW SOUSA BAND
"Stars & Stripes & Sousa"
The WASHINGTON WINDS, conducted by Keith Brion
"Music from America’s Golden Age"
"A Trip to Coney Island"
"The Teddy Bears Picnic"
The NEW COLUMBIAN BRASS BAND
All of the above recordings are available from Walking Frog Records, PO Box 680, Oskaloosa, Iowa 52577
"Ringgold Plays Von Suppe and Other Classics"
"An Althouse Tour of Berks County"
RINGGOLD BAND OF READING PA
"Our Band Heritage" series
The ALLENTOWN BAND
Brian Holt lives in Reading, PA and plays percussion for the Reading Symphony Orchestra, Reading Pops Orchestra, Ringgold Band, New Sousa Band, and the New Columbian Brass Band. He has also performed with the Allentown Band (20 years), Virginia Grand Military Band, several regional orchestras and numerous dance bands.