Published on Sunday, 25 April 2010 16:05
Written by Bruce Gale
Often regarded by school music directors as mere noisemakers that anyone can play, cymbals are rarely given their due. As a result, the sound produced is frequently disappointing.
Cymbals do not produce a single dominant pitch. Instead, the best ones produce clashing overtones. Even so, a certain amount of pitch does help to produce a musically pleasing effect. Typically, pairs are manufactured in such a way that the pitch produced by one is a second or a third higher or lower than the other.
Size has a direct impact on tone.
Somewhat surprisingly, size does not determine pitch. Large cymbals, for example, can produce a higher pitch than small ones. However, size does have a direct impact on tone, with larger cymbals producing more tone than smaller ones. Tone quality is also influenced by the choice of materials, with beaten brass preferable to coiled wire.
Cymbals come in a range of weights and thicknesses. Medium to medium heavy cymbals are probably best. A light cymbal may sound better at close range, but it usually lacks the overtones and carrying power of the heavier instrument. Even so, a range of sizes does give the percussion section an important element of choice when playing different kinds of music. Avoid wooden handles. They may be convenient for the player, but they also tend to deaden the tone. Leather straps are far better.
Linda Pimentel suggests the use of three crash cymbals of varying timbre. One pair should be 18 inches in diameter and of a dark, Germanic timbre. The second pair, also 18 inches in diameter, can be of a contrasting, light, Viennese timbre. The third pair should be smaller, no more than 16 inches for easier handling in performances of long duration, and can be either dark or lighter in timbre, depending on the conductor's preference. [Linda Pimentel “Percussion Tips” in Bandworld Vol. 2 No. 1 August-October 1986].
A straight blow should be avoided.
Playing the cymbals involves holding the left hand stationary while the right cymbal is moved against it. [Left-handed players are free to reverse these instructions]. A straight blow should be avoided in favor of a slightly glancing one. Attempting the former will compress the air between the two cymbals and produce a muffled sound. Hold the right cymbal a little below the left. The right cymbal then moves upward to meet the left, striking it at a point about three inches from the top of the right cymbal. It is not necessary to hold the cymbals too far apart at the start in order to obtain a loud crash.
In most cases, the cymbal tone should be allowed to ring until it dies by itself. If the music demands a series of short sounds, then the tone can be muffled after each crash by placing the edge of the cymbal on the upper chest.
Suspended cymbals should also be hit with a glancing blow rather than a direct one as the latter could warp the edge. Apart from that, however, they can be struck with a wide variety of objects in order to produce various types of sounds. A suspended cymbal should not be screwed too tightly to its holder. Otherwise it will not be free to vibrate and might actually crack around the center hole.