Flexatone, Vibraslap, Guiro, Ratchet… ugh

The addition of flexatone, vibraslap, guiro, or ratchet to a multi-percussion setup can throw a wrench in the proceedings. Mounting the instruments for easy access with hardware widely available in the US is difficult, and navigating the techniques required for each instrument can make for some awkward choreography.

I recently performed Cells by Hanspeter Kyburz. In addition to tons of hard notes on keyboard instruments, Kyburz threw in the odd vibraslap, bowed flexatone, or guiro scrape, often with less than a second to get from one instrument to the next. Here are some solutions I came up with for that performance.

Guiro

If you see a guiro part in a modern European piece, odds are the composer has this in mind:

It is about three feet in length so playing a long, loud note is easy, and it is simple to mount on a stand.

This is what we usually have access to in the States:

The grooved portion is less than a foot long, so playing anything loud that isn’t staccatissimo is difficult, and your mounting options are limited. Without access to an extra-long Kolberg, my preferred guiro set up is a Meinl wood guiro with a Meinl guiro holder. Pearl also makes a guiro holder but it should be avoided. I like the Meinl wood guiro because it is quite durable compared to a traditional gourd guiro. You can throw it in a trap bag and not worry about it being crushed.

Flexatone

There aren’t a lot of flexatones on the market. The LP models are ubiquitous, but I prefer this Dobani model that I found on Amazon. The resting position of the beaters on an LP is right up against the metal, so it is difficult to pick it up and put it down without making a ton of noise. People often solve this problem either by putting moleskin on the beaters to soften them, or for bowing purposes, by rubber-banding the beaters to the metal. Fuss with that if you want, or just get a better (and cheaper) flexatone. On the Dobani model, the beaters are further away from the metal, so you can pick it up and put it down silently. It is also possible to do bowed glisses without interference from the beaters. The size and range of the Dobani is similar to the smaller of the two LP models.

Dobani

LP

LP products should generally be avoided, if for no other reason than to spite them for building the most poorly designed percussion product of all time:

Worst Stand Ever

Vibraslap

LP vibraslap mounts are completely worthless, yet they seem to be the only ones on the market. They do not clamp solidly to the vibraslap so they need to be constantly fussed with and they dampen the vibration. I found a solution that works very well for mounting vibraslaps:

 

That is a Meinl product designed for mounting cowbells and the like to conga, bongo, and djembe lugs, because I guess that is something people need to do? It works perfectly as a vibraslap mount. They should really market it as such.

Ratchet

This doesn’t have anything to do with the aforementioned Kyburz piece, but could prove to be useful information if you are ever playing Chaya Czernowin’s Sahaf or another piece where you need quick access to a ratchet.

“Whirlybird” style ratchets can be easily mounted to a cymbal stand or clamp.

The common CB ratchet can be attached to a cymbal stand by adjusting the clamp that is supposed to attach it to a music stand (which never works).

Remove that wingnut

Then you are left with this

Then jam it into a stand

Tolberg Percussion: Summer DIY Projects

Bass Drum Overhaul

In 2007 I bought my first concert bass drum, a 28″ WFL Ludwig drum made in 1939. It needed some serious repairs, so I set it aside. Shortly thereafter I got a second bass drum that was in good shape, so I never got around to repairing or using the first bass drum. I actually forgot about that old WFL for several years and only unearthed it from the basement when I moved to Lowell in 2013.

Unfortunately I don’t have a “before” pic of this drum so you can’t see what it looked like prior to the work that was done. Suffice it to say, it was in bad shape. The lugs were dented, the tension rods were rusted and warped, and the drum rattled like crazy. So I started by having the hardware removed from the shell, then filling the holes with a two part wood filler. The shell was then sanded, coated in an ebony polyshade, lightly sanded again, and topped with spray lacquer.

I definitely did not want to go through the laborious process of drilling new holes and installing new lugs. I thought back to a few bass drums I’ve seen in the past that did not have lugs at all. The heads were tensioned by a single tension rod that spanned the depth of the shell, and was inserted into a threaded claw on one side. This style of hardware went out of style a long time ago, and the one set of vintage threaded claws I found on eBay were too small for the shell. After shelving the project again for a couple months, I thought of a cheap and easy solution, which is often the answer in many a drum hardware question: threaded rods.

You can get simple threaded rods at any hardware store. So I took a bass drum claw to Home Depot and found the correct gauge of threaded rod, cut them to size, and tightened them to the claws with wing nuts. I then used felt pads, also available at most hardware stores, to form a center support to keep the rods from bending under pressure and scratching the shell.

I’m not sure why threaded claws went out of style. Anyone with an old bass drum knows that rattles are a huge problem. The rattles are almost always caused by the lugs, which on a relatively loosely tensioned concert bass drum are not really necessary. Another benefit of the threaded claw is that the two heads are automatically equal in tension.

I’ve heard a lot of bass drums of this approximate size and vintage, and this drum sounds better than any of them by a mile. I think it is due to the simple and unobtrusive hardware and the automatic balance between the two heads.

Here is the written date from the inside of the shell.

Here is the written date from the inside of the shell.

My neighbor and craftsman extraordinaire  J Haley cutting the threaded rods to size with an angle grinder. He did all of the aforementioned work on the shell as well.

My neighbor and craftsman extraordinaire J Haley cutting the threaded rods to size with an angle grinder. He did all of the aforementioned work on the shell as well.

Closeup of the wing nut securing the threaded rod to the claw. The other side of the drum is a mirror image.

Closeup of the wing nut securing the threaded rod to the claw. The other side of the drum is a mirror image.

This is what you use for the center support.

This is what you use for the center support.

Closeup of the center support.

Closeup of the center support, with J Haley looking on in approval.

The center support felts don't look great from up close, but from a slight distance you can barely notice them.

The center support felts don’t look great from up close, but from a slight distance you can barely notice them.

The finished shell.

The finished shell.

It is also worth noting that this style of hardware is about 5x cheaper than traditional drum hardware.

Steve Weiss Saucer Bells (keyboard layout)

In the context of a large Steve Weiss order, and somewhat on a whim, I bought these Saucer Bells. I liked the idea of having a weird set of chromatic bells, and for getting an octave of something they are pretty cheap.

As pictured, they come hung on a single length of rope. In that fashion they sound like a pretty decent bell tree, but that isn’t what I wanted them for. Using more or less the same method I described in this earlier post about making crotale stands, I made a stand for these saucer bells with a keyboard layout.

I'm not sure what I'll use these for, but I know I'll use them someday.

I’m not sure what I’ll use these for, but I know I’ll use them someday.

I finished the stand further by using beveled and flat rubber washers (found in the plumbing aisle) to keep the bells from rattling against the bolts. I also used the smallest 2 and 3 inch bolts I could find, which were still slightly too big for the holes in the bells, so I just drilled the holes in the bells to make them bigger. This did not change the intonation at all. Note: these bells are quite in tune.

A useful innovation I stumbled upon, which can also be applied to homemade crotale stands, was to use a coupling nut to mount the instrument to a cymbal stand. This is similar to the way in which brand name crotale stands are mounted. For this, I used a 3/8″ coupling nut with a carriage bolt and lock nut. It fits well in to light-weight Yamaha stands, and is more sturdy than some of the hardware I’ve seen on brand name crotale stands in the past.

The range of the bells is C7-C8 (the noted range of C6-C7 on Weiss’ website is incorrect). In terms of overtones and sustain, they are closer to a glockenspiel than to crotales, but they are no substitute for either.

Trap Tables

This one is simple: You can spend over $100 on a professionally made trap table, or you can spend $10 and make your own. Here is what you need:

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Then do this:

Use two layers of the drawer liner.

Use two layers of the drawer liner, and gaff tape.

Mount it on a folding keyboard stand. If you want to get fancy, add some trim to the back and sides to keep things from falling off. This particular stand measures 20″x24″ (single slab of 20″x48″ cut in half, makes two tables).

Hooked Dowels

I shake my head in disappointment when I see the complicated and ineffective ways that percussionists use to hang instruments. Unless everyone goes out and buys specialized Gibraltar or Kolberg whatevers for every need, we’d all be better off if percussionists the world over adopted this method.

Get a dowel and some 1″ cup hooks and do this:

I think credit goes to Bob Schulz for inventing these.

Then you can do things like this without the need for plastic zip ties or whatever method you were using before:

You can also make smaller versions with a hole drilled in the center, which can support a single heavier item with one cymbal stand instead of two.

30″ Wind Gong

Organizational Life Pro Tip

I would have saved a lot of money if I did this a long time ago…

Tolberg Percussion – Electronic Drums

To make any sort of living as a freelance musician, you must live in or near an urban area. That situation makes it hard for percussionists to practice once we are out of school, since it is difficult to find a space that can handle the amount of instruments we have or the noise they make.

I recently moved to Western Avenue Lofts in Lowell MA from a small one bedroom unit in Jamaica Plain, more than doubling my living space in the process while decreasing my rent. In my old place, I had no room for my instrument collection, and for four years slept on a makeshift bed in the living room with timpani and bass drums towering over me. Now, I have ample space to live comfortably while having my instruments set up. As I turn my head to the left from my office corner I’m looking at three cimbaloms, a five octave marimba, four timps, a keyboard, and a xylophone. It is a great situation.

High ceilings too.

High ceilings too.

Even now with the space issue solved, there is still the noise issue. I although I live in an incredibly welcoming community of artists, I’d have run out of goodwill on day one if I played an acoustic drum set at full volume in my loft. So, I spent several months in 2013 researching electronic drum sets.

It is not a welcoming market. There is not a lot of middle ground between e-drums that look like toys and $7,500 top of the line Rolands. If you have the money to burn, buy the high end V-drums by all means. They are miles above the rest. I do ok, but I’m not about to spend that kind of dough on electronic drums. I eventually settled on the Alesis DMX premium six piece kit.

The biggest problem with most electronics kits is the size of the pads. I prefer to play on four piece kits, so if I’m using a smaller kit I would have a 13″ snare, 10″ tom, 14″ floor tom, and an 18″ bass drum. A lot of cheap E-drums have 8″ pads for everything. It just doesn’t feel like playing on a real drum set. The Alesis DMX comes close with a 12″ snare, 10″ tom, and 12″ floor tom. The size of the bass drum pad doesn’t matter for spacing, and this kit came with a couple toms that I don’t really need but am happy to use. I bought it on Amazon last year when they were offering a $300 rebate, so all in this kit was under $1,000. Not bad. They aren’t offering the rebate now in February 2014, but maybe they’ll do it again in the holiday season.

The biggest complaint everyone has about Alesis kits is the ambient sound that the pads create. The whole point of electronic drums for my purposes was a drum set alternative that I could use without making a lot of noise, but really, out of the box these pads are incredibly loud. But there are solutions to that problem. There is a cottage industry of people home-making mesh head conversion kits for these drum sets. I bought one of those from eBay, and while it did decrease the volume dramatically, the heads were so shoddily made that double stokes and bounces became impossible. The easier and cheaper solution that I found out about later is just to put Remo Silentstroke heads on all the pads. (Update 8/15/14: Pearl Muffle Heads are better.)

You’ll notice in the stock photo of the kit, it is arranged in a 5 piece configuration with an extra floor tom. The rack is customizable with a little creativity, and I was able to turn it in to a four piece with an extra floor tom and an auxiliary pad on the left. Why people want a medium tom where the ride cymbal should go, I’ll never know.

Demon Drive pedal not included, but recommended

Demon Drive pedal not included, but recommended

Another great thing about having these electronic drums at the ready is that they helped me overcome a rather pesky bout of tennis elbow. In March 2013 I moved heavy gear every day for several weeks, and as a result my left elbow became fairly useless for the better part of 10 months. I didn’t play an instrument outside of rehearsals and performances for that period of time if I could avoid it. With a steady regiment of rest and enough anti-inflammatories to kill an elephant, I no longer wake up with crippling pain in my elbow, but after that period of time my chops definitely suffered a bit. Getting these electronic drums and just sort of jamming on them with varying degrees of intensity got me back in to shape pretty quickly.

But perhaps the greatest thing about practicing on electronic drums is the complete inhibition it allows. I have a cheap PA plugged in to the kit, but I mostly just hear them through headphones with no external amplification. When I lived in JP, I practiced in a complete dump in South Boston: a building filled with burn out rock star wannabes that were barely toilet trained, but I could make all the noise I wanted to without complaint. I practiced drum set a lot in that building. But I did so with the knowledge that other people could hear what I was doing, and one way or another that changed how I played. When I play electronic drums in my loft, absolutely no one can hear me. It gives me the freedom to be experimental, to try things out, to make mistakes, to fail miserably, and as a result, to get better.

Tolberg Percussion: How to Make a Crotale Stand

The DIY ethic is intrinsic to the percussion world. Percussionists are frequently required to perform on readymades rather than “real” instruments, and most proper percussion instruments can trace their origins to crude prototypes using the simplest of raw materials. The lack of an established performance practice for modern repertoire also leads us to find our own solutions for realizing a given piece. And, as I’ve mentioned before, it is expensive to acquire all the things you need. Cheap, homemade solutions can be a lifesaver. Even over a relatively short career, I’ve come up with (and stolen) some ideas that have helped me immensely. Most of them involve a skillful navigation of Home Depot.

This week I’m playing Olga Neuwirth’s Torsion for solo bassoon and ensemble. The percussion part requires crotales, but only three pitches. This is just one of many pieces that only requires a few pitches out of the 2.5 octaves of available crotales, and having all the unneeded pitches can make a large percussion setup more difficult to navigate. With that in mind, I set out to make a stand that could hold just a few crotales.

I started with a standard steel bar from Home Depot. I’m not sure if they have an official name, but they are usually next to the dowels. The length of the bar will be too long, so you’ll need to saw it in two. This can be done with a simple hacksaw. It won’t be the most fun thirty minutes of your life but it will work. Then, make drill marks where you want the crotales to go using a laser level for alignment.

For drilling the holes, do yourself a favor and get a corded drill, not a battery powered one. As you can guess, drilling through a steel bar requires a lot of power and a battery charged drill won’t get it done. The drilled bar will look like this. The larger hole in the middle is for the cymbal stand that will eventually hold it.

Now you are ready to put mounting bolts in the bar. I used three-inch 10-24 bolts since they are compatible with Zildjian crotale wing nuts. Make sure they are three inches long so that the mounted crotale has room to sit above the cymbal stand wing nut. To secure the bolts to the bar, make sure to use stop nuts. This will prevent the bolt from loosening. After this step it should look like this:

Now you need to add another stop nut about halfway down the bolt that the crotale will sit on.

Then put one layer of moleskin around the bolt so the crotale won’t buzz against it.

It is helpful if you can get your hands on the rubber washers that Zildjian uses on their crotale mounts. I happened to have some lying around, but if you don’t have access to any, I’m sure Home Depot will have a suitable substitute. Do not use metal washers. They will buzz. Here it the mounting bar on a cymbal stand with the bottom washers on.

Now you are ready to add the crotales, the top washer, and the wing nut. I made this bar to hold six crotales, and the finished products looks like this:

Since the stand is long enough to hold six crotales, there is room to hang more instrument underneath the crotales without hitting the cymbal stand.

I mentioned above that the original bar from Home Depot had to be sawed in to two pieces, so I used the left over bit to make a three-crotale version.

These little items will make countless pieces much easier to play, and the total cost of the materials for both stands was $25.

Composing for Cimbalom

I’m deeply committed to expanding the repertoire for cimbalom, and I’m publishing this informal how-to guide in hopes that composers will be inspired to write for the instrument.

Pitch Layout and Range

The pitch layout of the cimbalom is unlike any other instrument. All cimbaloms have the same pitch layout, and vary only slightly in size. Some older instruments are on a much smaller scale and have a smaller pitch range, but these instruments most likely will not be encountered because they are unfit for professional performance situations.

Screen Shot 2013-04-05 at 1.22.48 AM

Cimbalom Pitch Layout

The normal beating area of the string is between 1-2 inches away from the bridge. As one moves closer to or further from the bridge, sul ponticello and sul tasto effects are achieved.

The standard cimbalom range extends from C2-A6. Unlike its close relative, the hammered dulcimer, the cimbalom is completely chromatic and has no repeated notes. G5, A5, and B5 appear on the diagram to be repeated, but these strings and these strings only have two accessible bridges, and thus two acceptable beating spots. C2 has one large wound string, C#2 and D2 have two wound strings, and the next 1.3 octaves (up to F#3) have three wound strings. From G3 to the top of the range, the strings are unwound and each pitch has four strings. Some modern instruments have a range of A1-A6, but these lower notes should be avoided because such instruments are exceedingly rare, especially in the United States.

On the wound strings in the bass register, the beating areas are on the opposite sides of the instrument, with the C whole-tone scale on the right and the C# whole-tone scale on the left. This makes rapid passages in the bass register difficult to execute since the beating areas on each side of the instrument are 26-28 inches apart. Because of this, I try to keep each hand dedicated to one side of the instrument when playing in the bass register, if at all possible.

Damper Pedal

The cimbalom has a single pedal used for dampening. Like the piano, the dampers do not affect the high notes of the cimbalom. All pitches from G5-A6 are undampened with the exception of G#5. This is only worth noting because the pedal will not completely cut off the sound of the instrument by itself. Hand dampening must be used to dampen the aforementioned pitches. The sympathetic resonance and sustain of the cimbalom is comparable to that of a piano.

Single Staff or Grand Staff

Cimbalom music is sometimes written on a single staff and sometimes on a grand staff. It really depends on the specific musical passage. Obviously if the music stays primarily in the treble range, there is no use for a bass clef and vice versa.

This passage from Pierre Boulez’ Repons illustrates an effective use of grand staff cimbalom writing. Also notice the precise pedal notations.

Repons1

In this passage from later in the same piece, Boulez does away with the grand staff when it is no longer necessary.

Repons 2

Dividing Music Between Staves

Because of the bizarre layout of pitches on a cimbalom, it is difficult for a composer to guess which hand will play which note. Because of this, range should be the only factor in determining which pitch goes on which staff. Stravinsky employed the technique of separating the right and left hand on different staves and as a result, his cimbalom parts are difficult to read.

This example is from Stravinsky’s edition of Renard.

renard1

This is the same passage of music from my personal edition of the part with corrected staff distribution.

renard2

Four Mallets on Cimbalom

It is generally not possible to play with four mallets on cimbalom. Four mallet technique as we know it was developed on mallet keyboard instruments, which have a horizontal note layout. The cimbalom has a vertical layout. This renders the technique one might use on a marimba useless on cimbalom. That being said, some composers have found ways around this.

In this passage from Renard, Stravinsky asks the cimbalom player to play two adjacent notes with one stick.

renard3

The right hand alone would be used to play the Bb and G, since those strings are right next to each other. This type of writing is only seen in older cimbalom parts (see also Bartok’s First Rhapsody for Violin and Orchestra) because cimbaloms were smaller in the early 20th century and this technique was easier to achieve. Stravinsky also learned to play cimbalom to some degree and composed his cimbalom parts at the instrument, so he verified that this technique was possible himself. I personally don’t like seeing this technique in music. It is a bit like playing two adjacent marimba bars with one mallet: it happens by accident sometimes but it is very difficult to do consistently.

The entire second movement of Alessandro Solbiati’s Quaderno d’immagini for solo cimbalom employs four soft timpani mallets. Notice however that the music is extremely slow, and that the performer has ample time to contort himself into the correct playing position.

solbiati

Stick Types

The standard cimbalom mallet is a small wooden shaft curving upward at the tip covered in either leather or cotton. Leather mallets are more common in Western Europe while cotton mallets are more common in America. There is not an enormous difference between the sounds of the two, so when writing for standard mallets, only the hardness and not the material should be indicated.

Composers have asked for various non-standard types of mallets over the years. György Kurtág often asks for fémver­­­ó, or metal covered mallets. In this passage from Scenes from a Novel, Kurtág pairs metal covered mallets with violin played col legno battuto.

kurtag

When writing for metal covered mallets, it is best to keep things below forte to avoid damaging the strings.

In his cimbalom concerto, Gramigna, Stefano Gervasoni asks for a multitude of standard and non-standard mallets.

gervasoni

Extended Techniques

Pizzicato is frequently used on cimbalom and is quite easy to execute even while holding mallets. It is also possible for one hand to pizz several pitches simultaneously assuming they are all within reach. Because of the note layout, there isn’t a standard intervallic reach, so check with a cimbalom player with your specific requests.

Glissandi are also frequently used in cimbalom repertoire. Chromatic glissandi are extremely difficult to execute and should be avoided. Most commonly, composers ask performers to gliss on a particular set of adjacent strings, resulting in a pitch collection specific to the cimbalom. The following example from Ju Ri Seo’s Etude illustrates this concept.

seo1

The glissandi in this passage use the notes on the left mid-treble range, and skip chromatic pitches that appear elsewhere on the instrument.

Harmonics are also possible on cimbalom. It is best to keep harmonics on strings that are not divided by a bridge (C2-B3, C#4, and Eb4). Harmonics are possible, but less effective, on lower bridge-divided strings. Starting at F5, the first overtone is barely possible, and will sound more like a muted string than a discernible pitch. As with any stringed instrument, harmonics closer to the start of the harmonic series produce the strongest sound on cimbalom. On the wound strings, it is easy enough to produce the first five overtones. Anything beyond that would be a bit of a challenge. The high overtones also tend to get drowned out by the resonance from the rest of the instrument. On the unwound strings that are not divided by a bridge, the higher overtones sound weaker than on the wound strings, but are still possible. On the bridge divided strings, it is best to stick to the first two overtones.

When notating harmonics on cimbalom, indicate which string the harmonic is played on, as well as the sounding pitch, as Gervasoni does in this example from Gramigna.

gervasoni2

Keep in mind that producing harmonics on cimbalom is by necessity a two handed technique. One hand stops the string and the other strikes it. This requires at least some preparation time. It is possible to prepare harmonics on the cimbalom by placing something like Blu-Tack on the strings, as Gervasoni requires in Epicadanza:

Screen Shot 2013-06-13 at 3.25.08 PM

Alternate Tuning

Proceed with caution when considering an alternate tuning for cimbalom. Changing the tuning can be a very time consuming process, and on a program with other cimbalom pieces in standard tuning this could cause quite a problem. Making adjustments to only a couple pitches is easy enough though. Cimbalom strings are extremely taut in their natural state, so tuning upward more than a quartertone should be avoided. For general tuning maintenance purposes, I wouldn’t want to tune my strings downward more than a major 2nd.  Also keep in mind that when tuning a pitch that shares a bridge with another pitch, both pitches will be affected. For example, tuning C4 down a quartertone will also tune G4 down a quartertone. This example, again from Ju Ri Seo’s Etude, represents an acceptable scordatura tuning, both in terms of execution and notation.

seo2

When composing for extended techniques on the cimbalom, a general rule of thumb is that anything you might consider writing for the inside of a piano is easier to execute on cimbalom. Also, new extended techniques for cimbalom are being invented all the time. Essentially every extended technique in Solbaiti’s Quaderno d’immagini and Otto Canti are used for the first time in those pieces, so one can be imaginative. And, if you are writing for cimbalom and I’ve glossed over an area that needs further explanation, please let me know.

Recommended Listening

Historic Cimbalom Repertoire

Modern Cimbalom Repertoire

Learning the Cimbalom

Repons cymbalum3

The cimbalom is a Hungarian instrument related to the hammered dulcimer that was invented in 1874 and is primarily known as a Roma folk instrument. It weighs about 200 pounds and requires at least two strong people to move it, so it is the only instrument I own that I can’t move by myself. Tuning the instrument can be a hassle (they’re tuning cimbaloms in hell, I always say). Things like cimbalom mallets and replacement strings are very difficult to find in the United States. The average American orchestra requires a cimbalom player once every 3-5 years or so. I’m frequently asked, given those circumstances, why I bothered learning the instrument to begin with.

My obsession with collecting recordings led me to the music of György Kurtág. One day during undergrad when I was perusing the old Virgin Megastore on Newbury and Mass Ave in Boston, I picked up a CD that included a work of his for baritone, string trio, and percussion, since I was always looking for new chamber music to play. The score proved impossible to acquire back in 2003, but the music was amazing. Brutally expressive yet introverted, and not losing its stoic dignity. I bought all the Kurtág records I could find, and unfortunately learned that he had no other chamber works for percussion, but myriad pieces for cimbalom.

In 2007 I began studying with Frank Epstein at the New England Conservatory, and for my first lesson he asked me to make a list of things I wanted to accomplish that year. I wrote down things I considered to be realistic, like various auditions that I wanted to take (I didn’t end up taking any of them) and on a whim, at the end of the list I added “learn cimbalom?” I was almost embarrassed to even mention it, but when I did, Frank lit up and was very in to the idea. To be honest, if Frank was anything less than totally supportive in that initial expression of interest, I never would have bothered.

Frank later introduced me to the only other cimbalom player in New England (that I know of), Richard Grimes, who helped me find an instrument to rent and showed me the ropes. In the beginning of 2008, an extraordinary coincidence led me to a cimbalom for sale about three miles from my house in Jamaica Plain. I have no idea how many cimbaloms are in the United States, but I’d be surprised if it was more than two hundred, and the number of professional quality instruments in great condition is probably somewhere around twenty-five. The number of those instruments for sale ranges between zero and two at any given moment. So being able to hop in my car and check out one of these instruments after a ten minute drive at the exact moment I needed to purchase an instrument is quite miraculous.

Humble Beginnings

Humble Beginnings

The reason why there are so few cimbalom players in the United States, aside from the scarcity of instruments and the even bleaker scarcity of work, is that the pitch layout makes no sense. Although the cimbalom has close instrumental relatives in most cultures on Earth, knowing how to play one or another of them will do you no good whatsoever in learning the cimbalom. I suppose percussionists might have the slightest advantage over other instrumentalists in as much as we are used to hitting things with sticks. So my strategy in learning the cimbalom was mostly just to repurpose the old books I used when learning how to play xylophone and marimba, and to import my general performance practices to my new instrument.

The biggest hurdle I faced after learning where all the pitches are is that the technique required by traditional cimbalom sticks does not work for me at all. Most cimbalom sticks require one to play with the thumbs facing up. Percussionists might know this as the “French” timpani technique. While a lot of percussionists have success with this grip, my left hand has never been able to do it.

cimb1

I don’t like this.

Furthermore, it seems logical to me that the most successful technique in holding any type of stick or mallet is the one that most closely resembles one’s snare drum grip. When playing snare drum, each hand holds one stick, and the only concern is to play on a single large surface as efficiently as possible. That technique should lend itself well to situations with additional considerations. In my experience, the farther away a technique is from snare drum technique, the more likely it is to be nonsense.

Not nonsense.

Not nonsense.

Because of the way cimbalom sticks are designed, it is not possible to hold traditional sticks with my preferred snare drum style grip with the top of the hand facing up. In 2009 I finally found someone that makes adjustable sticks that allowed my to use my favored technique.

After a couple years of practicing cimbalom, I still wasn’t able to do much, and I was pretty discouraged. The opportunity of a lifetime came in March, 2009, when I was given the chance to play Pierre Boulez’ Repons that September at the Lucerne Festival Academy. I’m convinced it is the most difficult piece in the cimbalom repertoire.

Thank you, Mr. Boulez.

Thank you, Mr. Boulez.

So, I had six months to learn a ridiculously difficult part by rote. I didn’t nail every aspect of the piece in the performance, but it went pretty well. You can watch it here.

After learning Repons, things got a lot easier. Since then, I’ve been able to play a lot of the standard rep for the instrument with some of the world’s top orchestras, including the Boston Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, and the Montreal Symphony. Without a doubt, the performances I’ve had on cimbalom have been the highlights of my career.

The opportunities open to me as a cimbalom player would be completely closed if I had remained what I was in 2007: a slightly better than average new music percussionist with a tenuous orchestral background. I’m definitely not advising everyone reading this to go out and do what I did, but the more general insight here is that in the cutthroat world of the music business, the more you can diversity your portfolio, the better off you’ll be. But, of course, I didn’t have any of that in mind to begin with. I just wanted to play Kurtág.