Percussion 101: How to Play Hand Crash Cymbols

Young Girl Plays Cymbals
The hand cymbals (or crash cymbals) are extremely versatile percussion instruments. The hand cymbals are used in the military, drum and bugle corps, the orchestra, and wind ensembles. Proper percussion hand cymbal technique takes many years of practice and hard work, as well as stamina and upper body strength.

The most common use of the hand cymbals is in the drum line, whether in a high school band or a professional drum and bugle corps. Two cymbals are held by straps to the cymbal player's hands. In marching band and drum and bugle corps, the cymbal player often will loop their own hand in the strap, then grab the strap. 

Protect Your Hands
Tape, strap pads, and gloves are often used to protect the cymbal player's hands from blisters and the slow grinding away of skin during a lengthy band show.
In the orchestra setting, where the crash cymbal is often reserved for music accents and shorter music passages, the percussion player does not loop their hands in the strap, and instead holds the part of the strap closest to the cymbal dome with their thumb, middle finger, and pointer finger. Pads may be used to protect the percussion player's hand, although this will often muffle the sound of the instrument.

Sounds to Avoid
There are a few sounds that the hand cymbal player will want to avoid. The cymbal player does not want to create a "pop" sound by trapping air within the two cymbals. The sound will literally sound like a loud "pop". A simple way to avoid this error is by always making sure that the two cymbals are never struck open end to open end. Instead, be sure to have a slight change in angle in one of the cymbals, where there is a slight overlap when they come together. The other sound the cymbal player will want to avoid is the accidently suctioning of the cymbals. Though rare, this more often occurs in the drum and bugle corps and can even result in the inverting of the hand cymbals! Making sure that there is an overlap of the cymbals will help prevent this. A good crash cymbal sound will be reminiscent of crashing ocean wave - a nice, deep splash type of sound.

How to Hold Hand Cymbals
Hand cymbals may be held several ways: vertical, horizontal, and slightly angled. Some conductors or band directors will insist on some pretty ridiculous and showing cymbal techniques for visual effects more than sound quality. Some cymbal variations can include holding the open end up in the air after a crash, holding them with the open ends facing down, and even doing a bizarre right to left and left to right diagonal type of crash that makes the cymbal player look like a monkey and tires the percussion player out unnecessarily. There also will be the cymbal scrape, where one cymbal lightly scrapes the other for a slight whoosh type of sound.

When choosing the proper cymbal technique for a music passage, choose the one that will maximize upper body strength, produce the desired volume level, and allow preparation for the next crash. For instance, although it would be ideal to have large and showy crashes throughout a Sousa march, doing so for a ten minute set of "Stars and Stripes" will often leave the percussion player feeling tired and lessening the dynamics of the cymbals instead of increasing them as the band grows louder. If the percussion player has only one crash in the entire music work, however, the percussion player can often accomplish both a visually and aurally pleasing sound because there is enough preparation time. In the drum and bugle corps, the hand cymbal players often work on strength to keep each crash strong.
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Intermedia composer, percussionist, author, and obsessive sci-fi buff, Young composes mind-numbing electroacoustic works heard in Asia, North America, Australia, and Europe. Her music has been heard in film festivals, radio, electronic dance clubs, random boom boxes in France, and as not-so-pleasant background music. Her multimedia works have been performed at venues like the Beijing Conservatory, the International Computer Music Conference, Miramax’s Project Greenlight, the Athena Festival, the New York International Independent Film Festival, Art Basil Miami, Turkey’s Cinema for Peace, and Pulsefield International Exhibition of Sound Art.
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