Extended techniques for the orchestral cymbalist

This article was presented at Pasic 2018 and discusses the idea of extended techniques for the orchestral cymbalist. All of the techniques can be found in a book I have written, entitled: “Cymbalisms-A Complete Guide For The Orchestral Cymbal Player.

Having the good fortune of playing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 43 years, it is with some pleasure that I can pass on some of the things I have learned. Much of what I learned is due to the flexibility offered by a music director (in this case Seiji Ozawa), the amazing supportive acoustics of Symphony Hall and the wonderful orchestra that the BSO is.

Having the Zildjian company within a half hour drive from Symphony Hall, the wonderful people there including the Zildjian family themselves and having their support over the years is another important ingredient.

All these things have helped me grow as a cymbalist. However, nothing happens without a creative impulse, a desire to try things out with an eye for discovering new sounds and techniques to help make music more interesting, more real, while stylistically and musically correct. One must have passion to make music, a passion for sound and a measure of good musical sense while experimenting with different techniques.

Cymbal playing in general is fun, often physically demanding and at the same time exhilarating. Playing a leading role in leading a musical climax and/or finishing up with a massive crash at the peak of a climax  is wonderful and invigorating. Often while figuring out how a simple splash helps send a musical message to a listener is equally challenging. The endless variety of sounds, impulses, musical and physical gestures required in the job make it a wonderful way to pass the time. 

Performing in a hall where every possible sounds is heard keeps ones attention focussed. Realizing and dealing with specific issues of a ringing instrument, and figuring out how long a note should ring in context of a musical moment is challenging. I have spent years developing strokes which help me achieve a number of short and shorter sounds. It became a kind of obsession for me, that cymbal sound should not be the last sound heard in any moment of a rest. Rests (musical silence) are sacrosanct. Listening to myself play via recordings gives an impression of what is happening in the hall. I like playing a rhythmic passage even though cymbals are not really rhythmic instruments by nature. I refer to these moments at “tutti play”. Tutti Play occurs when my notes and rests are the same as that of the brass section and this occurs in a lot of music: Tchaikovsky, Rossini and Suppe come to mind, but there are moments in all pieces where tutti rhythmic play occurs.

Another important factor in performance is pitch. Cymbals used must be pitched to help support the moment. Both crash cymbals and suspended cymbals must be selected so that they sound “in tune” if a cymbal is pitched to high or too low, it can sound out of tune. 

This requires developing a cymbal collection and being able to quickly solve a pitch issue by simply choosing another cymbal.

Finally the cymbal stroke itself  remains a challenge. The challenge is to produce a cymbal sound which is devoid of attack, and one  that maximizes  the ring, or vibrations that so characterize  cymbal sound. I don't particularly like the word “crash” when discussing crash cymbals which distinguishes it from a suspended cymbal since I focus my attention on the sound that happens immediately after the two cymbals have come in contact.

I have discussed all of the above in my book entitled “Cymbalisms”. My clinic will focus on discussing and demonstrating many of these cymbalisms, as I choose to call a variety of strokes used in the orchestral repertoire. Join me in exploring cymbal sound and some of the orchestral cymbal repertoire.

Finally a word about cymbal gadgets or supporting devises which help make playing cymbals in the orchestra easier. Early on in my career I introduced the Cymbelt to the public. A cymbelt is a device which attaches a cymbal to a bass drum while another cymbal strikes the mounted cymbal. Gustav Mahler in his Symphony No. 1 asks for the bass drum player to play the cymbal at the same time, echoing a marching bass drum and cymbal player of times gone by though on occasion one can still be seen and heard in some marching bands. Other composers have copied this style of playing, including Charles Ives in some of his march music. And composer like Gioacchini Rossini and Franz von Suppe who both often suggest one player for both the bass drum and the cymbal.