A Conductor’s Guide to Percussion: Bass Drum Methods

2011Symposium_1_2Today, I complete my series on percussion methods by talking about the concert bass drum. The drum is mounted vertically, with the two heads to the players left and right. The player’s right foot is placed on the inside of the rim just right of center, and the knee is turned into the drum head. This is how the drum is muffled, and how to avoid the big sustained boom. Hold the mallet in the right hand one third up from the bottom of the shank, and grasp it comfortably with the fingers, but not the thumb. This grip will promote enough relaxation to put flexibility at the player’s disposal. The mallet should be held in such a way that the seam of the material on the mallet head is facing away from the drum. This will give a better sound, and prolong the lifespan of the mallet.

Most playing will be done just below center, in the area on the drumhead just in front of the knee. Use a quick, Bass Drumabrupt stroke from close to the drum, similar to the stroke described for snare drum earlier in this series. The knee is off the head on impact, and then presses into the drumhead when the note is over, so there is no carry-over into the next note. The left hand can reach over the top of the drum and be used to assist with muffling using the fingertips pushed into the drumhead, as described for timpani, also earlier in this series. If only a single note is called for, then frequently there is no need to muffle, because there is no ensuing note with which the ongoing one will interfere. Muffling is done if a rest follows the single note, or notated with a staccato mark. Where many notes are to be played in a row, the player must muffle each note individually. No muffling will create a rumble and cause the attacks to be inconsistent, and constant muffling will produce a dry, non-resonating sound that should only be used if specifically called for. It is important to have some force in the stroke; the drumhead you are trying to set into vibration is large, and it takes a strong impact to set the entire head in vibration. Too light a stroke will produce an anemic tone.

For “cannon shots,” the note should be struck dead center. The right arm is extended out to the side, and then brought around into the drum with a whipping motion. The sound can be let rung or muffled depending on the desired effect.

Rolls are played with two lighter bass drum mallets held with matched grip. The mallets should be identical for even rolls. Timpani mallets are possible but not desirable; they do not have sufficient mass to produce a resonant tone on the bass drum head, which is thicker than a timpani head. The left hand mallet contacts the drumhead at the top of the drum, the left arm reaching over the top of the drum, and the right hand mallet contacts the drum at the bottom of the drum head. In order to engage the entire drumhead in the roll, the two mallets are positioned at opposite edges of the drumhead, in the same manner as described for suspended cymbal earlier in this series. There is no muffling during rolls. If your bass drum is on a rotating stand, rolls are made easier by angling the drum 45 degrees. Do not position the drum flat, because this will set up an unwanted acoustic under the drum. Muffling with the fingertips of both hands ends rolls.

The bass drum adds to the lower overtones of an ensemble. Because of this, the tone of the drum makes a difference in the overall sound of your band or wind ensemble. The bass drum part accomplishes much more than laying down the beat. Because of this, attention must be paid to bass drum methods to assure that your bass drum is adding value to your sound.


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