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Iowa All-State 2018

It’s that time of year!

This year’s etudes are a mix of fairly straightforward and quite challenging.  I have recordings of each one here, as well as with my suggestions below.

Snare Drum: Cirone, Portraits in Rhythm #21

Every student I work with says something about the tempo on this piece (eighth=184) feeling slow.  Cirone himself plays it faster in his example video, but I recommend not straying from the written instructions, especially when the judge is hearing it over and over the same way.

The piece is centered around agogic accents: slight stresses or a sense of direction into the first note of each barred grouping, very much like the placement of dance steps.  The first measure, for example is 4+3, whereas the same notes in m3 are 3+4.  I suggest playing these flat first for note accuracy, and adding the stresses anywhere it feels natural.  Over-use of this type of phrasing can sound really awkward, so keep it subtle and dance-like.

Cirone has many suggestions in the Study Guide edition of the book.  They are all fine but none of them are strictly necessary.  There are alternate interpretations of all his suggestions which are equally valid.

There are four places I have my own suggestions:

  1. Rolls in line 3.  Cirone says separate them with soft releases.  I think that sounds awkward so I roll straight through with agogic stresses.  If you can play them separated in a way that is musically satisfying that’s fine too.
  2. 7/8 groupings in lines 5-6.  I use the agogic stress in the first bar with the waltz-like sticking RLRL RLLRL.  The last two 16ths pickup in to the next bar.  At this point I simplify the stresses and group it as 4 sets of the rhythm (1e&a 2 &).  The following 2/8 bar is a long pickup to the 5/8, where I return to the waltz-like feel with the sticking RLRL RLR.  I find this keeps things easy to follow but retains the dance quality.
  3. Short crescendo groupings in lines 6-7.  The very next thing that happens.  I don’t believe a 3-note crescendo is a thing, that’s just three dynamic targets.  I play this passage like rungs on a ladder.  Each note is assigned a dynamic 1-5 and I play each note in that place almost like I had it orchestrated to five wood blocks or something.  Therefore this passage is played: 12345 135 135 12345 with each number sounding the same each time it’s played.
  4. The last thing is the 32nd figures at the end of line 8.  Cirone famously dislikes “diddles” and always suggests single stroking these passages.  I play them as doubles with a little stress to make sure they are equal to the notes around them.  They should NOT sound weaker than the surrounding notes, or be mistaken for “inner beats” or “diddles” as in a rudimental style, because that’s out of character for the piece.

Marimba: Stan Dahl Etude #3

This etude is in a Latin/Caribbean style, similar to last year.

The first three lines are a repeated pattern over 4 notes with a little added each time.  The 4 notes are all whole steps apart.  Practice just the first three bars of each line with a metronome carefully and be able to effortlessly switch between each line.  Then do the same for the last measure on each line.  Put the whole section together after all of that, transitioning between each element with ease.  Put the metronome on every 16th note to clean the rhythm, then on beats 1 and 3 only, then beats 2 and 4 only to check your pulse.  Take your time with this section.

The next three lines are a left hand ostinato against a right hand rhythm.  Start in m17, playing the full part in each hand by itself.  Then play the full part of one hand and just the rhythm of the other hand slowly, then put it all together.  The rhythm of the right hand fits the phrase “I like chi-cken with lots of gra-vy and | I like…”, which sounds funny until you do it and it makes complete sense.  Once all that is done, go back to m13 and do the additive rhythm as written.  The last beat of m20 is slightly different so take note of that.

The next section is a typical roll passage.  Learn it by first playing all four notes at once and filling each beat with triplets.  That will establish the pacing and shifting between notes, and avoid any “accidental phrasing” later.  I recommend ending each four bar phrase with only the first two notes of the triplet to establish a clear break.  Once all that is clean and pacing smoothly, do it again with hands alternating 6-tuplets, left hand first. After that, loosen up, listen to the bar sound and play with alternations out of time.

The final section is simpler than it looks.  The 7/16 bar rhythm is the first 4 notes of m1.  The notes themselves are the same all-whole step pattern, moving up by a half step in each bar.  Block them out in 2-note pairs before alternating as written.  The paired notes in m39 and m41 are a Major 3rd apart, rising by half step.  Block these as before.

m45-48 are all the same G major scale, starting on different notes.  Clean it with a metronome on 16ths like in the first section to make sure the rhythm is exactly right.

Timpani: Barry Dvorak Etude #9 

This is probably the most difficult etude overall this year.  The amount of dynamic control over long passages and the dampening need to keep the sound clean adds a lot of demand to what’s on the page.  Fortunately, the second page is a near-mirror of the first.

I recommend the lowest drums: 32″, 29″, 26″

For dampening, the marked spots are mandatory, and in addition to that there are many places where dampening one or more drums will keep the sound clean and allow the higher drums to be heard.  Usually notes can be dampened with fingers in the playing spot, however, because of the loud dynamics before many dampened spots, it may be a good idea to dampen to the side by 6 inches or so to prevent buzzing on the head.  Don’t dampen harder, as that just makes more noise.

Measures 1-3 require returning to a soft dynamic after a crescendo over and over.  Keeping the hands very loose and the fingers open will allow this to happen.  Do it slowly to get the gesture down and never apply pressure with closed fingers or the tone will “splat”.

The down beat of m5 is at forte as marked.  After that, for the sake of clarity, only the accents remain at forte, the rest of the notes on the low drum are very soft.  In m7, on beat 3 the full part returns to forte.  It is useful at this time to mark some reference dynamics and dampening to make this long decrescendo work.

  1. The end of m7 is mf, then decrescendo in the end of m8
  2. m9 is mp, dampen the low drum at the start, decrescendo at the end
  3. m10 is p as marked, dampen the low drum at the start

Start m11 on the left hand and do not cross your hands at any point in this measure.  Again, dynamics and dampening marks for this long crescendo.

  1. m11 naturally crescendos down the drums, so play flat until the last beat and crescendo there.
  2. m12 is mp, dampen the middle drum as you play the bottom drum both times.  Crescendo slightly though the last two beats
  3. m13 is mf, crescendo through the last two beats a lot
  4. m14 is a big f.  Don’t splat the notes.  Very loose fingers.  Allow the stick to rebound way back up with no resistance from your hand after each note.  Dampen the previous note while playing on every beat for clarity.
  5. m15 is a huge, open, relaxed roll.  Because the notes is so low, the roll speed itself is also very slow.  Start with a roll speed which is obviously too slow and speed it up until the tone blends to a single sound.  Hold the initial dynamic for at least one full count before softening.  Spread the hands apart 8 inches or so to help warm the tone.
  6. m16 center the hands again to get a more articulate sound for the softest notes.

The tuning is weird.  Practice singing the “tuning song” F-Bb-Eb going up and then F-D-Ab going down.  Sing it a lot and play it on a marimba to really get it solid.  I suggest tuning the high F octave off the low drum first.

For the rest of the piece, reverse all your markings, except m29, 30, and 32, where the bottom drum needs to be dampened.

There is a slight edit at the end of my video where I added an extra note and didn’t have time to rerecord.  Be careful you don’t do that on the audition!

Crash Cymbals: Aaron Williams Etude #8 

This is a tough one.  Set a metronome to eighth note = 272 and clean the rhythm of each measure with hand claps before even picking up cymbals.

There are four dynamics indicated.  f should be comfortable, as it requires the most dampening and needs room for accents.  mf is a mellow version of the same thing. p is very light with an emphasis on moving slow for a low tone.  The ff in the last bar needs to be deeper than f for an obvious contrast.

Tambourine: Aaron Williams Etude #8

Tricky dynamics.  I look at them more as accents than dynamics, and that makes it easier to see what to do.  First of all, set yourself up with a stand between you and the judge so the loud/soft roll effects at least seem to work a little better.

Starting in m3 I rest the tambourine on my knee and play directly opposite where it touches.  This reduces the sound the most for a stable, low pp.  I then play the f notes in bars 3-4, and 7-9 with an Up/Down motion from hand to knee, sticking to my knee at the end to set up the next pp note.

The finger roll in m5-6 is a bit misleading.  There is no way the ff on that roll will match the ff from bar one, so don’t try.  SHOW a big start to the roll and hold that big tone before lowering the dynamic as you lower the tambourine to your leg.  It’s very helpful to put marks along the edge of the rim so you know where to start, how many marks you cover before reducing your dynamic, and where to end.  This builds in an element of consistency which is often overlooked.

The shake roll in m10 is also a bit misleading.  It’s really hard to start a shake roll soft.  Get a good tone and SHOW the dynamic by starting low and raising the tambourine through the crescendo.  The stand blocking or appearing to block some of the sound helps this to work.

m12 to the end is really fast.  If you can play all the 16ths with a fast single stroke that’s fine.  If you need to use a knee/fist thing that’s fine.  I use a heel/toe/toe type motion I developed from conga and pandiero playing.  It works great for me but I can’t recommend one method over another.  You need to experiment.  I accelerate my accent in m14 for more impact and then open my hand to slap the last note.  The slap could be a closed knuckle knock as well.

Good luck on auditions!  I hope this is helpful.  I’m always happy to answer any questions, just ask!


DIY Triangle Isolation Systems

No matter the instrument’s quality, a triangle is only at it’s best with a good clip.

I recently was reminded of this by none other than Neil Grover.  If you don’t know, Neil Grover is a legendary orchestral musician and a revolutionary teacher and instrument maker.  His YouTube page, GroverProPerc, is a treasure trove of orchestral goodies.

Many companies have clips that are a good balance of price and features, but if price is no problem the Stubbs Triangle Clip is, in my opinion, the very best for one simple reason: Vibration Isolation.


I use these clips a lot, and find I want this level of isolation in other areas of my work as well.  I use triangles and other hanging effects on marching band frames, in musical theatre pits, chamber music, etc., and developed over the past few years an inexpensive way to approach the level of isolation I so value from my Stubbs clips.

The materials are cheap and easy to obtain: Rubber tubing, fishing line, and moleskin. For about $30 you can obtain a lifetime supply.  Rubber tubing is near plumbing supplies in any hardware store, fishing line is available in any sporting goods store. Moleskin is used in shoes for protecting blisters and can be found in any pharmacy or grocery store.


To improve an inexpensive clip like this one, or another mount:

  1. Cut off the current strings
  2. Cut a length of tubing that fits between the two holes in the clip
  3. Tie it to the clip with fishing line (needs to be tight)
  4. Tie an additional line to only the tubing to hold the triangle
  5. Cover the ends of the clip where they touch the stand with moleskin

Fishing line doesn’t always tie like string.  Tying the tubing to the clip with three half-hitches should be fine.  Tying the holder for the triangle is different.  Cut a length that seems too long and pull one end through the tubing.  Hold the two ends together and tie a single knot so you have a loop.  If you can hang a triangle at this point to adjust the length of the knot it’s a good idea.  Tie an additional 1-2 half hitches to lock that knot in place and trim the ends.

To make a hanger for a cymbal stand or hook:

  1. Cut a short piece of tube and tie a hanger as above
  2. Tie another loop long enough to go all the way through with an inch sticking out each side.  Push it through the tubing.
  3. Hang the holder by both loops

These last a long time and seriously improve the sound of a triangle.  They also reduce or eliminate the noise a frame might make from the transferred vibrations of the triangle, which is a major issue with close microphones and rattle-prone marching frames or music stands.

Let me know if this helps you!  I love these kinds of low-cost innovations, and would love to hear about any you came up with as well!

Technique with Choreography

Years ago, as I finished my Masters degree, I spent a lot of time accompanying dance classes.  At the university dance program where I worked I noticed something in particular. Every day, same teachers, same majors, same feedback, BUT in reverse situations.

Ballet or Cunningham technique class:

“Hold your frame/arms/feet like this and don’t break it.  This isn’t choreography class.  This is technique class.”

Choreography class:

“Break your frame/arms/feet like this and express this more.  This isn’t technique class.  This is choreography class.”

At the end of every semester, classes prepared a performance piece to share at an all-program concert/recital.  Each work was a combination of clean technical and expressive choreographed elements, customized to best tell a story of that class’s work over the semester.  It was fascinating to observe.

Not many years later I encountered “The 6 M’s” by Thomas Burritt, “Make a Musical Motion to Match the Musical Moment” in regards to gesture in percussion performance.

What I learned from the dancers and from Dr. Burritt is so simple:  Technique study teaches you so much about your body, about history, about producing a clean motion, an efficient gesture, a basically good tone or effect.  Choreography, however, tells a story.  It captures the attention and leads the observer.

Choreography is not the opposite of technique, it’s the intentional departure from the technique which enhances the story.  A layer added to the foundation.

Especially in solo and small chamber performance, I’m always challenging myself and my students to execute great tone through their technique.  I’m also challenging them and myself to enhance the music with motion that supports the story.  Adding a layer of meaning doesn’t take away from a layer of execution.  It elevates the whole experience.

Iowa All-State Auditions 2017

Here we go again!

This year’s etudes are quite difficult and will take a lot of work.  I’m including more specific strategies to help with certain passages.

Video performances can be found here or included with each section below.

Snare Drum: Cirone, Portraits in Rhythm #38

This piece is based on the orchestral work, Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov.  I strongly recommend getting a recording and listening to the 3rd movement until you can sing along.  Every phrase is based on either the snare drum part from this piece or the melody somewhere else in the orchestra.  The more you know the original the more natural and convincing your phrasing will be.

Dynamics: There are two written dynamics.  mf and p

  • mf: half-way center-to-edge or slightly closer to the rim
  • p: I play this in two locations on the head, one for the majority of the piece, and a lighter sounding spot slightly closer to the rim for the 32nd note measures.

Roll Speeds: The 32nd notes are an open 7-stroke roll, played as a triplet.  The buzz rolls are all 16th notes, mostly 9-strokes.  I play the 16th note rolls in line 3 as single buzzes, which I normally wouldn’t, but it seems to work really nicely.

Grace Notes: Specifics aside, all grace notes need to be noticeably lower in level than the primary notes they’re attached to.  Because this is an etude and not with an ensemble it’s ok to play up a little bit and make the separation of primary and grace notes very clear.

Scheherazade Stuff: There are a few common solutions to the original orchestra part.

  • Last two 8ths in each measure.  Almost every measure ends with two 8ths, which are phrasing forward to the NEXT BAR.  You can hear me emphasize these notes in the recording.
  • 32nd note roll thing.  Starts a the end of line 2.  This is a triplet roll.  There is a slight phrase to it, crescendo through the roll and fall back down through the last two notes as above.  Practice this without the bounces, just as a triplet, then add the roll back in.
  • Really tight drags.  The phrase in line 6 with 16th notes running into a drag takes some planning.  My preferred sticking is RRLRLR R on the 16ths, which leaves time for my left hand to play the drag before the downbeat.  Whatever spacing you use for the tightest drag, use for every drag.
  • Super soft ruffs.  The last four ruffs in the piece get softer and softer.  When first developing this part, play all four ruffs THE SAME and move each one closer to the rim, letting the drum do the dynamics for you.  When you get more confident, begin lowering the dynamic vertically as well.  Between these two methods you should get an impressive soft range over a few week’s practice.

Marimba: Etude #2 by Stan Dahl

This is substantially more difficult than etudes from previous years, especially in terms of rhythm and note accuracy at the marked tempo.  Start slow and be very deliberate about practicing accurately with a metronome.

Primarily this etude is about STYLE.  Style is:

  1. Timing
  2. Accent
  3. Balance

First section: Freely, with expression

Timing: This is a lyrical melody, meaning it conforms to the voice.  After you know the notes, SING the phrases and let your voice and breath tell you where to flex the rhythm.  Practice by first playing 16th notes through the line as a rhythm.  This teaches you what the exact rhythmic pacing is, with no “unintended flexibility” due to rolling alternations.

Accent: There are no written accents.  The line CAN follow the general rule “notes going up get louder, notes going down get softer” and phrase comfortably, however, so an emphasis on the top notes of each phrase is appropriate.

Balance: When the left hand enters as harmony in m5 it’s important to keep the melody from being covered.  Move the mallet in the left hand close to the ropes on the bars to reduce the resonator response so the melody is clearly heard.  In m7 I pull back from the rope a bit when the left hand has a phrase to bring that voice out.

Second Section: Lively

Timing: Totally straight to the metronome.  Never practice this without a metronome.  This is the most challenging section, full of “gotcha” moments.  Be sure the triplets fill up the space they are in and have a smooth, slurred feeling compared to the surrounding 16ths.

Accent: This is in a Caribbean/Latin style, so the off-16th notes often get emphasis.  Many of the phrases begin on an off-16th to highlight this.  Rolls which are accented can be started with the top note, which will give them a little extra “pop”.

Balance:  The dynamics act as voices, almost like playing a reduction of a band arrangement.  Assign contrasting dynamics as voices, and change not only the volume, but the character of sound, especially in m20-25.

Third Section: Relaxed

Timing: Again, straight to the metronome.  I suggest practicing with a soft 8th or 16th note to ensure clean execution of the syncopations.  Cover the quiet metronome as you play so the clicks are only audible in the spaces between notes.

Accent: No marked accents.  A bit of emphasis can be added on the crunchier chord changes.  m32, m37, and m38 are good places to lean slightly on the dissonances.

Balance:  Every note in every chord is evenly balanced.  No emphasis within a chord.

Miscellaneous notes:  These interpretations are demonstrated in the recording.

  • m18 is weird.  Learn it carefully with a metronome.  Soften the roll release on the first note on beat four.  This sets up the phrase beginning as an off-16th pickup into beat one.
  • Rolls in m17, m19, and m24 can release earlier than marked for clarity.  I release them on an 8th or 16th like a hard release a wind player might use.
  • m27-28 is really hard to navigate.  Begin by LIFTING the mallets away very high to avoid getting tangled up near the bars.  Play it totally flat with no accents until it is up to tempo, then add a slight push with the arm on the first note of each grouping. Do not increase the stroke speed to get the accent.
    • The rising line in m28 is an Ab diminished chord with a “gotcha” A at the top
    • Practice this with funny rhythms.  Swing it, group quick bursts of 2 and 3 notes, anything you can do to twist it and force your hands to adapt.  Simply playing it as written over and over will result in very little progress.

Timpani: Etude #2 by Barry Dvorak

A rhythmically unclear piece.  Making these rhythms read properly requires total precision.  Any single pair of “normal” mallets will work.

Drum sizes: I will get some criticism for this, I’m sure, but I believe in my solution.

  • I use the 29/26/23 timpani for the marked pitches AND
  • I use the 32 timpani on the far right next to the 23 for the bottom line of music.

WHY!? Because the primary role of timpani is GOOD TONE.  ALL decisions are about tone.  I have better tone on the bottom line with my hands open and not crossing, as I suspect is the case with almost anyone.  Since I’m not already using my 32, WHY NOT!?  An audition is not the time to be macho, it’s the time to sound your best.

Rolls:  Some terminate on a note, some don’t.

In lines 1, 2, and the bottom line the rolls do not terminate on a note.  These need to end early with a slight lift and a move to the next note.

In lines 3 and 4 there are rolls with terminating notes.  These don’t need to be accented in any way, but they should be defined for the player in terms of rhythm.

In lines 3 and 4 there are also accented rolls.  These are struck as if NOT rolled, and then lightly rolled on after.  The effect should be of two cleanly placed 16th notes, the second of which sustains after.  Focus on that initial articulation, and don’t let the tone of those notes be affected by the idea that you will be rolling right after.

Sticking:  Mostly straight with a bit of doubling

The opening 16th figure works well as RLLR.  The triplet in m1 works similarly as LRR.  This sets up the surrounding figures to be cleanly executed.  Make sure a light, even tone is present regardless of the sticking chosen.

The second line from the bottom presents a bit of difficulty.  I choose to play double Right hands on the top two drums starting in the 4th measure of 12/8 time.

  • RRL RRL RLRR LRLR R and then alternate after that

Again, the tone must not suffer from sticking choices.  Choose whatever allows you to play with your best tone.

Tambourine: Etude #1 by Aaron Williams

A collection of techniques.  Lots of solutions.  The limited dynamic range of some tambourines makes clarity the big challenge.

Dynamics: There are five dynamic levels in this piece. ff, f, mf, mp, p

  • ff: last note, big hit, knuckles optional
  • f: wrist mostly, the weight of the hand.  All knee/fist (or similar)
  • mf: thumb/finger rolls only.  Comfortable.
  • mp: thumb/finger rolls and light notes in between.  Lighter touch than mf
  • p: Beginning of shake roll.  Lower behind stand/table to block some sound and raise through the crescendo to accentuate the different volume levels.

Techniques: Thumb/Finger roll, Shake roll, knee/fist (or similar)

I won’t go into the details of how to do each technique.  Simple guidelines:

  1. Practice the techniques you use apart from the music
  2. Practice the isolated moments in the music until they are exactly what you want
  3. String the different parts together, maintaining the level of execution

Crash Cymbals: Etude #1 by Aaron Williams


Dynamics: There are five dynamic levels in this piece. ff, f, mf, mp, p

  • ff: only two notes and are both accented
  • f: appears at the end of crescendos both accented and non-accented
    • In context both crashes may end up being very similar in level
  • mf: non-accented only.  Make this the default level.
  • mp: appears in between two loud crashes, this may end up being the same level as p
  • p: begins a crescendo, may end up being the same level as mp
    • The reason p and mp may end up being the same has to do with cymbal quality and because these notes are far enough apart that comparing the two crashes will be nearly impossible on a single hearing.
  1. Practice 5 dynamics of non-accented crashes, using mostly the top hand only.
    • Sets up a base level for dynamics in the piece
    • Develops physical control of the cymbals
    • Improves listening to the tone at each dynamic level.
  2. Add the bottom hand to the f and ff level for accents.
    • Resonates differently than “top hand only” notes
    • Sounds and looks like accents, not new dynamics
  3. Practice isolated moments like with tambourine, cleaning and listening for tone.
  4. Connect each moment together, maintaining the level of execution.

Dampening: It’s not 100% clear, and not 100% advisable to dampen everything.

  • I recommend dampening the downbeats of m6, and m8 to set up the softer crashes that follow.  Dampening the downbeat of m4 is also possible, but not necessary unless the p crash is covered up by the ringing from the previous bars

Thanks for reading!  Best of luck on your preparations!

DIY Timpani Gauges 2.0

For years I’ve been making DIY gauges on different sets of timpani.  I usually do it for drums provided to me at gigs where I need to tune quickly, quietly, and on drums in less-than-ideal condition.  Frequently I make sure the gauges are there so I can quickly eyeball pitches and keep my focus on intonation with the ensemble, which is especially difficult on old heads and Standard Collar drums.

Until just recently my gauges looked like this:  mostly made up of different kinds of tape and fishing line.


These are certainly operational, but not a good long-term solution, and they run the risk of buzzing on the head at a time when you may not have a moment to fix it (like in a concert, bad)

My new version of gauges cost $25 to make with a few things from the hardware store, and are a dramatic improvement.  Obviously, this is for drums I have myself, I wouldn’t do this on a gig.


I used 1×2″ boards, in my case, poplar wood, and bolted them to the struts with a 3/8″ metal cutting drill bit and steel bolts. Getting the top level was easy, I used a block to raise the head level, then a bubble level on the board to get the cut angles.  I had to do it with a hand saw to get it just right.  Good news, when you cut one, the opposite piece is a mirror image, so it’s only one cut per drum.


Top plates were a bit more work.  I used an old set of heads to trace the rim then added a bit and cut the arcs out with a band saw.  That could be done by hand with a coping saw, scroll saw or jig saw if you had to.  I measured a good place for the string to go, put in 3/16″ holes and dropped 5/32″ grommets in them to protect the wood and get smooth motion on the string.  I mounted the top plate with wood glue and a single 1/8″ screw on each side.


I tried a few materials for the string but so far found that 30-40lb fishing line is still the best.  A piece of masking tape on the wood to write pitches and a darker piece on the string to show pedal position completes the plate.  I use 5oz fishing weights to keep tension on the line and tie to the weights and pedal with a double loop through and 4-5 half-hitches.  I ask about putting holes in people’s pedals but almost always do since it’s better than trying to tape or clamp.  1/4″ metal cutting bit goes through like butter.


I’ll be using the new gauges in an upcoming production of Young Frankenstein and I can’t wait to see how they work out!  Please share any ideas you have about how to improve this system or modify other types of drums.  I’d love to link to your pages and posts as well!

Iowa All-State Auditions 2016

It’s that time of year again!  All-State audition materials are posted and I have a series of videos and brief thoughts on preparing the materials this year.

Video performances of all the material can be found here.

Snare Drum: Cirone, Portraits in Rhythm #39

This solo is all about meters and roll subdivisions.  Many of the sections look far more complex than they truly are, and present an intellectual challenge more than a technical one.

Dynamics:  There are four dynamic levels in the piece. ff, f, mf, pp.

  • ff: a clearly larger resonance than f
  • f: comfortable, a little lower than I use in other etudes
  • mf: 3/4 of the way to the edge, lower than I use in other etudes
  • pp: about 1 inch off the edge.  Not the softest I can play, clear snare response.

Roll Speeds:  Triplet subdivision on each 8th note, 32nd note subdivision on single 16th notes.  Dotted 8th notes are a combination of these: Two 32nd notes followed by a triplet.  I practiced all rolls without buzzing first, so I could be completely certain of my timing, then added the buzz strokes in after.  In lines 6 and 7 the dotted roll rhythms took some work, and I ended up “flexing” the subdivisions a bit to keep the sound smooth.

Meter changes:  Generally the meter changes in lines 3, 6, 9, and 11 are more visually confusing than anything else.

  • Line 3: write in the sticking of each accent and ignore the bar lines.
  • Line 6: The 3/8 and 3/16 bars are a triplet rhythm repeated three times.  Use a sticking like (L RL R) and repeat three times to get through it with consistent time.
  • Line 9: Write out the sticking of the this whole line and ignore the bar lines unless they help you.  I personally stick the first measure (R RL R L) and then proceed alternating RLRL the rest of the way.
  • Line 11: Show the audience/judge the pulse by bobbing a bit on counts 1 and 3 of each bar.  |1 … 3… |1… |1… 3…|1.  This helped me maintain my consistent time and leaves no doubt about where YOU know the beat is.


Marimba: Etude #1 by Stan Dahl

This piece looks very complex but a bit of analysis will reveal a few harmonic tricks that make the solo fairly easy to conceptualize and memorize.

Dynamics:  There are four dynamic levels in the piece. ff, f, mf, p.

  • ff is only the last note and has an accent.  I hit both notes together and roll comfortably for the duration, more like a wind player might sustain a long accent.
  • f is mostly in the beginning and has accents.
  • mf is the top of a lyrical line and begins the final passage with accents
  • p is the starting dynamic for several falling runs and the base level for the lyrical section.  I set it at a “lowest fully resonant” level where I can hear the resonators responding to the bars.  It’s possible to play below this level and I make sure not to in this case.

Opening Section (m1-19):

  • m1-2, 5-6 are diminished triads.  I use 2 mallets and stick them LRRLRRLR
    • I learn the note patterns at mf with no accents for a smooth sound
    • then bump the level up to f with no accents for smooth sound
    • THEN I add an arm push on each accent and focus on that smooth sound after
  • m3 is a series of whole-tone runs.  Right hand starts each grouping.
    • Get the starting notes first, all right hand F/E/Eb/D
    • “Puzzle-Solve” without staying in time to accurately find all the notes
    • Play each grouping from the 5/16 bar back to the beginning at quarter = 110
  • m7-12 is the same speed 16ths, but in triple meter.
    • I use the same LRR sticking concept from before, but now there are no accents
    • m9-10 have a “pull” motion down from Eb to F
  • m13-19 long Eb Major line rocking down from G/Eb to F/D
    • Play an Eb major scale all Left Hand from Eb down two octaves to D
    • Do the same thing all Right Hand from G to F
    • “Puzzle solve” without staying in time, notes as written
    • Set metronome to 440 for the 16th note speed.  Count each grouping of three notes as you play to get the timing of the last 3 notes.
    • Final roll is only three 16ths long.  Fermata is on the REST, not the ROLL.

Lyrical Section (m20-27):

  • Switch to 4-mallets.  Any grip will do.  Something soft, as noted.
  • Learn the whole section at the marked tempo of quarter = 75
    1. Play all rolls as 16th note block chords, all 4 notes at once
      • Focus on tone, phrasing and timing as if it was the final product
      • Lowest p level comes up and falls away from mp and mf smoothly
    2. Play all rolls as alternating 32nd notes, left hand first
    3. THEN relax the hands and alternate the rolls freely, maintaining the pacing with the metronome
  • m23 play the rolls with the lowest three mallets

Final Section (m28-29):

  • Switch back to 2-mallets
  • The notes are an F13#11 chord… thats just every other note from F to D.  No flats.
    • The starting pitch of each set is F,A,C,E
  • I learn the notes all at mf, no accents
  • then add the crescendo, still no accents
  • THEN add an arm push for the accents as before, listening for the smooth crescendo
  • The final note is a heavy accent, with a relaxed roll after.  Check the tempo, it’s short.


Timpani: Etude #6 by Barry Dvorak

A typical assortment of cross-sticking and rhythm changes, but with the added challenge of producing a clear tone with brushes and wood mallets.

Drum Sizes: I recommend the top three drum sizes, 29″, 26″ 23″.  This is will put the pitches in the low range where they will be more resonant with the brushes and wood.

Tuning: Starts F C E, goes to G C G.

  • Set C first.
  • Sing that C into the low drum and pedal from the bottom, the 5th harmonic will sing back at you and then it’s mostly in tune.
  • Sing the C again and use a song like “3 Blind Mice” to get the high drum
    • C is “mice”, E is “Three” in the song.
    • A Major 3rd needs to be 14 cents flat to be truly in tune.  Be very careful not to set it too high.
  • For the second set of pitches keep the C and sing a G into it.  That 5th harmonic will sing back when it’s exactly right.
  • Keep singing that note and move to the top drum, then the bottom.

I strongly suggest marking gauges with these pitches.  They are not allowed for the audition but you can use the markings to memorize pedal positions as you practice.  Go back and forth and double check the tuning over and over until you can quickly hit the changes without needing any extra reference pitches.  At most tap with your fingers to confirm the pitches as if you were trying to stay silent in a performance.

Brushes: I recommend a “Steve Gadd” type of brush, with the last 1.5 inch bent slightly.  This can be bought from Vic Firth or made from straight metal brushes by pinching the ends with a needle nose pliers and pressing them gently on a table.

Wood Mallets: I recommend the smallest mallet heads possible.  I recorded with very small headed mallets from Tom Freer, but the Haas wood mallets from Promark would be a good option as well.

First Half – Brushes:

  • Dynamic is mp.  The brushes will basically take care of the dynamic, as they will not be very loud.  There are no phrase indications, so to add line and direction a good option is to give the subdivisions differing weight and character.
    • 8th notes and larger are the heaviest
    • Triplets are lighter and flow more smoothly
    • 16ths are lighter still and have a choppy feel
    • 32nds are the lightest and are basically grace notes
  • Stickings are all over the place.  Check the video for specific solutions, don’t hesitate to use crosses or doubles anywhere as long as the tone is consistent.
  • I recommend dampening the last measure as follows:
    • Dampen the top drum as you play the last note /w Right Hand
    • Dampen the bottom drum right away after /w Left Hand
    • Dampen the middle drum on the 8th rest as indicated /w Right Hand

Second Half – Wood Mallets:

  • Dynamic is f.  Wood mallets will again take care of the dynamic, just play light and consistent.  Same phrasing ideas as in the first half.
  • Stickings are still all over.  I start this LR LRLR, with beat two as a cross over.  The rest is pretty negotiable, many ways to do it as long as the tone is steady.
  • I recommend dampening the last measure exactly as before.


Tambourine: Etude by Aaron Williams

A collection of techniques.  Lots of solutions.  The limited dynamic range of some tambourines makes clarity the big challenge.

Dynamics: There are three dynamic levels in this piece. ff, f, pp

  • ff: arm weight added
  • f: wrist mostly, the weight of the hand
  • pp: play with fingers, dampening the head with the heel of the hand or on the knee

Techniques: Finger roll, Shake roll, knee/fist (or similar), knuckle (marcato accent)

I won’t go into the details of how to do each technique.  Simple guidelines:

  1. Practice the techniques you use apart from the music
  2. Practice the isolated moments in the music until they are exactly what you want
  3. String the different parts together, maintaining the level of execution


Crash Cymbals: Etude #2 by Aaron Williams

Dynamics and rest interpretation.  Hardcore stuff.  Lots of preparation needed before learning the actual notes.


Dynamics: There are five dynamic levels in this piece. ff, f, mf, mp, p

  • ff is only one note and is accented
  • f appears throughout and is both accented an non-accented
  • mf appears throughout and is both accented and non-accented
  • mp is the last note and begins a crescendo
  • p begins a crescendo
  1. Practice 5 dynamics of non-accented crashes, using mostly the top hand only.
    • Sets up a base level for dynamics in the piece
    • Develops physical control of the cymbals
    • Improves listening to the tone at each dynamic level.
  2. Add the bottom hand to the f and mf levels for accents.
    • Resonates differently than “top hand only” notes
    • Sounds and looks like accents, not new dynamics
  3. Practice isolated moments like with tambourine, cleaning and listening for tone.
  4. Connect each moment together, maintaining the level of execution.

Dampening: It’s not 100% clear, and not 100% advisable to dampen everything.

  • I recommend dampening everything on the rests with the following exception.
  • m6 dampen the first rest from f and then do NOT dampen on the crescendo.

Having a clean, clear sound is a huge challenge with cymbals.  This etude is a great way to develop that.

The audition seems large, but if taken methodically, can be completed long before the auditions.  I’m always available to answer questions, so leave comments and questions and I’ll do my best to help!

Thanks for reading!  Good Luck!



Flams and Spacing and Taps, Oh My!

Recently I’ve been amusing myself by playing “Concert” style flam spacing with “Marching” style parts…. but I’ve been doing it with the grace notes on the beat like in a one-hand exercise.  The result is a displaced accent similar to the “grandma” rudiment, but utilizing the same mechanical motions as in regular flam rudiments. Teasing all of that apart has been very entertaining.

Flam Grace ex1

I figured out a while ago that “Flam Triplets” have three consecutive taps and “Flam-Paradiddles” have four.  I extended that out all the way to eight consecutive taps, and now I have a series of interpreted rudiment combinations to develop my taps and challenge my timing and placement.

Flam Grace ex2

Here is a list of combinations based on Flams, Flam Drags, Cheeses, and Flam-5s.

Flam Grace Note Timing and Tap Control

I wrote out the Flam-5 spacing as 5-tuplets, but it could be played as the Cheese Triplet followed by a two 16ths double as well.

Happy drumming!