Guide to Auxiliary Percussion: Common and Uncommon PercussionInstruments in Band and Orchestra

For the young band or orchestra director, the number of percussion instruments sometimes found in a single score of music can be daunting. No teacher wants to be caught on the podium unable to answer the question “what is a vibraslap?”. Below are a few of the more common percussion “toys” found in middle and high school band and orchestra arrangements, along with a few tips on playing techniques.

Bell Tree

A bell tree is made of of graduated metal cups mounted on a rod, with the largest cup on top and moving down to the smallest. The part will typically call for a glissando, which can be played by scraping a hard mallet or triangle beater down the cups.

Agogo Bells

Agogo bells consist of two conical shaped metal bells attached to either end of a curved rod. One bell is significantly higher in pitch than the other. If the ensemble does not have agogo bells, two different pitched cowbells may be used in a pinch.

Depending on the arrangement and desired sound, agogo bells can be played with sticks or triangle beaters.

Flexatone

The flexatone is a thin sheet of metal attached to a handle. On either side of the sheet are two more sheets, thinner and each with a rubber ball on the end.

The player holds the instrument by the handle and shakes. The balls striking either side of the metal sheet create a ghost-like sound often used to add paranormal-type special effects.

Vibraslap

The vibraslap is a thick metal rod with a block of wood filled with metal “teeth” on on end, and a wooden ball on the other. The rod is bent to create a handle, placing the ball in front of the block.

To play, the percussionist grips the vibraslap by the metal rod handle and strikes the ball with his/her palm. The impact causes the teeth to vibrate, generating a rattling sound.

Brake Drum

This instrument is exactly what it sounds like: a brake drum from a car wheel. The brake drum can be played with sticks or a triangle beater. If the ensemble does not have access to one, a cowbell can be used in a pinch, or the director can visit the local auto shop and pick one up!

Cabasa

A cabasa is a metal cylinder mounted on a handle, covered with rings of metal beads. To play, the percussionist can shake or twist the cabasa against the palm, creating a rattling, scratchy sound.

Congas and Bongos

While these are very common instruments and not usually considered auxiliary, it is normal for non-percussionists to confuse the two. Bongos consist of two small, mounted drums of two different pitches. A conga is long, with a conical barrel, and produces a much deeper tone. 

Both congas and bongos can be played with sticks or the hands, depending on the desired sound. While they are both of Cuban origin, they are by no means the same instrument.

Shekere

Pronounced “shay-keh-ray”, this instrument may be referred to in the score as “chekeré” or “xequerê.” The shekere is a plastic or wooden gourd covered with a net weaved with beads.

To play, the percussionist holds the narrow end of the gourd in one hand and rests the bottom in the other hand. Tossing the gourd back and forth causes the beads to slide against the wood or plastic, creating a much deeper rattle than a shaker or cabasa.

Güiro

A güiro is a wooden or plastic “fish-shaped” gourd with thick ridges carved onto on side and two holes for gripping on the other. The player scrapes the ridges with a stick or triangle beater with one hand while holding in the other.

Crotales

Crotales, also referred to as “antique cymbals”, are round metal disks tuned in a chromatic scale, and mounted in a similar fashion to bells (glockenspiel), xylophone, and marimba. While not technically considered auxiliary percussion, it is important to understand their function. 

Players should use hard mallets with plastic or brass heads. Occasionally a bow may be used for special effect. If the ensemble does not have access to crotales, bells are usually an adequate substitute.

Substituting Instruments

Too often, auxiliary percussion parts are omitted. These little additions add a tremendous amount of color to the performance. In addition, disregarding auxiliary percussion parts sends the message to students that those parts are not important.

If the ensemble does not own these instruments, the director should consult a percussion instructor for recommendations on the most appropriate substitute.

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