How to Play the Cymbals: The Basics

This article and its accompanying video is the first of a series of cymbal lessons at Free Percussion Lessons that look at playing crash cymbals and using the teachings and lessons of Frank Epstein, Boston Symphony Orchestra Cymbalist (retired).

Mr Epstein played with the Boston Symphony for 40 years and during that time he developed a mastery of playing the cymbals and published his treatise on the subject with his amazing book entitled “Cymbalisms”. This book is a must for every serious percussionist and can be purchased directly from Frank Epstein’s online store.

Playing the Cymbals

Crash cymbals are an extraordinary instrument to play in any orchestra or band and playing them properly involves learning and practicing the right technique. This is the first lesson in a series dedicated to practicing techniques to achieve the best cymbal crash possible.

Body Position and Stance

Playing crash cymbals is a physical activity and as such it’s important that you stand properly and hold the cymbals correctly for the best result.

Stand with your feet shoulder width apart and with one foot in front of the other so that your weight is evenly distributed over each foot. You want to be stable and it’s important that your knees are slightly bents so that you have some freedom to move.

How to Hold the Cymbals

Cymbals make sound because they vibrate, so when you hold the cymbal by the strap it’s crucial that you don’t choke the sound of the cymbal by holding too close to the bell or dome. Grasp the strap between your thumb and first finger about 1 inch back from the cymbal so that the cymbal can move freely.

The Basic Cymbal Stroke

For cymbal crashes up to the dynamic of forte the left cymbal remains vertical and stationary with the right cymbal making all of the motion. The right cymbal travels downwards and circles back up to the start of the playing position in an elliptical manner.

Watch this video introducing the proper body position for playing, how to hold the cymbals and how to perform a basic cymbal stroke.

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  1. sol rivera says:

    how about the technique in which you stab the steady cymbal with the other cymbal? how do you avoid moving the steady hand? and avoid to accidentally close them when crashing ?

    • Sol,
      Thanks for your question. If I understand what you are asking it is probably a question of practicing the technique a bit to develop the control of the cymbals that you will need.Trust me, I’ve accidentally closed them too soon before and have pinched myself doing so. Just work at the technique and before too long and hopefully before too many accidents you’ll have control over the instruments.

  2. I play crash symbols in a marching band and my instructor said I was no playing correctly she showed me how to do it but I don’t think its correct because I went to a summer band camp and the instructor taught me anouther way and im just really confused is there a specific was to crash in a marching band

    • The important thing to remember here is that there are several good ways to play cymbals. On I demonstrate a great way to play, but it is not the only way. Not that my cymbal technique wouldn’t work for marching band, but my techniques are geared more towards orchestral and concert band playing. In marching band one usually holds the cymbals by placing your wrists through the straps which is something I never do in a concert setting.
      It’s easy to get confused when your teachers seem to contradict what the other is saying to you, but if you keep an open mind and try to adapt to what you are being asked to do you’ll figure it out along the way. Eventually you’ll find your own way to play everything which will be a compilation of all of your teachers inputs.

  3. Muhu Elvi says:

    so what are the basics for playing cymbals in a marching band?

    • Thanks for your cymbal question.
      The basics for cymbal playing are the same for marching and orchestral, but for marching there is more involved from a movement perspective so that changes things slightly. Where I grip the the cymbal strap on the outside of the strap it is common for a marching cymbalist to put his hand through the strap loop for more control especially when playing some marching cymbal techniques that you don’t find in orchestral or concert band playing.

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