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How To: Tambourine Thumb Rolls
By Tony Oliver
10/15/2013 11:04:00 AM

Here is a VERY detailed method of how to get a thumb (finger) roll going on the tambourine. It has worked for many!

 The idea is to create a friction (pressure) between the thumb (or other finger) and the tambourine head so that as you slide/rub your thumb across it keeps the thumb from sliding smoothly, but does not quite stop it. When you find this balance between too much and too little pressure, the thumb will bounce (shudder might be a better word--have you ever worked the clutch on a manual transmission car?) across the head causing the jingles to vibrate. I often find that it is easier to experiment with finding this bounce/shudder pressure away from the tambourine.

Directions follow: Read through these directions once or twice before trying. Find a smooth surface--table or counter top, piece of glass (desk, table top, etc.), wood furniture with a smooth finish, etc, that you can stand at and rest your hand relaxed on. Rest your hand, palm down, flat on the surface. While keeping your hand relaxed and flat on the table (or whatever surface you are using) raise your palm so that only your fingertips and thumbtip are touching the table. It will look like a little spider--but it isn’t a spider, so don’t be afraid. Lift off your fingers leaving only your thumb on the surface.With your thumb on the table (and in the same spot--you aren’t doing anything yet!) move the hand so that --if you aren’t already--you are resting on the pad of the thumb (not the side or the knuckle part) with more of the contact toward (BUT NOT AT) the thumbtip (it’s not unlike giving a thumb print). Your fingers should still be extended in a relaxed fashion--they are possibly to the right a bit (if right handed) in order to keep your thumb pad flat. No more tension than that, though.

Okay, you should now have your thumb pointing directly to the left and supporting the hand/arm (thumb points to the right if you are doing this with your left hand). Try to keep your hand relaxed. Try not to contort your fingers past where they are now. Keep them in the air, but relaxed.

NOW THE GOOD PART-- slide your thumb with VERY LITTLE--ALMOST NO pressure in the direction it is pointing (keep on the pad--not the side!). Keep your thumb somewhat stable as you slide, but don’t tense up the hand or thumb at all. As you slide the thumb, it will ‘grab’ and bounce, shudder, or vibrate. It might even be hard for it not to. That’s what you are after (even if it does it just a little bit). If it just slides with no bounce, apply increasing pressure in the smallest amounts possible until it does. If you apply too much pressure your thumb won’t move. Or worse, it will just slide along giving you a friction burn. Chances are, if you are pressing that hard, you have stresses in your life other than your thumb roll.

Once you get your thumb shuddering/vibrating, experiment with different pressures and speeds to change how it vibrates. Even try different non-tambourine surfaces! Sometimes lifting the fingers higher (this sometimes changes the pressure a bit) produces different results. When you get comfortable, also try lifting your thumb and then setting (or even dropping) the thumb down at the same time you start sliding. Sometimes it’s necessary (on tambourines, especially) to make the thumb more tacky or grab-y to increase the odds of immediate shudder effect. To do this, simply breathe on the thumb when it is close to, or in your mouth. I don’t lick my thumb because it makes the tambourine slimy. And, too much moisture can lubricate your thumb making it slide and not become more tacky. A LITTLE moisture is all you need. Once you’ve figured out all of this bouncing and shuddering it’s time to go to the tambourine. Go to the tambourine. Hold it in proper tambourine fashion (that’s another question-- but basically held in the left--or right--hand with the head at a 30-45 degree angle. The holding arm should be relaxed. It doesn’t do much in this instance.) Try out your bouncing/shuddering with the non-holding thumb by sliding/rubbing it along the edge of the tambourine head on the opposite side of the holding hand. (Note: Right over the shell--the wooden or plastic hoop that the head is on--or close to it works best.) If there isn’t enough grab to make the thumb bounce, try breathing on the thumb--and/or, try a little(!) beeswax rubbed on the tambourine head to make it more tacky. Experiment with different pressures and speeds to get the desired roll sound. Remember, the holding hand is just holding the tambourine (the flat surface) so you can rub your thumb. For now, hold the tambourine firm enough to keep it from moving, but concentrate on changing the pressure with your non-tambourine-holding thumb/hand.

 Remember, tambourine rolls usually have a start and a finish strike to define the note lengths. On a thumbroll, the start can be just dropping the thumb on as you start the roll or just starting the tambourine vibrating by starting the thumb moving (often good enough, unlike shake rolls). To finish, bring the thumb to an abrupt stop, or bring part of the hand (heel, side, etc.) down on the tambourine as you stop the roll. Okay, a lot of words for something that is easy once you get it (imagine writing out specific written directions on how to ride a bike!). Take your time -- patience and practice – You’ll Get It!!

Tony Oliver is the principal percussionist for the Lake Placid Sinfonietta and a member of the Quad City Symphony Orchestra. He is also a founding member of the New York City based contemporary-music ensemble The Society for Chromatic Art. A number of varied freelance engagements in the Midwest, New Jersey and New York areas round out his performance schedule. He has performed on the premiere of works by composers Allan Blank, William Bolcom, Libby Larsen, and James Romig. In addition to performing, Tony commits himself to education and enjoys giving interactive lectures, clinics, and demonstrations to students and educators of all ages and ability levels. Tony has been particularly involved with the New Horizons Band Program, which is an instrumental music program designed for older adults. In conjunction with this program, he has given lectures and clinics throughout the United States and in Sydney, Australia. He is proprietor of Curving Walkway Publications (ASCAP), a publisher of music. He received his B.M., M.A., and teacher’s certification from the University of Iowa, where he studied with Thomas L. Davis, and his D.M.A. from the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University, where he studied with She-e Wu.


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