Beat it

14th November 1997 at 00:00
Crash, bang, wallop. Every child should experience the joy of making music by hitting something with a stick. Gerald Haigh looks at what's on offer from the world of percussion

Conjure the mighty sound of an orchestra, boosted by elaborate electronics - a synthesiser or a digital organ perhaps. Then imagine the music fading gradually away, so that you are left only with the sound of a skilled hand striking a simple drum. Just the thought of it causes goose-bumps, for this most basic and ancient act of extracting sound from an object by direct blows of hand or stick can still transmit enormous emotional energy.

This means that although teachers cannot ignore the possibilities opened up by computers and electronic keyboards, they have to give children lots of opportunities to make sounds in much more direct and intelligible ways. A child who, for example, works creatively with a xylophone and a beater understands that a harder blow creates a louder sound; that the timbre of the sound is related to the way the instrument - and the beater - is made, and that the pitch of the sound is related to the size of the sound bars.

This network of relationships between body, mind, instrument and sound is fundamental, and every child should be given the time to explore and understand it. Furthermore, they should return to it time and again, no matter how sophisticated their work at secondary level becomes.

For the classroom, there are two sorts of percussion: tuned percussion, which plays identifiable notes, and untuned percussion, which plays percussive sounds. A drum is the most obvious example of the latter. Both are important, and should be included in any set of classroom percussion instruments.

Good classroom percussion instruments are not toys, and they are not cheap - producing them is a skilled, labour-intensive business. Buying, therefore, calls for knowledge and judgment. These suggestions should help, but individual school requirements will obviously vary.


uMany buyers are confused about the differences between the various instruments. The basic ones are: * Xylophone

A true xylophone has wooden notebars. A modern classroom instrument uses a composition substitute that looks and sounds like wood. Depending which beaters you use it can sound either mellow and "boxy" or bright and rattly.

* Metallophone

This is almost identical to a xylophone, but with solid aluminium notebars. Makes a beautiful mellow sound, played with soft beaters.

* Glockenspiel

Again, this is similar to a xylophone, but with bright chrome notebars. Played with hard beaters, the sound is brighter than that of a metallophone.


All three of these instruments come in different sizes; the bigger, the lower the pitch. There are bass, alto and soprano xylophones and metallophones, but only alto and soprano glockenspiels. Children love the sound and feel of the big bass instruments, and it is worth trying to raise the cash to buy one.


Bass diatonic xylophone Pounds 412.95, alto Pounds 210.95, soprano Pounds 179.95; chromatic halves respectively Pounds 269.95, Pounds 132.95. Pounds 112.95.

Bass diatonic metallophone Pounds 434.95, alto Pounds 216.95, soprano Pounds 167.95; alto Pounds 149.95, soprano Pounds 106.95; chromatic halves Pounds 279.95.

Alto diatonic glockenspiel Pounds 67.95, soprano Pounds 45.95; chromatic halves respectively Pounds 52.95, Pounds 38.95. (A full chromatic glockenspiel costs Pounds 75.95, which is cheaper than buying the two parts separately. ) OTHER TUNED PERCUSSION INSTRUMENTS

* Chime bar This is a single metal notebar mounted on a wooden sounding block, which can be used individually or in a group, in which latter case the collection of chime bars effectively becomes a tuned percussion instrument. It is easy to play and calls for good control of a small beater.

* Hand chime This is a chime bar with a built-in swinging beater. You move the hand chime just as you would a handbell. A group of handchime players looks and sounds beautiful - like a troupe of handbell ringers, except that the instruments are much cheaper than handbells. The chimes are large and easy to grip, which makes them very suitable for pupils who have problems with fine motor skills. The group can be made up of players of widely differing abilities.


There are more than a dozen kinds of beater for tuned percussion, including large, small, soft, hard, rubber, wood, wound wool. Using the wrong beater can damage an instrument and will certainly produce an unsatisfactory sound. Teachers should always ensure that there are enough beaters, so that children are never tempted to improvise with wrong ones or with rulers and the like.


Diatonic set of eight chime bars Pounds 39.95; chromatic set of 25 chime bars Pounds 115.95; individual bars Pounds 4.50; basic set of 15 handchimes Pounds 339.95; fully chromatic three-octave set of 37 handchimes Pounds 889.95; beaters vary from Pounds 3.75 for a pack of three pairs of glockenspiel beaters to Pounds 10.50 for one pair of soft wool headed beaters for the bass metallophone and xylophone.


This includes any number of scrapers, shakers, jinglers and clackers. Here are just some of them: * Washboard On TV recently, a skiffle revival group was bemoaning a shortage of washboards. A tailor-made version has a bell and a woodblock mounted on it, and comes complete with thimbles and carrying strap. A little tuition would help.

* Tambourine

This is easy to play, but the sound improves with practice. Lots of different ones available. Easy to grip.

* Slit drums

These are lovely all-wood drums, cut so that striking in different places produces different, satisfyingly resonant notes. No special tuition is needed, but skill and practice are called for.

* Wooden double agogo

Hit this with a beater and it produces "clopping" sounds on two different notes. It has grooves so that you can make scraping sounds on it too. Has endless uses in classroom music. Minimal skill and practice required, but calls for fairly fine movements.

* Shekere

This is a a big, natural gourd encased loosely in a net strung with beads. It makes a lovely swishy, shaking noise. Easy to play, relatively easy to grip and hold.

* Chatterbox

This consists of a length of bent spring steel with a wooden ball at one end and a little wooden soundbox filled with loose steel "teeth" at the other. Hit the ball with the palm of the hand and the "teeth" rattle for a surprisingly long time. Easy to play, but needs a good grip and a strong slapping arm. It is hugely popular; children compete to get their hands on it.

* Raintube A long, drawn-out sound can be obtained from this 100cm tube with small beads inside. These take ages to fall from one end to the other, making a rainshower sound as they go.

* Latin percussion Maracas - wooden shakers with handles - and guiros - hollow fish shapes that you scrape - are made of light, cane-like wood, painted with tropical scenes and varnished. Easy to play, but good motor control helps.

* Indian drums Tablas, dholaks and naals are beautiful instruments. The small tablas, made of goatskin and wood with thong tensioning, are a joy to handle, as well as being excellent value. Special tuition needed.

* Irish drum (bodhran) This is traditionally held in one hand and played with a double-headed stick in the other. Properly played - and it requires considerable skill - it makes a very exciting quick and thunderous sound. Special tuition needed.


Washboard Pounds 51; 15cm tambourine Pounds 14.95; slit drums from Pounds 57.50; agogo Pounds 4.95; shekere Pounds 31.95; chatterbox Pounds 22.50; raintube Pounds 61.95; maracas and guiros in various sizes from Pounds 9,95; Small tabla Pounds 23.95 a pair; bodhran from Pounds 41.95

All these examples, and prices, are from the current NES Arnold catalogue. Special help was provided by Percussion Plus, which is a separate firm within the NES Arnold organisation. Most of the percussion instruments are made by Percussion Plus; imported instruments are checked by them.

For advice about buying and playing percussion instruments, contact Percussion Plus at The Mill, Great Bowden Road, Market Harborough LE16 7DE.

Helpline: 01858 433124. NES Arnold, Ludlow Hill Road, West Bridgford, Nottigham NG2 6HD. Tel: 0115 971 7700


NES Arnold's Small Hands kit for young children contains about 20 shakers, bells, whistles blocks and beaters for Pounds 99.95.

The Sounds Wooden kit has a tulip block, an octachime, claves, guiro, twotone block, and appropriate beaters for Pounds 42.

The Classroom Percussion Pack contains hand-held percussion instruments for 30 pupils, plus video for Pounds 148.95.

The Children's Orchestra has eight different untuned percussion instruments to shake, tap or scrape. These are made from beech wood and packed into a wooden carrying case. There are smooth, easy to grip handles, and the whole thing is well suited to younger primary pupils or for children with special needs. Pounds 99.95.


With care, good percussion instruments will last for years. However, they do need to be checked regularly, and someone has to be in charge of re-ordering and fitting the small parts that wear out or get lost.

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