Photo by Scott Pickering

Friday, November 25, 2022

Tweak. Adjust. Edit. Manipulate

Tweak. Adjust. Edit. Manipulate.

by Mark Shelton

Although you are playing the exact rhythms and pitches, a percussion part might need some fine-tuning before it conforms properly. Whether a part comes from a carefully notated score or a rhythm pattern sung by the director, it is your responsibility to endeavor to weave assigned parts correctly into the entire musical fabric.

Correct Instrument 

Tambourine, tamborim, tambour, tam-tam. Although the spellings are similar, each of those ‘tam’ words refers to a different percussion instrument. Your seemingly out-of-place part might not be fitting because you have chosen the wrong instrument. Percussion names can be confusing. For example: timbales is the French term for timpani, while timbales also refers to the single-headed, shallow-shell drums commonly played in salsa music. A quick search of the web or consulting a dictionary of percussion terms will steer you to the appropriate instrument.

Proper Tone 

German silver or beryllium copper jingles? Wooden shell or metal? Wire brushes or nylon? Percussionists are blessed with the ability to change tones to better fit our sound into a musical passage. It can be as easy as striking a snare drum in a different area of the head or using a harder timpani mallet to produce the appropriate timbre. Allow your ear and musical instincts to guide you as you search for that 'just right' tone color. I will often 'audition' different timbres during a rehearsal to determine which one works best for a particular musical moment.

Ideal Dynamic

Finding the appropriate volume level so that your part fits into the overall balance of instruments requires a critical ear along with dynamic control of your instrument. Listen to the total sound of the ensemble and imagine the ideal volume for your part BEFORE you enter. Try to play at that level and evaluate if your dynamic is blending correctly into the mix.  

Accurate Note Lengths

Notated percussion parts are sometimes written with imprecise note lengths. If your part was conceived to double rhythmically with another instrument, the parts might not be matching due to inaccurate notation. This problem is most obvious with percussion instruments that are capable of long sustain such as concert bass drum, crash cymbals, timpani, and triangle.

If you suspect this problem, you can either figure out the proper note lengths by listening or by taking a look at the correctly notated score.

Octave Placement

A number of the definite-pitched percussion instruments transpose to a different octave than what is notated. This practice is done to avoid excessive use of ledger lines. Timpani sound an octave lower than written, while the xylophone soars an octave higher than notated, and the glockenspiel rings two octaves above the written notes. It is possible for a composer or arranger to unknowingly score these instruments in the wrong octave. Experiment with adjusting octaves to place a part in a characteristic register.


A big dose of elevator-shaft reverb on a single woodblock shot can be super tasty, but the same instrument without the effect can sound awkward in the same musical passage. Acoustic sounds can be transformed significantly with audio signal processing. Without the proper effect, an acoustic instrument might seem out-of-place. If your 'dry' acoustic instrument tone isn't making it in the mix, consider playing an appropriate digital sample.

The Last Resort

On rare occasions, you will encounter percussion parts that seemed like a good concept in the head of the writer or producer, but the idea just doesn’t work when played in context. Such a part will defy your best efforts to make fit. Consider rewriting or deleting.  

Whether you are assigned a lead line or a simple background rhythm, use your critical listening skills to evaluate your part and apply the treatments that will best serve the music.  

(c) 2020  Mark Shelton Productions / Percussion For Worship

This article previously appeared in Worship Musician magazine

Monday, July 25, 2022

Get Creative!

 Get Creative!

by Mark Shelton

The Creator of the universe placed creativity within mankind and God expects us to use this amazing gift. Are you exercising your creative musical skills? Do you have a growth plan? The following music creation projects are designed to challenge and sharpen your improvisation and composition prowess.


If you are new to creating personal music, you might wonder how to get the initial material that you can develop further. One method is to simply improvise. If you've allowed yourself to make up music in the moment, you are an improviser. 

Take the freedom and fun of improvisation into your practice session. Experiment with different time signatures, make up melodies built on exotic scales, create a polyrhythmic pattern, play outside of metric restrictions, or you can improvise within your comfort zone. Just get your autoschediasm going!

Pay attention to your noodling and when one of your spontaneous snippets of sound strikes you favorably, STOP!  Try to recreate it immediately. When the musical tidbit can be played to your liking, capture the brilliant fragment by notation or on an audio recording. As you continue to collect musical gems from your improvisations, you will accumulate a lick library with material for potential development.

Now that you're generating original musical ideas, it's time to move further with these next creative exercises.

Create A Groove

As a percussionist, you’re probably experienced with weaving your parts into the rhythmic ideas of your groove colleagues. Armed with that background, try creating a multi-part groove. If all the parts suddenly pop into your brain at the same time, that’s a blessing and a time-saver. If that doesn’t always happen, here’s  an exercise to guide you:

1. Decide on the number of parts for your groove. (You can add or delete during the process.) My example contains four parts.

2. Compose or choose a main skeletal rhythm—maybe one from your lick library. 

My example main skeletal rhythm is notated in Figure 1. The skeletal rhythm is split between two parts in Figure 2.

3. Experiment to add other parts to complement the skeletal rhythm. See Figure 3.  

If you have access to a sequencer, you can enter the parts to hear how the rhythms interact. Keezy Drummer is a simple sequencer app that I use. 

4. Once you are satisfied with how the rhythms interact, assign the parts to various timbres. Consider spreading the parts across a broad spectrum of frequencies and/or contrasting timbres. Check out Figure 4 to see my example. My groove is orchestrated for one person playing cajon, maraca, and foot tambourine.


Continue your creative fun by re-orchestrating your groove. Reassign timbres within a single instrument or assign the parts to a completely different set of instruments.  

In my first re-orchestration example, I have reassigned parts by simply flipping the cajon bass and corner slap rhythms. See Figure 5. The switch makes a big difference.

The cajon-based groove is orchestrated for drum set in Figure 6.

A Little Variety

Develop your ability to create variations on rhythmic themes.  Start with a short rhythm pattern as your theme and create variations around the theme. The ideas below will get you started:

  • The main rhythm of a song’s melody or a rhythm pattern from your lick library can be used as your theme.

  • Merely changing dynamics can create a variation.

  • Shift your theme suddenly (or subtly) to a different time signature. Using my cajon groove as my theme, I created a variation in 12/8 in Figure 7.

  • If your theme contains multiple parts, consider dropping some notes to create a linear variation. See example in Figure 8.

  • Spice up the theme with ornaments and stroke types such as flams, drags, and buzz strokes.

  • Add ghost notes to fill in empty spaces in your theme. 

  • Inserting accents might transform your theme into a double-time or half-time feel.

You get the idea. Along with being a creative exercise, sharpening your ability to add variations is a powerful tool when called upon to improvise a solo or to respond to the worship leader's request to "do something to change up the groove."

Use your musical creativity to create something musical.  Frequently.  And have fun.  

Sing skillfully to Him a new song. Play skillfully with a shout of joy.   Psalms 33:3 WEB

Catch a weekly minute of percussion education from Mark's ‘Percussion Tip Tuesday’ on Instagram

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

A Superb Cymbal Roll

Composers, arrangers, and producers have long understood the power of a suspended cymbal roll.  A cymbal roll is equally at home swelling to a climax in Percy Grainger's "Irish Tune from County Derry" or  smoothing a transition in a Chris Tomlin song. 

The Right Gear

A superb cymbal roll starts with the right gear—especially the cymbal itself. For suspended cymbal work, choose a plate that is relatively thin so that the instrument can easily vibrate and ‘speak’ at a very soft volume level. Some manufacturers produce cymbals that are specifically designed for suspended cymbal performance. (Those are easy to identify because the word 'suspended' is stamped on the plate.) A thin crash cymbal designed for use with a drum set will also function as a suspended cymbal. For general performance, I recommend plates between 16-19 inches in diameter.  

You may observe orchestral percussionists hanging a cymbal with a leather strap from a ‘gooseneck’ stand. I prefer the stability and convenience of a conventional center-post stand. Prevent buzzes and extraneous noises by equipping the post with a plastic sleeve and felt washer. 

Drum sticks, wire brushes, and bundled rods may be used for cymbal rolls, but the more common implement is a soft-headed mallet. Specially designed mallets for suspended cymbal performance are available for purchase, or yarn-wrapped marimba mallets (my go-to) are another option. 

Technique Tips

  • Double stroke and buzz rolls on a cymbal are possible using drum sticks, but the single stroke roll is the standard performance practice.
  • Roll with one mallet positioned at 3:00 and the other at 9:00 on the cymbal.
  • Both mallets should be near the cymbal’s edge for general playing.
  • Practice your single stroke roll on a low-sustaining surface to check for evenness between the hands.
  • Monitor your roll speed for a smooth sonority. Let your ear guide your hands for the correct rate of motion.    
  • Explore each cymbal to learn its response and volume peak. 
  • Practice rolls that begin very softly and crescendo, as well as rolls that start at a loud dynamic level followed by a decrescendo.
  • The sound of a cymbal roll is often allowed to naturally dissipate, but sometimes the sound must be stopped suddenly. The ‘choke’ can be accomplished by grabbing the plate between the thumb and fingers to stop vibrations or by gently leaning your abdomen into the edge of the cymbal.  


In notated scores, the placement of cymbal rolls is determined by the composer or arranger. When the performer is expected to create a percussion part, the decision to insert rolls is part of the assignment. Transition points such as meter changes, modulations, or changes between song sections are worthy candidates for a cymbal roll.  A crescendo roll can lead up to a climax while a decrescendo roll can assist in reducing the energy level in a song. When creating ambient or ethereal textures, consider a well-placed roll. With all the possibilities, resist the urge to overuse the effect.  

Countless examples of cymbal rolls are heard in musical styles ranging from classical to rock to modern worship. Along with investing in proper gear and developing a beautiful-sounding roll, study a variety of music to develop concepts for applying this important percussion effect. 

(c) 2019  Mark Shelton Productions / Percussion For Worship

This article was previously published in Worship Musician magazine.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Click Advice

 The click is here to stay.  

               Here's some advice about practicing with a click.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Bonus Uses of Four-mallet Technique #percussiontiptuesday

In addition to performing 3 and 4-mallet keyboard percussion music, a four-mallet grip is useful in other situations.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Worship Musician article July 2020

Check out my percussion article in Worship Musician! 
July 2020 issue

Click the link below and read the article:

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Shekere: Alternate Technique

In addition to traditional shekere technique, there are alternate methods.  Mark Shelton demonstrates an easy one in this short video.  

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Triangle Tip: Holding Hand

The triangle holding hand does more than just support the triangle holder.  Learn more in this one-minute tutorial with Mark Shelton.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

A Weekly Dose of Rudiments

A little advice about rudiments in this short video!

Download a free copy of the Percussive Arts Society Drum Rudiments at

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

One-hand Cymbal Roll

No need to grow another arm when you need to throw in cymbal roll while playing another instrument.  Check out this simple solution.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Cookin' With The Cabasa

Percussion instruments produce sounds by striking, scraping, and/or shaking.
The small, but versatile cabasa can function in all three areas of tone creation.

The sound producing elements of the cabasa include a ridged metal sheet wrapped around a cylinder that is encircled by strands of metal beads. A handle is attached to one of the flat surfaces of the cylinder and caps at the ends of the cylinder prevent the strands of beads from sliding off the cylinder. The tonal possibilities of the cabasa include sounds reminiscent of guiro, maracas, and shekere.   

Adjustment Tips 
If your beads of your cabasa do not slide easily over the ridged surface, try these conditioning pointers:

 Place the end of a thin rod (such as a triangle beater) under a strand wire and apply pressure to expand the strand slightly. Repeat for all the strands.

 Insert the sharpened end of a pencil under the beads and scrape the pencil along the ridged surface to lay down a coating of graphite that will act as a lubricant.

Grip and Playing Position
The handle of the cabasa can be held with either hand. I prefer to grip the handle with my dominant hand. The rotation technique feels more comfortable with my stronger and more agile hand. 

The main playing position situates the instrument slightly in front of the player's chest near the bottom of the sternum with the handle parallel to the floor. The non-holding hand remains near the cabasa for the striking and scraping techniques.

Tone production
Use the four fingers of the free hand to strike the beads. You can tap on the beads closest to the floor or strike the upper area. This is a delicate timbre, but certainly useful.

Experiment with controlling the beads as you shake the cabasa with a side-to-side motion. With practice, you can control the beads as they slap against the cylinder. This sound is similar to a shaker, but with a tighter articulation.

Place your free hand palm and fingers on a portion of the beads. You can position your hand under the cylinder or at the upper area. (Check out the video.)

Exert slight pressure against the beads with your free hand and rotate the cabasa cylinder slightly using the handle. You will hear the beads scrape against the ridged metal surface. Rotate the cylinder in the opposite direction to produce another scrape. 

Practice the back-and-forth motion to produce steady streams of eighth and sixteenth notes.

Check out my short video tutorial (on the Worship Training website) to view a demonstration of striking, scraping, and shaking methods for the cabasa.

With experimentation and practice, you will be able to produce scrapes of various lengths. Controlling the note durations is one of the major means of musical phrasing with the cabasa.

As you develop your technique on the cabasa, experiment with creating rhythm patterns in different time signatures and musical styles. Try improvising along with recordings. Build up your repertoire of cabasa licks and be ready to drop some striking, scraping, and shaking into a groove.

2019 Mark Shelton Productions / Percussion For Worship

This article was previously published in Worship Musician magazine.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Thumb Roll Made Easy

If you've ever tried to play a thumb roll on the headed tambourine, you know it can be dangerous.  Your thumb might slide around without producing a roll. Yikes!!

Check out the Roll Ring from Grover Pro Percussion!

Get one of these and never fear the thumb roll.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Natural Acoustics Lab Shaker Demo

Lots of shakers in my collection--different shapes and sizes

Check out this demo of a shaker from Natural Acoustics Lab


Thursday, May 9, 2019

Cowbell and Tambourine

Short tutorial on playing cowbell and tambourine at the same time.

Follow me on Instagram and/or Facebook for 
Percussion Tip Tuesday

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Why Percussionists Need Drum Set Skills

The door opened and Mr. Congiardo walked into the practice room. My friend and I had been taking turns exploring the drum set. Our band director had probably heard enough of those feeble attempts to play a groove. Although his primary instrument was the saxophone, Mr. C sat down at the drum kit and proceeded to confidently demonstrate a simple rock beat. His brief presentation was accompanied by some incisive advice to begin practicing his example. It was a major moment in my musical journey.

While I had played percussion in school band for a few years, my studies had not included instruction on drum set--until that day. Further study and practice led to playing drums for jazz ensembles, pit orchestras, big bands, praise and worship groups, and symphony orchestras during the ensuing decades. It is hard to imagine my percussion life without the fundamental abilities to play drum set and understand its workings within an ensemble.

Drum set proficiency is an asset whether I am actually sitting behind the kit, standing in a percussion set-up, or transcribing a groove. Read on and I will state my case for the importance for making “drum set know-how” an essential element of your percussion life.   


Percussion frequently requires multi-limb coordination. It can be simply playing a single line between your two hands, but there are moments when each hand is rendering a separate rhythm on a different instrument. Perhaps you decide to toss in a foot tambourine to further complicate the situation. Now you are synching up three limbs!  Playing drum set requires four-way coordination; all limbs are working independently.  Few instruments other than organ and pedal steel guitar so regularly require that multi-limb skill set. The independence gained from playing drum set carries over into those moments when two or three limbs are being employed on a percussion set-up.  Juggling a sixteenth-note shaker pattern along with a few syncopated eighths on a cowbell can seem like a piece of cake after you have been practicing a dense four-part fusion lick on the drum set.  

I highly recommend these classic books to build your multi-limb independence:

Advanced Techniques for the Modern Drummer by Jim Chapin  Alfred Publishing
4-Way Coordination by Marvin Dahlgren and Elliot Fine   Alfred Publishing


Experience with the drum set is beneficial when transcribing a groove. When working in a situation without a kit player, a percussionist might create a part that is based on a drum set groove. When I play in the ‘no drum set’ situation, my set-up is often centered around a cajon. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I will often borrow ideas from a drum set groove and orchestrate portions onto my cajon-based set-up. Kick and snare parts easily transfer to bass tone and corner slaps on “the box.” The ride cymbal and stick-played high-hat lines can be implied on the corners of the cajon or ghosted on the bass tone area. I believe this transcription and orchestration process is made easier when you have experience transcribing and playing drum set grooves.  


It is crucial that the drum set and percussion parts mesh properly to form a solid groove. Timbres and rhythms should combine and complement rather than collide and confuse. It is a delicate interaction. As the percussionist, I generally allow the drum set player to take the more dominant role in establishing the basic framework of the groove and I weave my parts around that framework. A background in studying the drum set informs me as I analyze the drummer's rhythms and timbral choices so that I can find appropriate rhythmic and frequency areas to contribute my ideas. My ‘drum set sense’ helps me to anticipate the musical moments where the drummer will play a fill or a set-up cue so that I can phrase accordingly to forestall cluttering the groove. 

Pinch Hitter

There I was, blissfully minding my own business as I waited to play a simple shaker part for the close of a worship service. Suddenly the drummer got word that his child had been injured. He left church immediately leaving me to play the kit on the closing song.  A sense of relief poured over me when I realized that my duty would merely require laying down a groove that I learned back during the Nixon administration.  

Things happen. People get sick. Tires go flat. Alarms fail. 

Over my years as a church musician, I have abandoned my percussion set-up several times to substitute for an absent drummer.  Would you be ready to knock out a simple pattern if the situation arose? Think about it.  

Increased Opportunities

Adding drum set abilities to your arsenal of percussion skills increases your playing prospects. As I survey the ‘gig landscape,’ it seems there is always someone searching for a kit player. In many styles of music, a drum set player is a necessity while a percussionist rates as an added luxury.  

Of course, make sure that you are up to the gig before you agree to the job. You can't hide when you play drum set!

To further assist you in developing your prowess on the traps, allow me to recommend a valuable resource. Carl Albrecht's Drum Grooves for Worship DVD presents seven essential types of patterns used in modern worship. You can order from 

Get the DVD and learn all seven grooves. 

I did!

I'm still practicing drum set.  

(c) 2018 Mark Shelton Productions / Percussion for Worship

 Previously published in Worship Musician  

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Parts Of A Drum Stick

The various areas of a drum stick have names.  Get to know them with this short tour of a drum stick with Mark Shelton

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Claves: Get Clickin'

Claves: Get Clickin'
by Mark Shelton

Dynamite comes in a small package.

Within the percussion family you can find small instruments capable of holding their own alongside their bigger brothers and sisters. The jingle and pop from a headed tambourine can punch through a dense mixture of larger drums.  A single triangle ‘ding’ has the power to sit atop the sound of an orchestra comprised of winds, strings, and a pile of percussion. 

Among those petite powerhouses of percussion are the claves. Weighing less than a can of soda pop and just a bit longer than a pencil, the distinctive tone from a pair of hardwood pegs can be clearly heard within a salsa rhythm section crackling with congas, bongos, timbales, and cowbells. 

The traditional Latin American claves are straightforward, equisized dowels. Differing slightly, African claves consist of a ‘receiving stick’ featuring a scooped middle area and a smaller striker peg. This article will focus on the traditional Latin American claves.

Although synthetic models are available, Latin American claves are customarily constructed of hardwoods such as grenadilla, rosewood, maple, or ebony. The dowels range in length from around 8 to 10 inches with a diameter of about an inch. The small dimensions combine with the resonant materials to produce a short, crisp, and high-pitched tone. 

The Traditional Tone

The proper holding method is a crucial part of producing a traditional claves tone. One member of the pair will strike the receiving (stationary) clave. To hold the stationary clave, curl the fingers of your non-dominant hand in towards your palm with the thumb resting against the side of the index finger--resembling how it would look if you were going to knock on a door. This forms an echo chamber for the clave to resonate. Lay the clave over your echo chamber so that the stick rests on your knuckles and the fleshy area just below your thumb. Grip the striker clave in your dominant hand (similar to a loose matched grip). Try a few clicks.

Check out my short video tutorial on the claves

Gripping either clave too tightly will choke vibrations. Your grips are correct when the claves sound with a clear, resonant tone.