Tuesday, 22 September 2015

The tenor drum: the great unknown.

The tenor drum is an instrument not very well know: even seasoned percussionists mistake it for the military drum, another member of the percusive family. This article will define its characteristics and make clear what instrument it is.

At first I thought this article would make not much sense in the UK or the USA, where the tenor drum is widely used and has an important tradition, but I could see in different Facebook groups that, even in those countries, percussionists tend to confuse between different instruments.

Sadly, when a composer orchestrates for tenor drum, the usual thing is to play on the wrong kind of instrument, as percussionists tend to not know it or to mistake the tenor drum for the military drum, two completely different animals...

A military drum or field drum is a drum between 14" and 16" in diametre, between 8" and 16" in depth (this obviously depends on the model, maker and sound we are after) which FEATURES SNARES. It´s the kind of drum that, since the Middle Age, has been used by the infantry to help soldiers march and communicate different signals in the battle field.

© Pearl Drums

The sticks we use to play it are almost the same as those we use on the snare drum, sometimes larger and heavier to get a greater volume and to "excite" this bigger instrument.

© Cooperman

A tenor drum can be of up to 18" in diametre and depth. This drum features NO SNARES.

As with other instrumental families (trombones, for example, which can be "alto", "tenor" and "bass"), we can consider the tenor drum as the highest member ot the bass drum family, this last one being the instrument to which the tenor drum is, in fact, related (we can consider the tenor drum as an "alto bass drum" because of the lack of snares, the kind of mallets used on it and the writing and use composers make of it, which make of  the tenor drum an instrument much closely related to bass drums than to snare drums).

© Pearl Drums

In addition, the tenor drum is played with mallets completely different to those used on snare drums or military drums, the heads much bigger and softer, like those we would use on bass drums or timpani.

© Pearl Drums

Of course, and because historical instruments are now very much "in vogue", both the military and tenor drums can feature skin heads, gut snares (in the case of the military drum) and be rope tensioned.

© Cooperman
© Lefima

The misunderstanding can come from the reason that, sometimes, composers use equally both "tenor drum" and "military drum", but the vast majority of them know the difference, so we cannot think "anything goes" and play a military drum when it should be a tenor. A good composer knows the difference, a mediocre one may not... When in doubt, ask the composer and, if he is wrong, you´ll be making him and the profession a favour by politely educating him. 

We can find the tenor drum in works by Bernstein, Copland, Schuman, Walton, Tippett, Bennett, Britten...

I´m going to use a specific work to ilustrate the use of this instrument: Benjamin Britten´s "War Requiem".

On its first intervention ("Dies Irae"), Britten writes nothing about what sticks to use on the tenor drum, as he takes for granted the percussionist in charge knows the instrument and what mallets to use.


Later on ("Ofertorio"), we can find an indication on the part stating "SD sticks". That is: Britten is indicating an exception (in this case the tenor drum does not roll, it loses its sombre character and doubles the orchestral hits... A change of sticks is quite logical).

This indication makes us realize that snare drum sticks on the tenor drum are an exception: this drum is played with mallets like those I showed you before. Britten indicates nothing at the beggining because he supposes the percussionist knows what sticks to use, and when he wants a different effect, he asks the player for a different one: SD sticks. It´s the same as when a composer asks for the triangle to be hit with a xilophone stick or a cymbal to be struck with a triangle beater: only the exception is indicated. In the case of the tenor drum, the exception (clearly indicated by Britten on the score) is to use snare drum sticks.

In the following passage ("Libera Me"), a dialogue is stablished between the bass drum and the tenor drum, which should make us realize that both instruments are closely related. It´s a dialogue between equals, not between contrastating instruments. 

Here, Britten is playing with two dark and sombre colours (he will add a third one later on), one higher than the other so they can be differenciated, but very closely related in character and timbre. A drum with snares and played with snare drum sticks makes no sense in this passage, as we would be breaking the coherence and character: we are talking about a tenor drum here, not a military one.

Another clue about the proper mallets on the tenor drums is that, on that same passage, the snare drum joining some bars later is asked to be played "without snares" and with "felt sticks". See also the penultimate system on the previous photo.

Here we have three instruments taking up the low, mid and high frecuency bands (bass drum, tenor and snare) played with the same kind of mallet (obviously, Britten doesn´t indicate what kind of stick to use on the bass and tenor part, as the player knows what to hit the drum with: it´s only the exception on the snare drum that is indicated so it can match the timbre of the other two by playing with felt sticks and no snares).

In addition, we know that, as a mourning effect, drums have traditionally played "coperti", that is, covered or without snares. This passage is clearly a funeral march (do I have to remind you we are talking about a "Requiem"?), so snares make no sense at all in this context. When the snare drum joins the funeral march, guess what? it does so without snares and with felt sticks so as to match the other two instruments. Obviously, no "without snares" indication is on the tenor drum part, as it´s on its nature no to feature them.

To clearly see the relation between the bass drum and tenor, we can see that, as it happened before with the tenor being asked to be played with snare drum sticks for a special effect, Britten asks for that same effect on the bass drum at some point. That is, the same kind of effect using snare drum sticks is requested on two related instruments from the same family and character.


Again, as it happened with the tenor drum, an exception (snare drum sticks) is indicated, as we all know which "regular" sticks to use on bass drum. When two instruments regularly struck with soft beaters (bass and tenor) are asked for a special effect, Britten asks for snare drum sticks, and when a instrument regularly struck with snare drum sticks (obviously the snare drum!) is asked for a special effect, Britten asks for felt sticks (in this case, to match the other two instruments). It should start to become clear wich instruments are related, which are not, which features snares and which not, what sticks to use... Shouldn´t it? ;-)

Before we finish, I´d like to clarify a technical issue... A roll on the tenor drum is played exactly the same as on a bass drum or on timpani: hand to hand, no rebounds. This can do nothing but to confirm that its relationship is with the bass drum, not with the snare drum.

If you are still tempted to use a military drum instead of a tenor or to play with snares an instrument which doesn´t feature them, you just have to listen to the recording Britten conducted for DECCA in 1963 featuring the London Symphony Orchestra, where we can hear the tenor drum has no snares and produces a deep and sombre timbre with the proper mallets.


Apart from the English "Tenor Drum", this instrument is know as "Tambor Tenor" in Spanish, "Caisse Roulante" in French, "Ruhrtrommel" in German and "Tamburo Rullante" in Italian.

So, next time you are asked to play a tenor drum, you´ll have enough arguments to choose the right instrument.

…et in Arcadia ego.
© David Valdés

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