Comparing Cymbal Selection in the Orchestral Literature

Did you ever wonder why there were so many different recordings of the same piece? Each of these recordings are slightly different, even if they are reading the exact same notes on the page. Orchestral percussionists around the world all read the same notes on a page and they are here to tell you exactly how they interpret these notes differently when it comes to cymbals! Welcome to Matt Howard of the LA Philharmonic, Patsy Dash of the Chicago Symphony and Neil Percy of the London Symphony Orchestra to tell us what they do with three different works by three prominent composers, including:

Anton Dvorak
Scherzo Capriccioso (Q to end)

P. Tchaikovsky
Romeo and Juliet (2 before O to P)

Piano Concerto No. 2 (3rd movement, 32-33)



MATTHEW HOWARD currently resides back home in Los Angeles, as the new Principal Percussionist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the same orchestra he grew up watching. He comes from Miami, where he was a Fellow with the New World Symphony under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas. He has performed with such groups as the San Francisco Symphony, Kansas City Symphony, Santa Barbara Symphony, and Boston Ballet. He also has been a member in the National Repertory Orchestra, Verbier Festival Orchestra, and Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra.

He began playing drumset at the age of 15 and played in his high school jazz band. By 18, he found himself enthralled with the world of percussion and started studying with a local percussionist, John Magnussen. While studying with John, he also studied with recording legend Emil Richards on jazz vibraphone, Judy Chilnick on timpani, and Jerry Steinholtz on hand percussion. After a year of community college, he transferred to the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music Percussion Department, studying with Erik Forrester. The following year, Joseph Pereira and Jim Babor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic took over as faculty at USC. After graduating, he headed out to Boston to study with Will Hudgins of the Boston Symphony Orchestra at the New England Conservatory. Immediately after graduating in 2015, he was offered a fellowship with the New World Symphony for up to three years.

This is one of my favorite cymbals excerpts in the repertoire. It showcases a bunch of different techniques and having the right cymbals really help enhance this rousing finish. Everyone normally tends to prioritize the articulation for this excerpt, but it inevitably ends up hindering the sound of everything else. Thicker cymbals like the Symphonic Ks are very articulate, but you end up having to work extra hard to get the right soft crash sounds, and the right spread for the loud, sustained crashes. I do prefer a darker cymbal that is also thin enough to get smooth and shimmery soft crashes and loud crashes. The different techniques that need to be mastered in succession are soft, legato crashes, multi crashes, short crashes, and loud, shimmery crashes. We use an old prototype pair of K 18″ or 20″ cymbals for this. Because this ending can get very boisterous, I would move to a larger cymbal to ensure that I do not overplay the cymbals.

The main purpose of this excerpt is to audibly depict a sword fight. The cymbals need to be very fast reacting and thin enough to ensure that the high overtone of the cymbal speak fast, but not too thin where they can be overplayed easily. Because this excerpt is a test of short, syncopated crashes with timpani, the player needs to be nimble, but also have the ability for luscious and well-balanced loud crashes. The Classic Orchestral line works great for this. The bigger the cymbals, the better loud crashes, but they are also harder to get the high overtones to shoot out with the fast crashes resulting in a duller, dead sound. 18″ or 19″ Classic Orchestrals and the 18″ Prototype Ks work perfect for this.

This excerpt shows how much control the player has over soft playing. There are 2 schools of thought for this one, use soft, thin cymbals to get a legato, bright crash, or use bigger cymbals for a super dark, rich, and legato sound, In my opinion, I feel like the player should not be stuck using these cymbals for this piece. This excerpt should be practiced with all different types, and sizes of cymbals to ensure flexibility and overall mastery. This advice could be transferred to all excerpts, but this one in particular. Everyone strives for the smooth soft crash, but the part requires staccato quarter notes with short woodwinds. Since this is a piano concerto, the tendency is to be late and inconsistent with sound quality. It would behoove the player to practice this excerpt mainly without looking at the hands and maximize the feel of impact and timing. This way, the player can watch the conductor/soloist without being tied to watching your hands. If the conductor ever asks for short crashes with the woodwinds, my solution for this is to keep the lower cymbal lightly pressed against the stomach at all times and only use the right hand. This keeps the volume down significantly, and also makes short crashes extremely easy. 16″ or 18″ K Constantinople Vintage Orchestral Med Lights and 16″ or 18″ Classic Orchestral Med Lights work great for this.


This is a really tough one because the cymbal  player is asked to play very softly, very loudly, articulately, and with resonance all in the same passage with the same pair of cymbals! I find that my Zildjian K 17” Constantinople’s fit the bill perfectly. They are just light enough to play fast and clean yet heavy enough to execute those loud crashes.

This is a really fun excerpt! It’s fast, rhythmic, And you get to play a huge crash at the end of it. Since it is expected that you will be muffling those short notes you do not need cymbals  that are articulate in themselves. Rather, I like to use my 18 inch Zildjian Avedis Classic Orchestral cymbals which are super bright for the “sword fight” and also colorful and resonant for the longer crashes.

I am fortunate enough to have a really nice pair of 15 1/2 inch old Zildjian Constantinople’s which I love for this excerpt. They have a nice clear articulate sound and are relatively easy to play softly. If I had to use something that was commercially available, I’d choose a 16” cymbal that was a little thicker. The K. Constantinople Vintage Medium Light cymbals would be perfect for this excerpt.  

PATRICIA DASH was appointed to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra by Sir Georg Solti in 1986 at age 24. Born in Rochester, New York, she began her percussion studies at the age of nine. She received a diploma with honors and a certificate of merit from the Eastman School of Music’s Preparatory Department in 1979, and went on to earn a Bachelor of Music degree with distinction from Eastman in 1983. Her teachers included John Beck, Ruth Cahn, Allen Otte, Richard Jensen and Doug Howard. While in college, she performed as an extra with both the Rochester Philharmonic and the Cincinnati Symphony orchestras.

Dash came to Chicago from the Philharmonic Orchestra of Florida, where she held the position of principal percussionist. She has since performed with the Chicago Chamber Musicians, Chicago Pro Musica, the CSO Trombone Ensemble, the Ensemble Intercontemporain of Paris, and in numerous CSO chamber music concerts at Orchestra Hall.

In 1995, she initiated the CSO’s Percussion Scholarship Program (PSP). PSP offers gifted young students in Chicago weekly percussion instruction on a full scholarship basis and performs throughout the year at Symphony Center. The group has also appeared at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention, on WTTW, on WGN and WFMT radio, NPR’s From the Top, the Midwest Band and Orchestra Conference, and as soloists with the CSO’s youth concerts series.



NEIL PERCY is the longest serving Principal Percussion of the LSO and has been Head of Timpani and Percussion at the Royal Academy of Music since 2000. He has worked closely with many major artists and conductors and as a soloist with Sir Colin Davis, Pierre Boulez, Steve Reich, François-Xavier Roth, Karl Jenkins, Ravi Shankar, Kent Nagano and Elgar Howarth. He has also worked closely with many composers for over 150 film scores – notably John Williams, James Horner, Patrick Doyle, Trevor Jones and Alexandre Desplat with their music for films such as Harry Potter, Star Wars, Braveheart, Notting Hill, Twilight: New Moon and Unbroken – and with major pop and jazz artists. He is the Zildjian cymbals artist in residence, a Yamaha drums and keyboards artist and an artist for Evans Drumheads and Freer Mallets.


Scroll to Top