You may be aware that castanets entered the symphonic orchestrator’s toolbox via Spanish flamenco music. Along with the sound of the 5-string guitar, the “clacking” of the castanets defines the Andalusian flavor associated with flamenco music.
Traditionally, one or more flamenco dancers play the castanets. With one pair in each hand, the dancers click out patterns that support the movement of their dance. What you may not be aware of is that flamenco castanets are pitched unevenly, with one pair lower in tonality than the other. The lower pair, held in the right hand, is called “macho” (male) and the higher pair, held in the left hand, is called “hembra” (female). (A notch carved on the bottom often distinguishes one pair from the other).
While I can appreciate the beauty and importance of this tradition, as a professional American percussionist, I am required to play the music of composers who write for castanets in a manner similar to other percussion instruments, creating a rhythmic line that is integral to the overall composition.
I am shocked that some of our competitors not only sell, but expound the concept of using concert castanets with a low (macho) and high (hembra) pair in one set! Whether I’m playing the Prokofiev Piano Concerto #3 or Strauss’ Salome, I want a set of castanets that sound clear, clean and EVEN. I approach orchestral castanet parts in the same way that I play a snare drum or timpani part – both hands must sound the exactly same. I work tirelessly to ensure that every note I play sounds consistent in color, dynamic and sonority.
Unlike other companies, we manufacture our own castanets, precisely machining four matched “clappers” out of one block of wood – this ensures a perfectly pitch-matched set. Keep this in mind when you’re looking to purchase a set of concert castanets. If you plan to don a red dress and dance around while you play – go ahead and purchase one of their unmatched sets. However, if you’re like me, and your goal is to perform with a world-class orchestra in a top concert hall, better to stick with the leaders in concert percussion!