Among percussionists, tam-tams are instruments very similar to the gong.
There are two distinctions between "gong" and "tam-tam":
- The center of a gong has a protrusion opposite the natural curve of the saucer-shape, whereas the center of a tam-tam is flat.
- A gong is meant to produce a long and sustained tonal sound, whereas a tam-tam is more aimed towards producing a shorter and louder crashing sound.
Uses for the tam-tam are virtually limitless. The tam-tam can be used for some background ambient sounds, or for loud crashing accents. They are employed in "classical" genres more often than most people are aware of. There have also been several rock bands that have used this instrument, although almost always incorrectly.
How to Play the Tam-Tam
First you must select a mallet or beater. As opposed to a gong, you will want to use a mallet with a softer head. Most proper tam-tam mallets resemble oddly-shaped hammers. The shaft and most of the head are usually wooden, and the part (or parts) of the head intended to strike the tam-tam will have a thick cotton covering.
For describing playing technique, I'll be assuming that you are right-handed. Stand facing the tam-tam with the right half of your body being directly in front of the face of the tam-tam, while the left-side of your body is outside the instrument. Stand about 10-12 inches away from the striking side. Now angle your body about 30 degrees to your right and extend your left leg out a bit. Grip the mallet/beater similar to that of a baseball bat. Your stance should now be sort of like you are about to perform a slapshot in hockey. It should be pretty comfortable (for a short period of time), so adjust if it feels too strange.
Now that you know how to stand, you need to learn how to strike the tam-tam. Everything I am about to describe is critical to not only producing a good sound, but also to avoid damaging the very expensive instrument.
Before playing any actual notes, you will need to "warm up" the tam-tam. This is accomplished by doing light taps around the tam-tam with the mallet. You want to do these taps right between the (usually colored) center area of the tam-tam and its perimeter. Do the light taps in a circle (clockwise or counter-clockwise doesn't really matter) while being careful not to produce too much vibration. Too much vibration would make your taps audible, so if you start to hear yourself, play softer.
You are moving your mallet along the tam-tam keeping an even vibration. Now you are ready to strike and play your note. Never ever strike the tam-tam directly in the center! Doing so will likely break it on contact or create a lot of microcracking that will shorten its lifespan. Instead, strike above the center of the tam-tam. You want to hit it just a little bit closer to the middle than when you were warming it up.
**CRASSSHHH** You just produced a huge sound (or sometimes small one depending on the music you're reading and how you struck it) and this baby is going to ring for a very long time. That means you have to "cool down" tam-tam. Again, this is strictly governed by the music. To do the fastest muffle possible, you'll press your arm and body into the front of the tam-tam while reaching around and laying your other arm across the other side of the metal monster. When doing this, make sure that you don't have anything metallic to ram into the tam-tam (such as a belt buckle or a set of keys). It's not too dissimilar from the way Steve Irwin jumps on a crocodile. This method isn't very good for the health of the tam-tam, but some music requires it. Not to mention that it's fun.
Most likely, though, you'll want to do a gradual cool down. An easy method for this is to step behind the tam-tam and then press the palms of your hands on the back of the instrument and then removing them again at regular intervals. You do this over and over again until you have silenced the tam-tam where you desire.