Insights into Playing and Teaching Percussion
Insights into Playing and Teaching Percussion
You’d be surprised at how much time I spend trying to get drum students to achieve a more relaxed drum stroke. Many beginning drummers think – either consciously or subconsciously – that the faster they play, the more tension they need in their arms, and the harder they have to hammer the sticks into the drum. On top of that, they are determined to play quickly right away, before they give themselves a chance to work on developing a smooth, relaxed stroke.
What they don’t realize is that no matter how much they practise rudiments or fuss over the details of their grip, with tense hands, arms and shoulders delivering a hammer stroke into the drum, they will never develop the degree of speed and control they are capable of.
When a stick hits a drum, or cymbal for that matter, it bounces back in the opposite direction. The student who plays with too much tension, who hammers the stick into the drum – and most often tension and hammering go hand in hand – will find that the direction of the stick continues to move downward contrary to the upward push of the rebound. To see the problems this leads to, watch what happens when you ask your students to play a single stroke roll (though any rudiment – paradiddles, double stroke rolls, flams, ruffs etc. – would illustrate the point equally well).
If the student is hammering the stick into the drum, the clean, single strokes will become less and less distinct as the speed is increased. The stick does not freely bounce back off the head. Rather, it is wrestled into the head by a hand still pushing down on the stick after it should have changed direction. This results in a buzz – as well as a tremendous loss of control.
The less tension there is in the muscles of the arms and hands, the easier it is to respond to the bounce off the head. What’s more, by incorporating the energy coming off the drum head into the stroke, the student’s playing will become quicker, more fluid and relaxed.
Along with a solid grip (see article), what teachers must emphasize from the very beginning is the importance of a relaxed stroke.
The relaxed stroke begins with a relaxed shoulder, arm and hand. Have the students hold their sticks with the arm dropped by their side. They should then lift the stick into playing position by just raising the elbow. They should feel the weight of the stick pulling the hand down from the wrist as the arm is moved into playing position. The fingers should be wrapped around the stick just firmly enough so that, when playing, it will not go flying out of the hand.
With a completely relaxed arm and hand in playing position, the student should lift the stick from the wrist, and drop it onto the snare. The hand should remain in the down position. If the fingers are kept in position around the stick without too much pressure, the stick will pop back and stop, with a minimal amount of shaking, about an inch above the head.
When trying this exercise for the first time, many students will be afraid that the stick will kick back and they will lose control. As a result, they often hold back on the drop motion, not allowing the wrist and arm to fall freely. But it is important that they learn to drop the stick without holding back at all. With a relaxed arm and hand, and with the fingers remaining in position under the palm of the hand (when using matched grip, the fingers should not flip out), the stick will bounce back and come to rest close to the drum head.
Students playing slow quarter notes from those first exercises in their method book would do well to play them in this way.
Once your students are comfortable with the single stroke, they are ready to try multiple strokes.
With multiple strokes, rather than resting the hand close to the drum head as was the case with the single stroke, the hand is guided back up by the rebound off the drum, then dropped down again. The pattern continues – all in one fluid motion. The movement is like that of dribbling a basketball. The hand and arm stays relaxed at all times, moving completely in sync with the rebound off the drum.
Keeping in mind that one drops the stick from a higher level in order to play louder, various series of notes can be practised with the sticks dropped from different levels above the drum. No matter what height the stick is dropped from, the motion should remain fluid and unforced.
Beginning mallet exercises in the method books present no serious challenges for your percussion students. Anyone can be shown a B-flat on an instrument, told to hit it on the count of “one”, and do a fairly decent job no matter how they hold the mallet.
But your students will not develop the ability to play and read music of greater difficulty without an awareness of the basics of good mallet technique. With poor hand position, the heads of the mallets can collide with each other, your students will have difficulty executing quicker passages – and they’ll most certainly hit wrong notes when sight reading.
To get them started off on the right foot, make sure that they are aware of these five points:
For variety, have your students play lines in the method book with the right hand alone, then the left, then alternating hands.
You should be able to see if your students are following the guidelines from your seat. Keep an eye on them, and remind them regularly of the points listed above.
A good technique, one that will allow your percussionists to play more challenging parts with ease as time goes on, must be considered carefully right from the beginning.
Playing a roll on a cymbal might appear easy, but I’ve never yet met a high school percussionist who got it right. Attention to the following points will afford your students greater control and have them producing more musical sounds from the suspended cymbal.
Many try to play cymbals with tympani mallets, which are unsuitable for the job. With an outer felt that is too soft and a core that is too hard, you hear too much of a hit on the attack. Ideally, your school should have several pair of yarn mallets, of different weights and thicknesses, to work properly with various sizes of cymbals.
Have your students experiment with the sounds they’re getting from different cymbal and mallet combinations. Don’t let them use the cymbal that is just nearest at hand. Choosing the right cymbal and mallets should be based on musical considerations. (This is a good opportunity to involve the class in the kind of musical decision percussionists make all the time. Have the whole class listen to various cymbals and decide which sounds best at a certain point in the music.)
Most students roll on the cymbal far too close to the centre. The further toward the centre you roll, the more you hear the attack. Some students roll closer to the edge, but with the mallet heads next to each other as if they’re playing a snare drum.
The roll should be played with the mallets opposite each other, on the left and right edges of the cymbal. (You should be able to draw a straight line from one mallet to the other through the centre of the cymbal.)
The bigger the cymbal, the slower the roll. Rolling too quickly on a cymbal kills the sound. Have your students experiment with how slowly they can play a roll in order to sustain the sound.
As with all percussion playing, if the mallets or sticks are not dropped from the same height above the instrument, one of the strokes will be accented.
Obviously, playing in such a way will produce a very uneven cymbal roll. Many percussionists practise in front of a mirror to monitor the height of their strokes.
Have your students practise rolling slowly over one of two bars, starting pianissimo and ending forte. They should be listening intently and checking all the above-mentioned points.
Note: in a score, if a cymbal roll finishes at the end of a bar, there shouldn’t be a downbeat at the beginning of the following bar.
The most common mistake high school percussion students make when playing the tambourine – one which I see (and hear) all the time – is that they swing the tambourine toward the free hand in order to play a note. This results in a lot of jingle sound after the impact with the free hand, instead of a clean, crisp attack. If a series of notes are being played, the repeated swinging back and forth produces so much jingling that it becomes difficult to hear the actual rhythm.
To play louder passages, the tambourine should be held with a relaxed grip at a height more or less in line with the bottom end of the rib cage, and at roughly a 45-degree angle or flatter. With the free hand made into a fist, the knuckles and the bottom of the palm should strike the tambourine at its centre.
For lighter sections, your students should strike the instrument with the fingertips more toward the edge. For even more delicate sections, the student should rest the heel of the striking hand lightly on the head toward the centre of the tambourine, again tapping the edge of the instrument with the fingertips. This technique will produce a crisp jingle sound while eliminating the sound off the head.
For passages that are too quick to be played with one hand, the instrument can be placed on a soft base and played at the edges with two hands. Sometimes it is placed on a piece of foam or a pillow. Frequently, percussionists will put their foot on the rung of a chair, and play the instrument as it rests on the extended thigh.
Rolls can be played two ways. The first is by holding the instrument vertically and, while maintaining an axis through its centre, shaking it rapidly with the wrist so that the top and bottom edges move in opposite directions. The volume of the roll is dependent on the distance the jingles are moved. It is important to note that, if the roll ends in a stroke on the head, the instrument is to be stopped in a flat position and struck by the free hand as outlined above.
The second roll to be discussed is reserved for very quiet passages, and will be examined in an upcoming article.
Just to be clear: there isn’t just one snare drum grip that paves the way to the development of a good snare drum technique. Students may arrive in your band holding their snare drum sticks with either traditional or matched grip. They may have learned to play with finger control, or wrist control, or a combination of both. Unfortunately, you’ll find that many – in spite of several years of lessons – will play with no control at all.
But if you’re starting a student on drums, or if an incoming student with some playing experience is still struggling with basic techniques, I recommend teaching the following matched grip. With matched grip, each hand holds the snare drum stick the same way.
The version of matched grip that I use was practised by my teacher, Elden C. “Buster” Bailey, the principal snare drummer of the New York Philharmonic from 1949-91. (His book, Wrist Twisters: A Musical Approach to Snare Drumming, is an invaluable resource for every serious snare drummer.)
The student should grip the stick with the thumb at the side and the forefinger curled underneath. The stick passes under the centre of the hand, with the third and fourth fingers curled under the stick to provide a bed of support. They also must keep the stick under the palm such that there is a straight trajectory from the tip of the stick through the wrist and lower arm to the elbow.
The thumb and first finger should never squeeze the stick. Rather, they act as guides, exerting just enough pressure to keep the stick from wobbling from side to side.
The role of the third and fourth fingers is very important. The point at which they cross the stick, in the middle of the palm, is the centre of support. The student should be able to release the thumb and index finger and still swing the stick up and down. The two fingers stay curled under the hand, keeping the stick close to the palm while allowing the stick some movement. It is very important that they don’t flare out when striking the drum. The pinky should be relaxed and out of the way.
The position of the fingers below the stick, and their sensitivity to the rebound off the drum head is the key to developing control.
With the sticks forming a “V” shape on the drum, the student is now ready to play the first strokes.
It stands to reason that in order for drummers to play well in a jazz band, they must hear how drummers actually play in a jazz band. How can we expect our students to have any idea of what it means to “swing” when they’ve only been exposed to rock music all their lives?
Play videos of the great jazz musicians. There are wonderful DVDs available, and your students will be able to see and hear everyone from Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa and Jo Jones to Max Roach, Roy Haynes and Tony Williams. (Tell your students about www.drummerworld.com, a fascinating resource filled with short “clinics” and numerous video and audio clips of historic and contemporary drummers.)
But make your listening time an active experience. Have the students draw up charts and compare drummers by listening for specifics, such as:
The rhythm of the ride cymbal: who plays with a broken triplet feel; who plays with a dotted eighth-sixteenth feel? (See A Swinging Ride Cymbal below)
And if, for example, your band is playing Sing, Sing, Sing, find the Benny Goodman version and play it. (For that matter, the first time you play Ode to Joy from your beginning band method book, take advantage of the opportunity to play a corresponding section of the original Beethoven symphony. I’m always amazed that students can study music throughout high school without ever having experienced how this and other great works were intended to be heard.)
The reason many students don’t swing when playing jazz is that they accent the 2nd and 4th beats of the ride cymbal too heavily, breaking up the rhythmic flow.
Have your students concentrate on an even, unaccented quarter note feel. The notes played before beats one and three should be thought of as pick up notes. While great drummers may place those pick up notes very differently – depending on the tempo and the individual concept, they may fall on the last note of a triplet, the last 32nd note of the beat or anywhere in between – a good starting point is to place them as the last note of a triplet. The triplet provides a more relaxed, less edgy feel.
Have the students practise by counting triplets out loud while playing the rhythm. And, as always, impress upon them that their role is to keep steady time.
Constantly speeding up and slowing down the ride rhythm while practising does nothing to develop your students’ sense of time.
Have them practise with a metronome at slow tempos, making sure that the quarter note of the cymbal beat falls exactly in place. They may complain that they “can’t play with the metronome” – implying that it somehow impedes their ability to play. At that point, you just have to tell them that if they can’t play with it, they can’t play without it.
In my studio, we call the metronome the lie detector. When students finally do meet the challenge of playing along comfortably with the metronome they will take pride in their accomplishment – and the benefits will be felt throughout your entire band.