Complete Percussionist

Sustaining Snare Drum Tones

by Gary Spellissey

Rolling is the term used in reference to sustaining sounds on drums. Each percussion instrument has its own techniques of rolling—each unique, but yet each similar in many ways. From this point, all references will be made to the snare drum roll. This limitation is made because of the quantity of percussion instruments and their varied playing techniques.Rolls within the military style were called rudimental or open. Because most marching occurred out-of-doors and because of the importance of marching men to hear the drum cadences, this style of playing demanded great volume and projecting power. Volume, force and rhythmic drive had to be developed. To fulfill these requirements, drummers practiced and devised a double-stroke roll. This type of roll allowed for volume and outdoor rhythmic articulation. George Lawrence Stone describes the military style roll:

The Two-Beat Roll is the pure roll of two beats of either stick; the first beat struck, the second beat rebounded (bounced). A Beat and Rebound of either stick.comp perc 1 copyThe rudimental roll is based upon a rhythmic background, in this case, sixteenth note, which produces thirty-second notes. The drummer relies upon an even rhythmic pattern to gauge his rolls:comp perc 2 copyExample “a” shows the actual roll notation. The rhythmic breakdown of strokes within the roll is written in example “b”. These examples show why the rudimental roll has a measured rhythmic sound.The rudimental roll technique requires that each hand play the two strokes evenly to produce a smooth, even, measured sound. The two beat articulation with each hand creates a measured texture within the roll. Usually, within the rudimental style, the final stroke of the roll receives an accent for rhythmic impetus. To achieve the desired volume, this style or technique worked well because the execution of the two beat roll enabled the player to raise his sticks high, thus producing more force and volume. Considering the purpose, volume, and earlier instruments, the military style of playing proved very successful.

As drummers played fewer military events and more indoor concerts, different demands were made of them. Concert playing required different techniques from rudimental playing. The rudimental or open roll did not produce the sustained closed sound needed in orchestral playing. The open roll with its measured sound proved to be unmusical and cumbersome. A technique for producing a smooth sustained sound had to be developed. The drummer had to produce a sound similar to the trumpet or clarinet players’ technique of blowing an even air stream through their instruments, thus producing an even sound. To produce this sound, the closed roll proved to be effective.

The major differences in techniques from playing the two beat to the orchestral roll is fundamentally simple. The closed, buzz or press rolls are produced by playing with a greater pressure upon the sticks as they come in contact with the drum head, creating a multiple amount of strokes. With the multiple of strokes played with each hand, more strokes occur in any given space, so the sound of the roll is more dense or compressed. This creates a freedom of strokes within the roll. Rolls are dependent upon tempo, roll length and roll type. The actual number of strokes within a closed roll is unimportant, because the multiple bounces within the roll cannot accurately be tallied. The closed texture of the roll becomes the most important.

comp perc 3 copy

The above figure can be played many ways, depending upon the tempo. To call this figure just a five stroke roll would be incorrect. At a fast tempo, this could be played as a five stroke roll; however, the slower the tempo, the longer the roll must be.

The open roll adds an element of rhythm because they are measured. With the orchestral roll, the number of strokes within the roll is variable. Secondly, the slower the tempo, the greater the number of strokes to fill the given space. The unmeasured closed roll can produce a smooth continuous sound. However, the closed roll, to some extent, diminishes the potential of fortissimo playing.

The texture of a roll can also be altered by basing the roll upon various rhythmic backgrounds.

comp perc 4 copy

Assume a two beat roll is to be played in the above examples. A background of sixteenth notes, example “a”, would produce a roll of sixteen taps within the space of two beats. Sixteenth note triplets, example “b”, would yield twenty-four taps within the space of two beats. The background of triplets enables the player to play more notes within the space of two beats. Thus, the texture of the roll becomes more dense. Multiple bounce rolls would proportionately increase the density on the roll.

Basically, both the open and closed rolls have been described. Realizing their differences is one problem solved, but an even greater problem arises in deciding upon each roll’s particular use. Knowing the playing techniques of both types of rolls is of no value unless the application of the roll styles is also known.

Generally, rudimental rolls are distinguished by their outdoor character or military sound and usage. The closed roll is used within a delicate orchestral situation. Most players are aware of these general playing concepts. Many pieces of music may begin with the phrase “in a military style/manner”. This immediately clues the performer as to the playing style of the music. Many concert marches have been written with a tight orchestral roll sound intended. Exceptions to the rule prove to be the most difficult. The player must always listen and be aware of everything around to distinguish how the rolls are to be executed. In many cases, the roll type cannot be decided upon by notation alone.

The acceptance and use of the percussion family is still in its infancy. Only recently have the percussion instruments been really utilized. Because of non-use, percussion notation is at a disadvantage. Roll notation is sometimes both vague and ambiguous. Professional players become aware of the notational shortcomings and automatically compensate. James Moore offered this solution:

comp perc 5 copy

Rolls to be played in a two beat style would be notated as shown in example “a”. Closed orchestral rolls would be notated by a wavy line through the note stem. With this system, the roll type would be indicated by the notation. Although advantageous, this system’s adoption is not warranted by its use. The important point is that the problems are now being recognized and attempts at clarification are being made.

Another inherent problem in rolling is the use or lack of use of the tie. Many times a composer notates sustains within the percussion part that leave the performer stranded. So, the percussionist’s judgement must be used to clarify the notational ambiguity.

comp perc 6 copy

Often, the above three types of notation are used to represent the same sustained sound. But, all three notations have different meanings. In example “a”, the roll ends just prior to the third beat and the third beat is articulated separately. Example “b” shows a continuous roll with the final stroke of the roll on the third beat. Example “c” shows a roll continuing past the third beat and ending just prior to the next downbeat. Clarification of these notations are difficult. The best possible solution is to listen to what is happening in the music around you. Find out what the other instruments are playing. Listen to the spacing, phrasing and breathing of the other players. Then, interpret the notation you have in front of you. Checking with the conductor and/or score can sometimes be helpful.