I have heard professional drummers say, “I don’t care about technique at all. 1 am only interested in the music.” I have also heard top players say, “Of course technique is important. Without it you can’t play anything.” It would seem that even top professionals don’t agree on the subject of technique. Perhaps this is due to the fact that they are not all using the same definition of technique. After all, what is technique?
First of all, technique is “control”—the ability to play something evenly, consistently and in tempo. Control is the result of practice and listening. To play something evenly requires the ability to hear when something is not quite right. It also involves patience, which is the key element of practicing.
Secondly, technique is the ability to produce a musical sound. Again, listening is very important. It means being able to hear the difference between just hitting the drum, and striking it purposefully and musically. It means getting a musical sound consistently, from drum to drum or cymbal to cymbal, each time you play.
Third, technique is the ability to play quickly without losing the evenness or the musical tone quality we have been discussing. If the sound suffers when you play fast, you lack sufficient control. More practice is needed at slower speeds, until the sound produced is musically consistent at any speed, slow or fast.
Fourth, technique does not mean just playing fast or showing off. Nothing disturbs real musicians as much as an “athletic” drum break—featuring a flurry of toms, rimshots and cymbals—that is “out of time” and “out of place.” This type of playing usually suggests immaturity and a lack of experience on the part of the drum- mer. For example, no speed is required to play a super-soft buzz roll. No great strength is required. No huge muscles are needed. What is required is control, sensitivity and a good ear. This is a great illustration of technique: the ability to produce a musical sound with a minimum of effort.
Fifth, all good technique involves relaxation. Economy of motion, relaxed posture, and fluid moves around the kit all suggest a relaxed drummer. By relaxed I don’t mean a drummer who barely moves or seems to be going to sleep. I’ve seen drummers play with great intensity and great physical effort. However, in most of the great ones, there is a certain “ease” in their motions and moves. There is intensity, but a minimum of tension and strain. If you are straining—pushing yourself too hard physically—your playing will sound “strained” and “stiff.” This indicates that you are trying too hard. Relaxation comes with practice, experience and confidence. After playing for some time, you begin to develop a sense of what you can and can- not do well. With experience, we use our abilities and our techniques more wisely, in order to enhance the music, whatever the style.
A pianist friend of mine told me years ago, “You only need enough technique to play what you want to play.” I believe that this comment contains a strong element of truth, which in this instance, is that we tend to be selective about the technique we study or practice based upon the type of music we prefer.
For example, if you are studying to be a symphonic drummer, you will devote a good deal of practice time to your snare drum roll. You will be practicing to be articulate, precise and controlled. You may also be studying and practicing other percussion instruments.
However, if you are a jazz drummer, a good deal of time will be devoted to developing independence on the drumkit, especially with the feet. Contemporary jazz players have a highly developed sense of coordination and polyrhythms. Although most jazz drummers play at a moderate volume level, great endurance is required. Keeping the intensity up during a long, fast number requires a relaxed technique, emotional control and a well-developed sense of time.
The rock drummer, on the other hand, has to develop power like no other drummer. Not only is the power needed to play up to the volume of the group—it is needed to get the appropriate sound and feel. Another factor is that the rock drummer is usually expected to play a large drumkit. This is a special challenge and it requires a good drumset technique. When drummers who play small kits put down the large kits, I feel like asking them, “Can you play well on a large kit?” I personally think it is quite a challenge to do it well. And I’ve heard enough drummers play well on a big kit to know that it can be done musically.
The rudimental drummer frequently exhibits techniques on the snare drum that will impress any drummer. I have seen rudimental players from Scotland and Switzerland who would bring smiles to the faces of drummers of all styles. Some of the things these musicians can play—and play well—are downright amazing.
So now let’s get back to the subject of technique. All drummers have some technical skills. The skills are not necessarily the same, because the music they play is not the same. In other words, the musical situation in which you find yourself influences your technical, as well as musical, development. As a result, we do not all practice the same skills equally.
The accomplished pros who say they don’t care about technique are basically saying, “We’ve already done that, and now we are concentrating on playing music.” This is an understandable attitude. However, in each case they are using their technical skills to convey their feel-ngs and ideas.
I keep going back to my piano player friend’s comment. His statement includes not only technique, but music. What kind of music do you want to play? What techniques are required? What will it take to develop them? My suggestion is to watch and listen to everyone, and learn from everyone. Then do your own thing. Just don’t criticize others for doing theirs.