Energy is, and always has been, very important to drummers. Years ago, the toughest task for a drummer was to play an extremely fast tempo, while one horn player after another attempted to “cut” or “top” the previous soloist. These super-fast “cutting” sessions could last 30 or 40 minutes. The volume level was not too high, but the energy requirements were great. Drummers used to spend hours honing their fast-tempo skills in order to avoid being embarrassed at a jam session. The only thing tougher than the fast-tempo jam session was playing fast tempos with brushes. Piano players were famous for saying, “Just play brushes.” (In fact, my auditions for Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, and Joe Bushkin required me to play fast tempos with brushes before I played anything else.) I spent many an hour playing brushes on the back of an album cover along with the fastest records in my collection.
Today, it’s different. The killer is not fast tempos, but volume. Instead of worrying about their right hands tightening up, today’s drummers have to be concerned with their entire bodies. Playing with amplified instruments has placed new demands on a drummer’s supply of energy and endurance. Practicing and playing do help to build both strength and stamina. However, practicing alone will not completely prepare the young drummer to meet the energy needs of contemporary music.
Several things rob us of energy. For example, tension—which can be the result of fear or of trying too hard—takes away endurance. Smoking cigarettes takes away energy by robbing the lungs of oxygen. Alcohol, excessive amounts of coffee, or drugs will all take away energy in the long run.
Learning to breathe in a healthy way can bring about both relaxation and a renewal of energy. The best way to learn this is to lie on the floor on your back. Make sure that your clothing is loose enough to allow for a deep breath, and loosen your belt, if necessary.
All healthy breathing begins with a slow and complete exhalation. You first have to empty a container before you can fill it. After slowly exhaling the air in the lungs, draw the abdomen and stomach up and in to “push” the stale air from the lungs. (Many of us only breathe about halfway, which results in our carrying around a lot of stale air containing no oxygen.) This exhalation must be silent. If you can hear yourself breathing, you are going too fast; if it is silent, it will be slow. The more you exhale, the more fresh air you will get into your lungs when you inhale.
Now inhale slowly and silently. When the lungs feel full, expand the abdomen. When it is full, expand the ribs slightly. Then, raise the shoulders and the collar bones easily to fill the upper part of the lungs completely. Now exhale, slowly and silently, pushing out all of the air with the abdomen. There should be no gasping; the air should enter and exit your lungs slowly and silently. This gives the lungs the maximum opportunity to take in oxygen.
You can do this exercise for as long as you wish. It should not induce any discomfort or fatigue. Early in the morning and before going to sleep are good times for this exercise; it will help you to relax and to enhance your level of energy. However, you can do this exercise any time you are tense or tired. Once you have learned it, you can perform it while standing, walking, or sitting. It’s a great one to do between sets or just before a big concert.
Remember to breathe slowly, continuously, and easily. Do not blow yourself up like a balloon. Ideal breathing is deep, slow, silent, and easy. Such breathing will aid relaxation and help you to be more alert.
Breathing in a rhythm or to a count can have a positive effect on your energy level and endurance. A good way to start is as follows: four counts (slowly) for breathing in, two counts for holding the breath, and then eight counts for exhaling. Holding the breath for a couple of counts allows the lungs more time to assimilate oxygen. As you practice and improve, the counts can be extended. For example, six to breathe in, four to hold the breath, and 12 to exhale. Allow twice as many counts for exhaling as inhaling. Just remember that, if the breathing becomes audible or if you take in too much air, you are “forcing” it. Silent and slow is the best way.
Concentrate only on your breathing. You need to think of nothing else. When playing the drums, concentrate on your drumming and the music. Breathing naturally while playing is the result of practicing the breathing exercises when not playing. Best of all, if you do it easily, there are no negative side effects. It’s also free.