Since my interview appeared in Modern Drummer, I have had many requests to elaborate on some of the topics that were covered only briefly at that time.
Most drummers I have talked to have some form of body tension they would like to be rid of. They want to be more in control of how they feel from day to day, but instead, they find themselves relaxed one day and “out of sorts” on another. They do not want to rely on drugs or alcohol for temporary relief and the possible creation of an addiction problem. I myself, had to face the fact that I didn’t feel as comfortable as I would have liked behind the drums. About ten years ago, I started on a search to help myself become a better drummer. The answer was to become more aware of my body while playing. The drumset, after all, is a total body instrument. You use all four limbs, your heart, and your intellect. If you are not in excellent shape in all areas, it becomes apparent very quickly because the drumset is like a gauge of one’s overall good health.
What I found, was when I learned how to relax properly, my playing improved dramatically. My time feel became more solid, my ability to memorize patterns increased and my melodic sense flowered. I discovered that relaxation was the most important rudiment of all! Relaxation is the rudiment of rudiments! This was just the beginning, however, because I took it upon myself to relearn the drums using principles I had learned from the study of T’ai chi ch’uan. T’ai chi is a Chinese martial art that has fluidity of movement and openess of all the joints as a principle part of its technique. A T’ai chi master can release tremendous amounts of energy and never tighten up. He uses the force of the opponent and is able to match any move of an opponent because he adheres closely to him. He becomes one with the opponent.
I had first-hand experience with these principles during my study with Robert Amacker, a T’ai chi master from San Francisco. He showed me that power does not come from tightening, but rather from connectedness throughout the whole body. Connectedness comes from feeling an openness and suppleness in all the joints. Tightness brings about disconnectedness. So I started all over again learning how to do a simple basic drum stroke, making sure I didn’t tighten in the fulcrum, or the shoulder, or anywhere that wasn’t absolutely necessary. Staying loose, and connected to the stick, allowed me to use the force of gravity on the down stroke and to receive the energy on the up stroke via the rebound. Meanwhile, by continuing my study, I was learning not only T’ai chi, but correct posture.
Every drummer that has come to me with a desire to improve his playing, has had poor posture at the drumset. When you look at the various drums in front of you as you play, the natural tendency is to crane the neck forward. This causes a roundness of the shoulders and a curving of the spine. This bad posture is very familiar to most drummers. The problem is how to sit so this doesn’t happen and what to do if it does. If you try to sit straight, by tightening the neck and holding up the chest, this quickly becomes tiring and you soon slump back down again. If you stay in the slumped position, the shoulders develop aches, the back hurts, and the breathing is shallow. To keep the torso in its most open and energetic position you must, first of all, concentrate on the lower back and the hip joints. A simple exercise to facilitate correct posture is to roll forward on the sit bones, not the waist (Fig. 1). Then roll back on the sit bones as if to exaggerate bad posture (Fig. 2). Having experienced both the extreme forward and the extreme backward position on the sit bones, proceed to find that place in the middle which seems most balanced (Fig. 3). The feeling should be one of naturalness and ease when you are balanced. The tendency to slump back into bad posture will have to be observed, and when that happens, all you need to do is repeat the simple exercise outlined in Figs. 1, 2, and 3.
An important point to consider is that the lower spine should be slightly concave, thus allowing the vertabrae to stack correctly for a relaxed upright posture. The feeling should be that the lower torso, both the belly and the lower back, are very relaxed. It feels like you are one of those beach toys that’s weighted on the bottom and always pops up if it is knocked down. This new feeling of balance will point out the need to re-adjust the position of your cymbals and drums. Do it! Remember, don’t adjust your posture to fit the drumset—adjust the drums and cymbals to accommodate your relaxed and open posture.