In this final installment of this series, we’re going to address how to position the instruments that we only play five to thirty percent of the time, such as splashes, Chinas, cowbells, electric pads, additional rack toms, and auxiliary crashes. The goal when determining the placement of these instruments is to maintain optimal shoulder mechanics and joint health.
There are no set rules dictating how you should place your secondary instruments. We tend to make those decisions based on what we see our peers and favorite drummers within different musical genres do. For example, it’s common in heavy metal for a China to be placed to the right side of the kit, over the floor tom. But in jazz, that spot is often used for a secondary ride. While you can give those setups a try to see if they work for you, let’s start by identifying if your body can be put into a position that helps you play those setups safely and comfortably.
I consider a secondary instrument to be any component placed just beyond comfortable reach. It’s important to be aware of what your body is doing when you have to reach for something. The increase in torque puts much more strain on your body. When playing secondary instruments, this strain isn’t usually a huge issue because the amount of time you’re reaching for them is minimal. But those forces are still there.
With secondary instruments, we should focus on their impact to the shoulder complex and neck muscles. The shoulder complex consists of the sternoclavicular joint (the collarbone to the rib cage), the acromioclavicular joint (the collarbone to shoulder blade), the glenohumeral joint (the connection of the shoulder, arm, and shoulder blade), and the scapulothoracic joint (the shoulder blade on the rib cage). We also need to be aware of what effects the ligaments have on these joints. I will also briefly explain the effects that reaching for secondary instruments can have on some of the larger neck muscles.
The ligaments are collagen-based wires that help hold our bones together. They act much like guardrails on a freeway. They aren’t intended to take a lot of force for long periods of time, but they can when necessary. But with enough repetitive impact, ligaments can fail and potentially break.
An amazing feature of ligaments is in how they help transmit force and increase joint stability. When the shoulder is moved to an extreme position, the ligaments act like a washcloth being drained of water. The shape of the tissue doesn’t change, but the twisting motion compresses the structures inside. When you reach to your far right to hit a cymbal, your shoulder joint is externally rotated. This causes some of the shoulder ligaments to become tighter. While the shoulder has more stability in this position, there’s also a lot more compression in the joint. It’s usually in these extreme positions that ligaments get damaged.
The neck muscles are a typical area of strain for drummers. As you reach farther away from your core, the torque at your shoulder and neck increases. Because these muscles are so large and powerful, they often do a lot of the work to maintain those extended arm positions. We won’t focus much on these muscles here, but make sure to follow the advice provided in the last two articles to greatly reduce strain on your neck.
Although I’ll be focusing on a cymbal placed on the far right, the assessment that follows should be applied to each secondary suspended instrument on your kit.
Start by doing gross assessments that combine spinal and shoulder motion to give you a continuum of placement options. If you experience pain at any point during the assessment, move back to a neutral body position, and begin rotating your spine and shoulder until you find the point where pain begins. Do not set up any instrument beyond that position.
Now place your elbow at the side of your body with the elbow bent to a 90-degree angle. Hold a drumstick in your usual grip, and then externally rotate your arm as far as you can away from your body without letting your arm leave the side of your body. When the shoulder starts to tighten up, start to rotate your torso in the same direction. Don’t let your wrist rotate out of position. Make note of how far you can go.
Now bring your arm to a 90-degree angle while reaching in front of you with a drumstick in your hand. Move your arm out to the side as far as you can without experiencing any discomfort. Once your shoulder tightens up, allow your spine to rotate with it. Make note of how far you can go.
The summation of those steps will give you a sense of where you can place instruments without changing your wrist position. Try to avoid placing anything outside of these extremes to keep your body safe.
Once you’ve placed a secondary suspended instrument within your kit, move your arm and torso into position to play that instrument and hold a stick 2″ above the surface of it for thirty to sixty seconds. Do you feel any pain or discomfort when in this position? If you do feel pain, adjust the angle and position of the instrument until it feels more comfortable. Repeat this process with each secondary suspended instrument.
If you’ve read all of the articles in this series, you should have the basic info needed to customize a comfortable setup for your own physical and musical needs. Stay healthy, and happy drumming!
Muscle and exercise specialist Brandon Green is the founder of Strata Internal Performance Center, and is the owner of the drummer-centric biomechanics and fitness website drum-mechanics.com.