When executing individual stroke types, it’s important that our approach remains consistent no matter what type of stroke is played. It’s very easy for drummers to be more aggressive when playing a downstroke, or rapidly pull away from the drum when playing an upstroke, all while subconsciously playing a completely relaxed full stroke. When we suffer from having these types of habits, the sound and timbre that we produce on the drum can change drastically between each stroke, causing our playing to sound random and displeasing. Also, when the physical approach changes between strokes, the efficiency of those transitions suffers, inevitably causing problems with the ease of playing. Let’s work on fixing these discrepancies, first by discussing them in depth, and then by exploring a study I’ve written to help you concentrate on relaxing while playing different stroke types.
Drummers have often been told to relax while playing. But what does that mean? What do we relax? Why do we have to relax? What happens when we relax in a certain area but not in another? In general, if our approach to playing begins in a relaxed physical state, the sounds, motions, and strokes will be relaxed. To do this we first have to establish what being “relaxed” means for us individually, and I’ve found that comparing normal everyday activities to the way we play drums is a good way to begin that process. How easy is it to brush your teeth, lay in bed, or walk down the street? If we play each stroke as easily as we accomplish these daily activities, more than likely we can conclude that we’re relaxed in general when playing.
This is a broad perspective on relaxation that can be extremely useful for increased efficiency and aesthetic consistency. However, unnecessary tension can creep up in many areas of the body, inhibiting certain movements and changing the timbre of the strokes subtly. Being aware of your body and how it’s responding or reacting to what you play can inform you of where these tension points are. For example, when you approach a floor tom on the far-right side of your kit while your left foot remains on the hi-hat, how does your body respond to this movement? How can you make this position feel more natural? Perhaps you can simply bring your right arm to the drum, or maybe you need to turn slightly to execute this. Does your shoulder lift? If it does, is that movement necessary? You can ask yourself these types of questions for a while, and at the end of this exploration, hopefully you’ll be able to determine and practice how to execute the action in a relaxed manner.
This process can be made less daunting by beginning at the foundation: stroke types. Consider your approach to a full stroke. Are you letting gravity take the stick down to the drum, or are you influencing the stick in some way? Are your shoulders relaxed? Are you squeezing your fingers on the stick at any point? Starting with these small details informs you and prepares you to expand to larger muscle groups later.
To start off, be aware of your basic posture and hand position, and be sure that they both are as relaxed as the everyday activity you’re comparing your position to. After that, begin playing the individual stroke types with slow, deliberate movements, and see if that relaxation changes in any way. When the addition of movement fails to negatively influence your relaxed state, you’ve achieved the goal of removing unnecessary tension from your stroke.
Here are some tips for accomplishing relaxation with each stroke type:
When executing a full stroke (in which you throw the stick down toward the drum and let it rebound off the drumhead so that it returns to the height where it started), focus on allowing gravity to drop the stick for you. The wrist follows the rebound of the stick after it has contacted the drum and guides it back to its starting position.
When executing a downstroke (in which the stick starts high and stops close to the head after contact), focus on allowing gravity to take the stick to the drum and relaxing your grip when it strikes the drum. Don’t squeeze your fingers upon impact; instead, allow the stick to rebound into a tap position.
When executing an upstroke (which starts low and ends high, and is usually employed to transition from a soft note to an accent), begin low off the drum in a tap position. Allow gravity to drop the stick to the head, and lift from the wrist only after the rebound occurs. Do not squeeze the fingers, particularly at the fulcrum.
When executing a tap stroke (a soft, low free stroke), focus on your posture and hand position. Be sure you’re not trying to stabilize or hold yourself in place, and try to remain completely at ease physically. Allow gravity to take the stick to the drum, and let the resulting rebound bring the stick back into the tap stroke’s starting position.
This is very detailed work that can seem tedious. But the results you achieve will be very apparent and can be extremely useful to your playing. When you’re more relaxed, you can play longer, increasing your endurance. If you let gravity and the rebound do the work for you, it makes playing easier and allows you to play faster. By working with gravity and staying relaxed upon impact, you can play louder and decrease the occurences of broken drumheads or sticks and prevent injuries to yourself.
When you approach playing the drums as leisurely as you would walking down a street, it makes the activity second-nature, and you feel more connected to the instrument, as if it’s an extension of your body. These are ongoing challenges to me as a drummer, and I continue to dissect my playing to ensure that it’s as relaxed as possible so that I can perform to my maximum potential.
As an orchestral percussionist, I need full control of my movements to the smallest degree, as well as full control of the sounds I create. Following along this particular career path helped me gain that control, essentially because I simply let myself go and allowed the most natural movements to guide my technique. But these concepts are not limited to that professional path. We can all exploit rebound, relaxed movements, and the many color palettes that can be created through different combinations of the two, and I hope these tips help on that journey of exploration.
Utilize the following study to achieve relaxation through each stroke type. “F” represents a full stroke, “D” represents a downstroke, “U” represents an upstroke, and “T” represents a tap. Spend time with these exercises while concentrating on and internalizing the concepts in this lesson. Happy practicing!
A native of Chicago, Illinois, Josh Jones began his studies in percussion during a tenure at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Percussion Scholarship Program. Throughout his career, Josh has performed at Carnegie Hall and on radio and television, and has had two short documentaries made about his musical development and experience. For more information, visit drummojo.com.