Teacher’s Forum

A Logical Approach To Teaching The Roll

by Forrest Clark

Forrest Clark has performed with the Utah Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. He has recorded with Leopold Stowkowski, Igor Stravinsky and Bruno Walter among others, and is the author of the Encyclopedia for Snare Drum. Formerly percussion instructor at the Music Academy of the West at Santa Barbara, California, Mr. Clark presently teaches at the California State University in Irvine.Our current spectrum of musical instrument pedagogy seems to provide a wide array of divergent opinions, theories, and techniques for training and performance. From my viewpoint as a performer and teacher, I consider this to be healthy.There is one type of teaching philosophy which I do not consider to be quite so beneficial. This is represented by the teacher who claims that his way is “the right way” and at the same time is unable to offer any adequate, logical proof or demonstration in support of his position. Tutors who fall into this latter category are often the staunchest defenders and perpetuators of the many myths, fallacies, or “sacred cows” of which percussion pedagogy has a very ample share. A brief sampling of such false doctrines are the following:
— Wrist action is essential to a well executed roll.
— Practicing with heavier sticks will build my chops.
— An untied drum roll should cease on the final 8th note count of its value.

In order that I may present the information which I believe can be helpful to those interested in the improvement of their snare drum roll, I find it necessary to contradict the first of the aforementioned common misconceptions. In my earlier years as a musician, I began a rather thorough analyzation of my percussion techniques with the object of increasing my comprehension as a teacher and for general improvement. During this process, I came to notice certain peculiarities about my Buzz Roll technique. Although my roll was smooth and controlled, my wrists stiffened noticeably (especially the left) and my execution was practically with arm motion alone. Recognizing this as a fault, I immediately began a corrective action of daily practice using the wrist turn in my roll. My teacher had never mentioned my having this “bad habit”; nevertheless, I felt sure it should be corrected since wrist action is essential to all aspects of drumming execution (or so I assumed).

My efforts were without reward though. Turning my wrists was easy, but this seemed to induce a noticeable pulsation or accent at the start of each Buzz. During the next few weeks, I doubled my efforts but with absolutely no sign of improvement whatsoever. At this point, I began to study other drummers closely without their being aware of it. In every single case, those who utilized wrist action had roll problems, while those who played smooth rolls stiffened their wrists just like I did. This was rather surprising, but after careful consideration, I eventually realized that from the standpoint of natural physical law, it is only logical to roll with arm action and to avoid wrist turns as much as possible, particularly with the traditional left hand grip. This situation is not nearly so noticeable with matched grip players because the wrist leverage is not so critical as with the traditional left hand grip. My own body had discovered this for me although I was not consciously aware of it at the time because my mind concentrated upon “sound” rather than mechanics.

The false premise that one should turn their wrists while rolling is one which a great many percussionists, including the more well-schooled, tend to take for granted as did I even though I was not taught this concept.

The Buzz Roll has acquired a reputation of being a “stumbling block,” “a problem area,” “the very last thing one ever perfects,” etc. Personally, I find it to be a very easy subject to teach; relatively easy to develop; and once developed, it requires little or no further practice to maintain. A drastic difference in outlook I grant, however, I am very capable of proving my point by demonstration. The cause of this drastic difference lies solely in the methods of training and developing this roll.

One approach, often used, has been to develop the double stroke RRLL from slow to fast using wrist and arm movements on each stroke, then increasing the tempo to full speed by rebounding the secondary strokes. After this has been developed, the student is then told to increase the number of rebounds by increasing the pressure on the drumsticks. Although this is how many players (including myself) first learned the Buzz Roll, I now regard this as the most unsatisfactory method of all. Technique-wise, the double stroke and the buzz roll have little in common. Even the mere development of the double stroke roll prior to learning the buzz roll often establishes certain conditioned reflexes which interfere with, and sometimes prevent altogether, the development of a good buzz roll. The automatic wrist turn and the tendency to increase one’s pressure during rebounds are two common problems often caused by this procedure.

The approach which I have found to be most successful is to indoctrinate the Buzz technique as early as possible in the student’s basic training, usually commencing with just one hand at a time. A negative idea such as concentration upon “NOT turning the wrist” usually does not work well; whereas, a positive idea such as “lifting and lowering the entire drumstick gently with the arm, allowing the stick to freely bounce” will have better results. At this stage, the student can be made aware of how the speed or texture of the rebounds are controlled by pressure exerted by the index finger of the left hand and the second finger of the right hand (with most players). Here it is vital to stress the fact that the focal point of controlling pressure is of extreme importance. It can be easily and dramatically demonstrated that the greater the distance between the pressure point and the pivot point of the stick (located at the thumb), the more difficult it is to affect a satisfactory Buzz. When the finger pressure point is very close to the thumb, the rebounds will be far more consistent and more easily controlled.

As the student advances in his ability to affect a Buzz Roll, other factors which effect his roll may be clarified.
Some of these are:

1. The angle of the drumstick at the moment of impact (usually a left hand problem). The more the stick is tilted towards the drumhead, the more crushed, stifled, and uncontrollable are the rebounds. Always play as level to the drumhead as possible.

2. The hinge or pivot point of both sticks should be alike. If one stick is held at a point 4″ from the butt and the other stick about 5 1/2″ it is rather obvious that there will be some problems in acquiring an evenly textured roll.

3. Achieving fuller control of the rebound speed so that all Buzzes are equal in sound. Some years ago, the late Harry A. Bower taught me to rebound three strokes per hand. Many hours of practice gave me the ability to control this evenly to a full speed roll and, for concert playing, I use exactly 3 per hand 90% of the time. On a “dance band” type of drum with wire snares, I use more pressure to achieve a finer Buzz. The texture of one’s roll is dependent upon the performer’s concept of what sound is appropriate to the style of music he is performing. The practice I spent on controlling 3 per hand has helped my hands develop a certain “feel” for equal pressure regardless of whether I play a finer or a more coarsely grained roll.

4. Speed of alternations. Four pulses to a beat at around M.M. 112-116 is the norm for practically all professionals. The speed tends to increase above this when = playing loudly and decreases to around M.M. 96 in a super-soft roll.

5. Super-soft or pppp roll. Beyond the factors already mentioned, one item is most important – Pressure! Theoretically, any drumstick is too heavy to produce a roll at this dynamic level; therefore, it must somehow be lightened. All downward pressure exerted by the fingers must be eliminated and replaced by the opposite type of pressure from the thumbs. The proper application of this thumb grip pressure can be recognized when the bead of the drumstick tends to “float” lightly in the air like a cork on water. A musical Buzz can then be produced by lifting the bead of the stick as little as 1/8″ above the head (ordinarily the stick cannot produce sufficient rebounds for a roll at this level). This is the most difficult item to learn in Buzz Roll technique. The “drum set” performer may never have need of it; while to the symphonic percussionist, it is an absolute necessity. As for the last two aforementioned “sacred cows”, consider the following:

A heavy 3S model stick requires less wrist effort than will a light 7A model due to the added helpful momentum of the heavy stick.

The cessation of the untied roll is not measured in such terms. They merely cease just prior to the end of the note value exactly in the same manner as any wind or string instrumentalist ends their untied notes.

There is little doubt that there are those who will cling to the false theory of the wrist turn without bothering to study the question honestly; nevertheless, it is my hope that there will be some who will reevaluate their position and gain from it.