Loud, Soft, and Everything in Between
by Bill Bachman
I believe that a drummer should be able to pick up sticks and make music on any sound source. The two biggest keys to doing this are having an extended rhythmic vocabulary and employing excellent dynamic control. The more expressively you can play on one drum or cymbal, the more you’ll be able to say when you add drums and cymbals. This month we’re going to explore dynamic changes and the mechanics necessary to modulate from one dynamic level to the next using crescendos and decrescendos. A crescendo is where we gradually increase in volume, and a decrescendo is the opposite. The exercises are pretty simple, but maximizing your dynamic expression within them will be a challenge and will require finesse and chops. The quieter you can keep your lower dynamics, the louder the loud dynamics will seem (and vice versa), so be sure to exaggerate the extremes.
The first exercise is an eight-on-a-hand variation called 8-8-16. Start low, at pianissimo (very soft), with the beads of the sticks lifting just an inch off the drum. Then crescendo over one bar to forte (loud), until the sticks are turning as high as is comfortable relative to the tempo being played. (Don’t overdo the heights at the louder dynamics.) The next bar will decrescendo in opposite fashion. The crescendo is the easier part, since you gradually interact with the stick less and let your fingers open up more in correlation with the increased wrist turn. The decrescendo is more difficult, since it requires more interaction with the sticks as the fingers close down in correlation with the reducing wrist turn. Be sure to watch your stick heights as they incrementally go up or down in correlation with the dynamics, and make sure that every stroke is a loose and rebounding free stroke. (Never tighten down on the sticks, regardless of the dynamic level.)
Now do the same exercise with the dynamics going down and up.
For more variation, try making the crescendos and decrescendos occur over only two counts and then over one count without changing the exercise. A lot of control is needed, as these dynamic changes will start coming at you very quickly.
Now apply the same concepts/techniques to a single-stroke-roll exercise using 8th and 16th notes. Here’s what it looks like with the dynamics going up and then down.
Here’s the reverse, with the dynamics going down and then up.
Once you have those down, try making the crescendos and decrescendos occur over two counts and then over one count without changing the exercise.
Now it’s time to add dynamics to rolls. These exercises will feel quite different from the previous ones, since rolls require downward pressure into the drum. The higher the dynamic, the more you’ll have to dig in and use the fingers on the second stroke of each diddle. The lower dynamics require a lighter touch so that the rolls don’t sound crushed. As you crescendo and decrescendo, your touch will have to gradually change in correlation with the stick height and dynamic level. Again, avoid playing too high or hard at the top dynamic levels, and make sure the dynamic of the second stroke of the diddle matches that of the first.
The exercise goes up and down in incrementally smaller phrases, from four bars to two bars, one bar, two counts, and then one count. Pace the rate of crescendos and decrescendos evenly over the entire phrase, watch the stick heights, and listen carefully. The check patterns are used to establish the hand motion and timing between rolls. Play the check patterns with a technique as similar to the roll as possible, with the exception of the forearm pump required to play rolls at faster tempos. The fingers should stay lightly wrapped around the stick while you play the check patterns, since at most tempos they don’t open up very far for the diddles. Do this exercise in a straight-8th-note context, and then repeat it using triplets. For extra variation, try also playing these with buzz rolls.
Bill Bachman is an international drum clinician, the author of Stick Technique (Modern Drummer Publications), and the founder of drumworkout.com. For more information, including how to sign up for online lessons, visit billbachman.net.