By Charley Perry
Technique is commonly thought of in terms of mechanics, leading to voluminous studies aimed at the technical aspects of drumming. These are fine for improving or maintaining one’s technique, but they contribute little, if anything, to the drummer’s touch, sound, phrasing, interpretation, and timing. It is up to the teacher to develop musicality from a student’s technique.
The teacher can begin by having the student ask himself: Is my touch too heavy or too light? Does it produce the desired sound on my drums and cymbals? Is my volume level the same as that of the group? Is my timing steady, and does it generate the feeling I want (exciting or funky, etc.)? Is my playing sup portive of the soloists and ensemble? Or am I playing strictly for myself? What am I trying to say musically? Does it enhance or detract from the collective effort of the group?
Thinking of technique only in terms of power and speed rules out the finer points and subtleties that make drumming colorful and dynamic. Power and speed are important—in their place, but without musical purpose and sufficient control they’re meaningless. Furthermore, power doesn’t necessitate an excessively hard or heavy touch. The drummer’s artistry lies in the musical application of his facilities, not merely fast “chops.” Directionless speed is mindless. Uncontrolled speed is bad technique.
Buddy Rich, one of the fastest and most powerful drummers never pounds his drums. On the contrary, much of his brilliance derives from a smooth, at times delicate touch, and a dynamic range that extends from a whisper to a roar. Nor does he play many notes where one or two will do. Mel Lewis, another outstanding big band stylist, is never heavy or cumbersome. Neither is Ed Shaughnessy, the excellent drummer on the Tonight Show.
Mechanical aids such as heavy metal sticks may succeed in building muscles; but I can’t justify their use. Drummers are not weightlifters. Sheer muscle development is the goal of the latter. Muscle control, only as it relates to the finesse of fine musicianship, is the desire of the former. The manner of gripping the drumsticks, the stroking and touch (the degree of muscular intensity) upon the drums and cymbals are the all important factors. Brute strength alone “doth not a good drummer make.”
Every muscle action results in a lesser or greater tension. Tension, in fact, is a requisite for producing motion. Muscular tension is flexible, readily adjustable to changing conditions and demands, and produces the specific intensity which is characteristic of dynamic drumming, whether loud or soft. Without such intensity, drumming tends to be lethargic, and deprived of vital energy.
There is a danger, however, in too much tension. When sustained for an extended period of time, extreme tension can result in rigidity. Rigidity is not pliable. Rather, it is fixed, unyielding, and unresponsive to the nuances needed for interpretation. Excessive tightness can cause muscle fatigue which, in turn, considerably lessens endurance and control. Invariably, timing will also suffer.
For examples of intensity applied expertly, listen to drummers Bernard Purdie, Steve Gadd, Tony Williams, Roy Haynes, and Jack De Johnette.
Finding Level of Intensity
In the course of practice, experiment with muscular tension. Loosen your muscles. Allow them to “let go,” to become as limp as possible. Retain only the tension necessary to grip and manipulate the drumsticks. Gradually increase the tension to its maximum. Notice the difference in muscle tone, as well as the tone of the drums and cymbals, at each level of intensity. By thoroughly familiarizing yourself with varying degrees of tension and their accompanying bodily sensations, you will eventually find the exact degree of intensity at which your drumming sounds and feels best. Let me emphasize that specific tension-control can be learned, and that it is possible to maintain tension in the necessary muscles for correct performance while the rest of the body remains in a state of relative relaxation. The answer, then, lies not only in presence or absence of tension, but rather in the degree and control of muscular tension.
A grip that is too tight or squeezed will choke the sound and inhibit the motion of the drumstick. Moreover, the drumset player continually alters his grip when playing on toms and cymbals to attain a multitude of sounds, effects, and feelings. Therefore, the grip should only be firm enough to insure maximum comfort and control.
Study the techniques of the best drummers. Try to assimilate the principles of a particular technique, if you like, or adapt part of it to your own drumming. But avoid becoming the clone of another musician. Don’t impose upon yourself rigid exactness, the sticking method, etc., that evolved from the life experience of someone else and that is particularly suited to his body system and style. In all probability it will not work for you. Technique should express your body system and thinking. Learn to trust your own instincts and mind. Gratification and sense of self worth comes from the distinctly personal approach to drumming.