Strategies for Playing Fast and Staying Relaxed1It’s widely understood that the faster the tempo, the more relaxed your body needs to be. In some cases, however, players psych themselves out when playing fast, which in turn affects their confidence in the ability to compose beat and solo ideas that flow. This month’s Jazz Drummer’s Workshop provides relaxation strategies for playing tempos in excess of 300 bpm.

Newton’s third law of motion explains that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. For example, when one object (a stick) pushes against another (a drum or cymbal), the object rebounds back in the opposite direction with equal force.

Try this exercise. Sit comfortably behind your ride cymbal with your upper arm hanging naturally to your side. Bring the bead of the stick to the “up” position where it’s ready to strike. Throw your stick (make a loose, flowing stroke), and allow it to rebound freely out of the fulcrum and back to the original starting position. Continue this drill, accepting each rebound as you develop your wrist reflexes to follow the stick back up without inhibiting it. Note that the faster you throw the stick downward, the more intense the sound and rebound off the ride cymbal become.

Realize that the driving force for each stroke comes from a combination of forearm, wrist, and finger action. In order to control fast tempos, it’s vital to stay relaxed and allow your sticks to rebound naturally.

Below are four ride cymbal patterns to practice at fast tempos. Each example contains five notes per measure (which is one fewer than the standard jazz ride beat). Omitting one note per measure helps provide rest and recovery time for your wrist, forearms, and fingers at faster rates. Practice these in front of a mirror to ensure that your form remains loose and flowing as the tempo increases.

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Once you have control of each single-measure example, try putting them together as an eight-measure phrase.

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Experiment with the phrase above by reordering the measures. The example below is written in retrograde (backward) motion when compared with the original.

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Several years ago, I had a conversation about up-tempo playing with Jake Hanna, who worked with Woody Herman’s big band in the 1960s. The Herman band was famous for playing fast, and Hanna explained that they developed the ability to perform these tempos gradually and as a unit. “Our lead trumpet player, Bill Chase, would ask me how fast I could play the arrangement,” Jake explained. “I said that I could play it this fast for four measures, this fast for a chorus, and this fast for the entire night. At first we opted for the third tempo, gradually building it up until we could play the arrangement at the tempo that at first we could only play for four measures.”

Here’s the pattern Hanna uses on the Woody Herman arrangement of “Caldonia,” from the live recording Encore. (The track also appears on the more widely available Verve compilation Jazz Masters 54.) Notice how Jake releases physical tension by substituting a rimclick for the ride on beat 2.

Strategies for Playing Fast and Staying Relaxed 5MAX ATTACK
Another up-tempo master was the jazz innovator Max Roach. His playing on saxophonist Charlie Parker’s box set The Complete Dial Sessions is a great model for how to handle the scorching pace of bebop. Roach’s beats have a relaxed feeling, and his pattern of choice is a left-hand-lead doublestroke roll broken up between the snare and ride cymbal.

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For a variation, try inverting Max’s pattern.

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Another great rhythm to utilize for tension release is the paradiddle-diddle. As you practice the phrases below, focus on blending your upper and lower appendages dynamically, which can help the flow and consistency of each idea.

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Here’s the same phrase starting on the “&” of beat 1.

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To change things up, try inserting a single paradiddle between each paradiddle-diddle sticking. This gives you a 5/4 phrase over the 4/4 time signature.Strategies for Playing Fast and Staying Relaxed 10

An interesting variation on the paradiddle-diddle idea, used by Vanguard Orchestra drummer John Riley, involves lopping off the last note of the sticking to create a 5/8 motif over the 4/4 time signature.

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“Lover Come Back to Me,” Off to the Races, Donald Byrd with Art Taylor on drums (330 bpm) /// “One for Mort,” The Blues Book, Booker Ervin with Alan Dawson (332 bpm) /// “Daahoud,” The Trio Live From Chicago, Oscar Peterson with Ed Thigpen (352 bpm) /// “Caldonia,” Verve Jazz Masters 54, Woody Herman with Jake Hanna (368 bpm) /// “Cherokee,” At the Prelude, Red Garland Trio with Charles “Specs” Wright (376 bpm) /// “Tanga,” Don’t Get Sassy, Ray Brown Trio with Jeff Hamilton (376 bpm) /// “Bebop,” The Arrival of Victor Feldman, Victor Feldman with Stan Levy (400 bpm) /// “Playmate,” The Place to Be, Benny Green with Kenny Washington (412 bpm)


Steve Fidyk co-leads the Taylor/Fidyk Big Band (with arranger Mark Taylor), freelances with vocalist Maureen McGovern, and is a member of the jazz studies faculty at Temple University in Philadelphia. Fidyk is the author of several instructional books. His latest, Big Band Drumming at First Sight, is available through Alfred Publishing.