Jazz Drummer’s Workshop

Solving Technical Problems

by Ed Soph

All instruments have several approaches to a foundational technique. These techniques are determined by the physical nature of the instrument, the styles of music to be played on that instrument, and the physical limitations and advantages of the musician.A foundational technique is a common sense base upon which the performer may build his own technical identity. Identity emerges from the discovery of musical objectives. One’s technique grows out of the search to express musical ideas or feelings.

In my experience with clinics and students, I have recognized common foundational technique problems. I see them as problems because invariably, they limit musical expression. They usually limit further technical development, also. We must always keep in mind that drums are instruments of motion, of physical action in time which produces notes, or rhythms, in time. The motions may be large or small strokes, fast or slow, soft or loud, accented or unaccented. One of the more common of the foundational technique problems is the subject of wrist pivots, a matter I feel worthy of detailed discussion.

We have all seen drummers who move between their drums and cymbals (not “around” the drums a la Billy Cobham) using stiff arms. The patterns played in this manner usually sound rigid and completely out of place in a swinging environment. Again, our set-up and its centralization, is important. First, our left-hand side.

Position the mounted tom(s) slightly tilted and above the snare to meet the stroke rather than elongate it. One-handed patterns between the snare and tom can be played without pushing and pulling the left arm to and from the tom. The only adjustment with the left hand is that of moving it so that you are playing on the head area of the snare closest to the tom. Then patterns between these two drums become a matter of raising the stick with the wrist and pushing it towards the tom with the fingers (use traditional grip) and then down to the tom with the wrist again. The action is centered in the pivot of the wrist and fingers rather than in the awkward movement of the entire arm. The same technique may be used to play figures between your snare, tom, and left cymbal(s). Exclusively matched grip players may find this awkward because of the need to stick the elbow out to get into pivot position. Again, experiment.

The same pivot principle may be applied to the right hand when it plays patterns between the snare, ride, and floor tom. We start with the right hand on the snare, holding the stick so that the back of the hand is facing upward. By pivoting over to the ride with the wrist and using slight outward arm motion, the stick should be in the playing area of the cymbal. Now, the back of the hand no longer faces upward. The thumb is on top of the stick. The hand is positioned like shaking hands. Some may disagree with this position for playing the ride. As always, there are exceptions. The backhand-up position is useful forgetting certain sounds and feels, depending upon the player’s technical objectivity. Pivot from the wrist back to the snare and the hand resumes its snare position. The same procedure applies to moving between the snare and floor tom with the right hand.

One way to practice pivots, to get those wrists loosened so that they don’t seem welded to your forearms, is to use Stone’s Stick Control and play the patterns between two drums, or a drum and a cymbal, with one hand. For example, LRRL could be interpreted from the left side as Lsnare, R-tom-tom; or from the right side as L-floor tom, R-snare.

Of course, there are paths between and around the drums and cymbals where pivots are awkward. It is up to you to recognize them and to make sure they are not caused by an incompatible set-up. Drummers make music with motion. The more aware we are of how the body naturally moves, and find the motions which generate the least tension, the better our chances of playing musically. At least we will have the physical foundation on which to build our musical expressions.

What I have covered regarding some common technical problems took a long time and a lot of thinking for me to recognize and solve for myself. With the solutions came new problems. This way is the right way for me. I hope that some of these ideas help you.