Teacher’s Forum

A Yogi’s Approach to Learning Drums

Awareness Exercises for Developing a More Fluid Connection With the Instrument

by Nicholas Schlesinger

One of my drum students is a yoga instructor, and recently during a lesson where we were focusing on relaxing the wrists and hands and understanding rebound, she mentioned something that caught my attention. While going through some hand exercises, she seemed almost hypnotized as she performed each stroke and tried to generate rebound. I remarked on her focus, which she replied had to do with meditation. She pointed out that she’ll often stand barefoot for hours to feel the ground beneath her and to become more aware of herself—a technique borrowed from her training in yoga.

This got me thinking that part of learning drumming technique effectively coincides with being deeply aware of your body, muscles, and movements. In other words, you need to be able to understand, isolate, visualize, and feel your muscles and their movements in order to work them to their fullest potential. The goal is to achieve physical and mental liberation—to remove our limitations. We want to be able to freely express what comes from our mind and into the instrument in real time, without our body saying “no.”

How does all of this relate to drumming? Let’s start by going back to the beginning and defining the word percussion. According to the dictionary, percussion is “musical instruments played by striking with the hand, a stick, or a beater, or by shaking.” When it comes to playing the drumset, our body uses external tools (drumsticks and pedals) in order to produce the desired sounds. So shouldn’t we become intimately acquainted with these tools in order to get the best results? What follows are some questions to ask yourself, or to have your students ask themselves, to develop a better connection with the instrument.

How do the sticks feel in my hands? What can I note about their weight, thickness, surface, material, and vibration? How do the sticks rebound on different surfaces, and how does that feel to my hands? What’s happening at the fulcrum? Are all of the fingers engaged in each stroke? How do my feet feel against the pedal’s footboard? Can I feel the tension of the springs? How does the pedal rebound after my strokes? Are my shoes inhibiting movement? Would I have better control without wearing them?

Consciously examine how you use your tools, how they currently react and function, and how you want them to react and function.

Achieving Openness

Yoga aspires to instill oneness/harmony, which leads to freedom. Here are some thoughts to consider, as identified by the London-based yoga teacher Charlotte Carnegie, in an effort to achieve a state of effortless flow while practicing and performing:

Take notice of the ground and how it feels beneath you. Drop and relax into it.

Softness is strength. Let go and soften your body as much as you can, asking yourself, How much can I let go?

Embrace laughter, joy, curiosity, and wonder. The experience of learning new things should be joyful. 

Listen intently, and do so with your entire body. Be aware of the sounds and vibrations of your surroundings.

Open up and free your chest and ribcage to focus on the physical sensation of playing.

Connect the pieces to achieve fluidity. Your body parts should be working as one.

Flow. Relax through your hips, pelvis, chest, and shoulders.

Create space. Attend to the spaces between the notes when refining your timing. Or attend to the space between the drumhead and tool (stick or pedal) when refining dynamics.

In Practice

Removing limitations from our body opens doors to creative freedom. By utilizing all of our senses in the development process, we will achieve a more complete experience between our mind, our body, and the tools we use. For instance, when explaining the principles of rebound to my students, I refer to the basics of how the grip should flow freely with the stick’s movement, without intruding on its natural trajectory and force. This means the student needs to have a relaxed fulcrum and a fluid cradle.

For that to happen, the body needs to be soft, and we need to be aware that our arm, wrist, and finger movements are interconnected. The fingers must become accustomed to feeling how the stick moves, adjust to that movement, and provide the space required. The trick is in visualizing and focusing on each finger so that it lets the stick flow in order for rebound to occur freely.

The same principles apply to our feet on the bass drum and hi-hat pedals. We want to drop into the ground and feel the surface underneath our feet, and notice how these surfaces react to our movements. The more intimate the relationship with the tool, the more limitations we can overcome.

Taking the heel-toe hi-hat technique as an example, it’s important to understand that the initial stroke doesn’t come directly from the heel but from the sole of the foot. This happens as we drop—not push—our foot onto the pedal with a relaxed motion. The toes should remain on the pedal board the entire time to provide a constant connection.

One form of yoga practice is based on the basic sun salutation sequence, known as surya namaskar vinyasa. Different positions can be added to the vinyasa once it’s mastered, like building blocks. We should apply that same principle when developing technique, where we add new exercises one at a time while remaining fully aware of our mind, body, and tools. For instance, revisit the basics, such as your grip and single strokes, and focus specifically on the muscle groups involved, along with the way your tools interact with your anatomy.

…and Repeat

As boring as it may sometimes seem, repetition is necessary in order to get better at any practice. But it shouldn’t be a drag if you also work toward achieving freedom and peace by focusing on your movements and making a connection with the instrument.

Learning should be a joyful experience. Give yourself to your practice, and be at one with the process to achieve better results. This will in turn bring you greater inner peace, which can then be applied not only to your playing but to your everyday life as well.