A lot of drummers like to pit technique and musicality against each other as if they’re polar opposites. But they’re actually very closely related. Many associate technique with speed or chops, but in reality technique is simply how you go about doing something. It’s very possible for one player’s quarter notes to sound great while another player’s don’t. Much of the reason for that is simply about the technique with which they’re played.
So how do we determine what is good technique or bad technique? Simply, if something sounds good and is well executed, then that’s good technique. I’d only criticize someone’s technique if it produced a bad sound, elicited pain or led to injury, or prevented him or her from being able to execute an idea.
Obey the Laws of Physics
One of my foundational concepts on technique is based on the age-old struggle of man versus nature. Mankind is inherently flawed and prone to making mistakes, whereas the laws of physics and nature are perfect and constant. Our objective is to manipulate the stick only as much as is necessary to articulate the desired stroke type. Doing so will always result in more consistency, flow, speed, and endurance. How do we accomplish this? By employing good technique.
A Case Study
I’ve watched many students greatly improve their musicality, time, and groove within minutes simply by modifying their technique. An example of this happened at a clinic I did at a college in Texas a few years ago. The percussion studio consisted of about twenty-five students, who I’d gathered in a semicircle around a drumset. I invited a student up to play a simple rock groove with beats 1 and 3 on the bass drum, beats 2 and 4 on the snare, and 8th notes on the hi-hats. He played it, but it didn’t feel good. So I simply addressed his technique one limb at a time.
Starting with his right hand, I showed him how to shut off his wrists and instead use the whip-and-flop (or Moeller) technique on the hi-hat. We orchestrated it so that the quarter-note accents were played with the shank of the stick on the edge of the cymbals and the upbeats with the bead on top. I also had him take his index finger off the stick, since it wasn’t required when playing at that moderate tempo and dynamic level. The index finger should generally only jump in when playing things that require a combination of low and fast finesse.
For his left hand, which was playing the backbeats on the snare, we talked about how to whip the stick using the arm instead of the wrist, how to relax the front of the hand by taking the index finger off, and how to land a consistent rim shot. Finally I had him play heel-up on the pedal to add more power in order to better balance the bass drum with the hands.
After a few minutes of tweaking his technique, I had the student play the groove again, and after about two bars everyone around the kit was bobbing their heads and smiling. There was no question that modifying his technique to maximize the use of physics and natural flow resulted in tangible improvements in musicality and groove.
So how did all of this work? Essentially I helped this student transition from using his energy to hit the instruments to letting the sticks simply crash into the drums and cymbals on their own, which resulted in more velocity and less inertia. Also, the muscles generating strokes shifted to those located farther away from the sticks, so that the upper arms and shoulders pumped the forearms while the wrists were shut off and finger interaction was removed. There is definitely a time to use the index finger to micromanage the stick when maximum control is needed. But whenever the rhythms that you’re playing allow, try to use bigger muscle groups. This will result in better musicality, sound, consistency, and flow.
Another technical element we should strive for in order to increase consistency, flow, musicality, and groove is constant motion. When the notes you play string together naturally, there’s going to be more consistency in that motion. By loosening up and playing lighter and with bigger motions, you can get your strokes to connect in a way that alleviates herky-jerky stop/start motions.
To get practical, any time that subsequent strokes are played at the same dynamic level or stick height, use free strokes to smoothly connect them. For accent patterns that you want to smooth out, use the Moeller whip-and-flop technique in order to maintain constant motion. And the more rhythmic space there is between the notes, the bigger the motions should be. In other words, fill the time with motion in order to maintain a constant flow, and manipulate the stick only as much as is necessary to get the job done. Techniques like the free stroke and the Moeller whip-and-flop are great for connecting notes to maintain consistent motion. (Refer to my book Stick Technique for an in-depth description and exercises on the different stroke types.)
When refining these techniques, which minimize your physical influence on the stick, it’s common for people to feel out of control at first. However, once you dial them in, you’ll realize that they provide a much easier way to play, and your sound is greatly improved. Scrutinize your technique and strive to perfect it in order to maximize the natural flow and minimize your physical influence. The music will thank you.