Expanding Your Movement

It's something that I've been interested in since I began studying with Marc Damoulakis in college, and essentially what makes my Spatial Studies book unique. The fact is that many drummers out there don't know their own physicality very well, if at all. Movements towards a low tom tom or ride cymbal can be erratic and inefficient, wasting energy and causing the resulting sound to suffer. Unless there is a knowledge of a "better" way, or that they can relieve some unnecessary tension, etc., the movements may be left unchecked, often resulting in injury, broken equipment, etc. So, what is the "better" way, and how do people discover and explore it for themselves?

Essentially, whatever the most efficient way of accomplishing a goal is, is the "better" way. That being said, in my book I encourage the student to continually take note of how their body feels whenever they incorporate or execute a new movement. If it feels bad, adjust until it feels good, or natural. It's a guarantee that if you strike the instrument, no matter how you move, as long as it's relaxed throughout the stroke, it will produce a good sound. That being said, because we are all different and unique, our movements will not be exactly the same. Yes, the variables of efficient movement and relaxation may be the same, but how we interpret that and execute it will inevitably produce a different sound from person to person. 

The trap for us orchestral musicians, in my opinion, is that we are a very stable group. We only really move our arms, hands and occasionally our legs when moving up and down the keyboard. In part, I think this is because of the nature of our job and instruments, but also I think it stems from a desire to be accurate. "The more you move around, the more likely you will lose consistency," or something to that effect. So, I feel like we are the most at risk of having our movements stifled and habitually small, compared to the movements of a marching drummer or a drum kit player. We can counter this by incorporating the exercises or habits of those genres in our warm-ups and practice sessions. However, I've gone beyond even that. I've studied dancers, martial artists, methods of movement like Feldenkrais and Alexander technique, acting philosophy, etc. All of these have something in their pedagogy that can benefit us as drummers. 

I encourage you to take the time and think about how much you actually move while playing your instrument. Forget about missing notes, or having every eighth note sound the same on your drum. How would you play if you didn't have to worry about accuracy, or staying in a fixed stance or position? How far does your arm reach in all directions? How do you bend your knees as you move around the keyboard? Questions like these can really inform you on how much you move, and honestly, it might help you figure out why you can't accomplish certain tasks. In my book, I give exercises for exploring your physicality, but again, outside of the music field, there are many resources for you to dive into as well. Take a little time and try these ideas out, and see where it takes you. 

Exploring the Physics

To create sound movement must occur. With this movement comes the opportunity for either efficient or inefficient motions, and accurate or inaccurate execution, and all causes can be found in two places: the mind and the body. Closing the gap between what’s in the mind and its manifestation through the body is key to creating more fluid and immediate responses in our playing.

1) What Do We Use?- whatever instrument we play, there are specific body parts that we use in specific ways. Knowing exactly what those parts are, how they interact with others, how they move and how their movements affect the sound is key to being comfortable with playing anything. 
2) When Do We Use?- what are the circumstances that call for a specific movement? Maybe it’s a subito piano, or a faster tempo. Explore those scenarios and figure out what is being used at those times. The more scenarios you study, the more knowledge you’ll have about what you do, good or bad, and if it can be “better” or if it’s fine. 
3) Why Do We Use?- why in those situations do we use what we use? Are there other options or is this the only way it will work? 
4) How Do We Use?- is there ease or difficulty in the execution? If difficulty, is this caused by lack of experience, lack of physical facility, tension, etc. 

What are we developing the physical technique to do? What effects are we trying to create?

1) Timbre- what general sound are we going for? Even if the required sound is darker or brighter, the core of the sound should be stable and match the beauty of your normal sound. What in the body facilitates that (a bright, dark and general sound)? 
2) Dynamics- can we maintain the quality of sound while playing different dynamics? The common tendency is for the sound to get brighter as the dynamic increases and darker as it decreases. How do we make the character of sound consistent, and what does the body have to do in order to accomplish that?
3) Tempo- can we maintain the quality of sound while playing at different tempos? What does it feel like to play fast, slow and everything in between, within the confines of a bright, dark, general, etc. sound? 

How do we develop the technique? Exercises that specifically target each part of the body that we will eventually use in a performance, in various situations including dynamics, tempos, timbre, lengths of notes, etc. Explore and experience.

1) Long Tones
2) Articulation
3) Dynamic Contrast
4) Subito Dynamics
5) Tempo
6) Rhythmic Integrity
7) Efficiency
8) Fluidity

3 Easy Steps to Improve Drum Technique

When you’re taking drum lessons and practicing on your own, you can make better use of your time by focusing on the things that will help you improve as a drummer.

Proper form and drum technique are essential to improve your sound quality. While this naturally requires patience and practice, it’s not as hard as you think. Here is my three-step process to help you improve your drum technique.

1. Be Efficient: The first step is to make your movements as efficient as possible. Like most things, this is easier said than done. What is efficiency and what makes something more efficient? Efficiency means maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort. So, for our purposes, let’s say that technique is any action achieved with little to no wasted effort. From a single hit to a blast beat, the key to improving your technique is to make every movement more efficient.

To start this process, you have to understand how your body moves. When you go up to the cymbal, are you over stretching or just getting there? Is your right hand doing anything weird when your left hand plays the snare drum, or vice versa? This list can go on and on, but the question is, where is there tension? Try to slow down your movements to find when and where you feel tension, and then try to relax and eliminate the tension.

When I would play a drum set as a beginner, my left foot would tense up as I would play the low tom. When I released that tension from my foot, it made it easier to get to the low tom. When something feels difficult, take some time to figure out why it’s hard, physically. Once you can identify the source of tension, you can find the solution to make it feel easier. Removing tension will improve your technique, and make you more efficient.

2. Listen and Imagine: The second step to is to listen. How well are you keeping time? Are your movements in the groove of the tempo? Can you play the exercises or techniques at any dynamic?

Can you hear those dynamics, rhythms, or tempos before you play them? These questions can be difficult because they all concern the intangible nature of sound. We feel time with our internal clock, and it takes time to develop this skill.

The best way to practice this, is to do drum technique exercises that allow you to hear or imagine the time in your mind. Have you ever played back a scene from a movie in your head, and you could hear the dialogue in your mind? Use the same process with drums; imagine the tempo, with a metronome and then without, and focus on really feeling it, like your own personal downbeat.

 3. Develop Your Quality of Sound: After tempo, the next step is to focus on the quality of sound. Being able to do your drum technique exercises at any dynamic will make you more adaptable to different situations. Remember to practice playing softly! You can always add volume later, but if you don’t practice soft, then you will never play softly.

Does your technique sound harsh or nice, soft or hard, thin or thick? Compare your sound with different adjectives or objects, and then imagine what these things sound like. This will help you develop more character in your playing. What does a truck sound like? Imagine the sound in your head, and then play that sound. What does a feather sound like? Imagine it; feel it; play it.

When I got really serious about drums, I wanted to know how every instrument felt at any dynamic, tempo, rhythm, or note length. This forced me to imagine what it felt like to play things efficiently in different categories. At the time, I didn’t understand how my body moved. So, I started to examine how I played hand-to-hand eighth notes. I lifted each stick painfully slow. It took me at least two minutes to get from full height down to the drum, and then three minutes back up to full height, with one hand. During this time, I would ask myself, where is there tension? I focused on relieving the tension in order to make my strokes better.

Again, the key to better technique is to move more efficiently in everything you do, and hear what you do in as many styles and characteristics as possible. Patience is key. Don’t shy away from practicing slowly and softly. Push your limits. Make what you hear, feel, and do automatic, and your actions will be more efficient every time. Remove tension and make playing easier; your technique will improve and you will have more fun.