I start the forward of my book with the statement “technique is a means to an end.” I firmly believe that. Great musical ideas are not possible without the skills needed to create them but on the flip side all the physical skills in the world don’t count for much if you don’t have great musical ideas. Most of us have good musical ideas but struggle with the physical skills needed to execute them. Each percussion instrument has its own specific issues so I wanted to write a series; spending time on each instrument and explaining what I do both to improve but also maintain. Maintain seems like a bad word because it implies not improving. I think we should always be trying to improve and I see maintenance as a way to improve. As percussionists we have to keep our skills sharp on a lot of different instruments and it’s hard to keep up on the fundamentals of all of them. These maintenance programs I have come up with are ways to keep your skills sharp when you simply don’t have the time to be behind the instrument for multiple hours a day.
I am starting with snare drum because I think it is the most basic instrument we play in a lot of ways and the technique we use on it translates to almost every other instrument. The simple act of striking the drum with a stick in an efficient way is a basic skill that can be applied to mallet instruments, timpani, multi-percussion, bass drum, triangle, and loads of others.
The first thing I do when playing snare drum is George Stone’s Stick Control. Ever since college this has been my ritual and all of my students can attest to my belief in its value. If I am working out a technical issue I will work through the first three pages. However if I am just trying to check my technique and get warmed up, I’ll only play the first page. I will spend about 45 seconds on each exercise and then go back to the beginning and play through the entire page without stopping, repeating each exercise once. This serves as both a physical and mental warm up. It is a way for me to check in every day and make sure I am starting from a good place. If there are issues I will work and correct them but if not, move on.
As great as Stick Control is, it only address one type of stroke, the full stroke. George Stone’s Accents and Rebounds addresses two more and is next up in my lineup. Accents and Rebounds helps me work on controlling my down stroke and up stroke. After adding those I theoretically can play the entire single stroke repertoire. Those are the only three options for a single stroke: Full Stroke, Down Stroke, and Up Stroke. I generally start at the beginning of the book with the eighth note exercises, then move to the dotted eighth, sixteenths, and finally the triplets. That’s a lot to do in one day so I will slowly work my way through over a few weeks. After 20 minutes or so working out of these 2 Stone books my hands feel nice and warmed up and confident with a full stroke.
Next I tackle one of the hardest parts of playing all percussion; playing soft. It is an aspect of percussion playing most of us don’t spend enough time focused on. What I have experienced when working on my own soft playing is that the best way to practice your soft playing is… wait for it… to just do it… I can make this a lot more complicated but it’s just that simple. If you don’t spend a lot of time playing soft and learning how to control the sticks at a super low stick height, then chances are you aren’t going to be very comfortable doing it in performance. I accomplish this using multiple books and methods. I like to read beginner to intermediate etudes and ignore all dynamics and just play as soft as possible. The Wilcoxon All American Drummer is a great resource for this. So are the Peters books. Reading through this kind of repertoire will also help your sight reading ability. When working on these etudes and exercises I try to keep the bottom of the stick below the rim at all times. This is VERY difficult to do, but if I can, then I know I am good shape to play just about anything.
Finally I tackle perhaps the most difficult skill on snare drum; the roll. Coincidentally, I wrote a book The Modern Concert Snare Drum Roll on this very topic because I did not feel there were enough resources out there to both learn the roll but also to maintain it. The second half of my book deals with what we are talking about here; maintenance and improvement. I will start by working on dynamics and my unmetered rolls. Exercises #80-84 are good for this and working on having very smooth dynamic changes. I can also focus on what speed my hands need to move to create an even sound. If I am unhappy with the evenness of my hands I will work on a series of exercises that use accents to help control the smoothness (#98-165). Focusing on the roll before and after the accent will help even out the sound. If I am looking to build some strength and finger control I will work on some exercises that help distinguish between a double stroke and a buzz roll (#237-301). These will really give your fingers, wrist and arm a work out so don’t spend too much time on them. One of my favorite exercises that I almost always finish with is controlling my soft double stroke roll. This helps my double stroke roll, my ruffs and grace note control, as well as my soft buzz roll. Reading and writing exercises to work on this skills helped my playing immensely. I started by reading etudes and rolling all the 16ths. I then decided to write some of my own including this one (#398) from my book.
The idea behind this routine is I am actively working on all of the most basic skills needed to play snare drum:
Controlling the 3 different kinds of single strokes at a full dynamic
Controlling those same strokes at a very soft dynamic
Controlling the roll.
If you boil down the entire repertoire, that’s kind of it. Granted that is a massive over simplification, but it’s still true. This kind of thought process is how I came up with all of my “routines” that I do to stay in shape on all of the instruments. Please leave your comments on what you like to do and what keeps your hands in shape. I look forward to hearing what helps you sound your best!
Stay tuned for more posts about how to improve your technique and give you some great routines to use.