Improving your 

ability to play drums

TOM
MENDOLA

There has been a lot of debate that I have heard over the years as to what is “Proper Drum Technique”. There are many variations of grips combined with various finger and arm techniques. I have seen drummers switch techniques several times within a song in order to execute various dynamic changes and tempo changes. I have done the same.


These modifications are necessary and are not exactly the same from drummer to drummer. Individual body structure also dictates adaptation. No two drummers are physically the same. The common denominator and most important aspect of “Proper Drum Technique” is a natural, relaxed, comfortable motion that produces the desired sound as effortlessly as possible. I consider a motion to be “natural” when its movement gives the fullest range of motion, least resistance, and the most relaxation.The challenge for drummers is to learn drum technique with natural body motions and relaxation and apply this to the drum set while reducing all useless effort that produces tension. One day I watched my pet cat closely. I observed it’s paw and arm and I noticed that it used only the muscles needed to raise and lower the arm while the rest of the arm and paw remain limp (relaxed). The physics of the cat’s motion made me realize I had to apply this concept to drum technique. I had to raise and lower my arms, wrists, hands, and legs with relaxation while avoiding any tension that would creep into any other parts of my body. I had been getting stiff necks and soreness in the shoulders from playing with tension.

You can try this. Simply let your arm hang loose at your side. Keeping your shoulder relaxed, raise the forearm slowly. The motion will stop when the forearm touches the bicep. Hold the arm there and observe your hand. If it is relaxed, the hand will bend loosely over the wrist. Wave the hand up and down a few times (this is the natural motion of the wrist we use to play). Without resisting gravity, let the arm drop. It should be dangling at your side.

Do this over and over until the movement is completely relaxed.

This is the first step in learning the natural motions of the arm and wrist that will be used to play the drums.

Be aware that the physicality of playing the drums lends itself to pounding. The direction of energy is downward into the drum. The arm, wrist, fingers, and leg muscles tense to prepare for impact. We want to achieve exactly the opposite, full relaxation with technique.

When we make impact with the drum, we must relax and let the sticks bounce off the drum rather than go into the drum. If this cannot be accomplished, one will never develop good control and tension will rule the body while playing.

For this reason, we must train ourselves to use relaxation and gravity in all aspects of technique on the drums.

The first area to be addressed after observing the motion of the arm and wrist is the grip.

It has been my experience that most problems resulting from tension occur because the grip is too tight. This leads to tension in the arms, shoulders, and back.

The grip of the stick between the thumb and the forefinger must be firm enough to prevent the stick from falling out of the hand but not too tight to prevent it from a full bounce. The stick must move under it’s own momentum as much as possible without losing control of it (It is at this point, when the drummer feels loss of control, the grip tightens and the tension spreads).

After this has been handled, the muscles that are used to move the sticks (hand, wrist, finger, and arm) and pedals (ankle, thigh, and leg) must be developed separately and to their full natural motion. Each muscle area will then contribute equally to the motion of the technique involved.

I teach technique by first introducing the student to these natural and economical motions to how the hands and feet move in relation to their body structure.

It is surprising to a student trying these motions what their body will do. The body will tell them what they are doing wrong in different ways when confronted with a natural motion they are not comfortable with. Even though the motion is natural it may seem weak which leads to tension in the grip. Some of the physical manifestations of this exercise above include hands shaking, grip tensing, shoulders tensing, arms tensing, neck tensing, hips tensing, legs tensing, etc.

These phenomena can easily be observed in the wrist motion.
For the purpose of the demonstration below, only matched grip will be addressed.

Using a practice pad, place your thumb flat on the stick and put it against the center knuckle on the forefinger. Let the fingers fold over the sticks evenly. Place the bead (tip) of the stick in the center of the pad. Using the waving motion described above, raise the stick very slowly up until the wrist stops it. While observing carefully, lower it very slowly, in as straight a line as possible, to the center of the pad again.

If you have never done this before, you may observe the stick moving off the course of the straight line down to the center of the pad and back up to starting position with the hand pulled back. Any motion the stick makes other than a smooth slow waving motion, and the straight line up from and down to the pad, is telling you what you are doing wrong. Here is a short video on this topic http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oNnkHY2IvaQ&

These variations of the natural motions must be unlearned.

How the variations of natural motions develop is as follows:

The body learns motion unconsciously. The mechanics of walking, talking, gripping, etc., are learned quickly in early childhood and these mechanics are forgotten and taken over by “muscle memory”. Your muscles move without you having to think about how to move them.

The mind forms a circuit to trigger the muscles to do this when commanded. If a lot of tension is involved in learning the motion, it is memorized in the circuit.

The student develops non-optimal muscle circuits in the mind to help him compensate for weakness in his technique. These circuits involve abbreviating or altering natural motions to get sound out. Almost always you will find that the left and right side will not move the same. Usually, the weaker side of the body will have more unnatural motion, and the student will not be aware of it.

Using these circuits over time can be harmful for two reasons:

1) They promote the habit of tension.

2) The student will not improve technically. No matter how hard he tries he will eventually hit a wall with his technique.

This will lessen his ability to embellish the music because of limited control. It then becomes my job to use all my skills of observation to find these circuits and help the student consciously re-learn how to play with better technique.

Common Technical Problems

Listed here are some of the common technical problems I find:

1) The grip on the stick is not formed properly to allow the stick to bounce freely without losing control.

2) There is too much tension in the grip or the grip is too loose when bouncing the stick.

3) The natural motion of the wrist is abbreviated, altered, or not being used at all, and the muscles that control wrist motion are not developed.

4) Arms, shoulders, and neck are tensed when they do not need to be since they do not contribute to the wrist stroke. (This occurs because the body tries to compensate for weakness in the grip.)

5) The fingers are not being used to help relieve tension during the wrist bounce.

6) The fingers are not developed individually at all.

7) Fingers are developed but not coordinated with the grip and wrist bounce.

8) The arms are not developed to create a fluid motion with the grip, wrist and fingers to help bounce the stick and move around the drum set.

9) The natural motion of the foot is not used, and the muscles that control the foot on the pedal are not developed.

10) The full range of motion of the leg, thigh, and ankle are not developed for added power, speed, and control of the pedals.

How I teach technique to:

Children

Teaching children proper technique must be done lightly. The child wants to play the drum set NOW! Technique is the last aspect of musical instruction they will want to confront.

Generally, it is best to put the sticks in their hands and let them loose on the set. While they are learning where the sounds are on the set, I remind them occasionally how they should hold the sticks by demonstration. I do the basic motions of the hands and feet during “drum games” I play with them.

It is important to mention here that children learn very quickly. In fact, the younger they are, the quicker they learn. Conversely, they lose interest just as quickly and become distracted if you linger too long on what you are showing them. This is because they’ve already got it. They may not be able to execute technically what you are showing them physically yet because of their body size. But, they have recorded it mentally and know it. It will come out eventually.

It is unfortunate that children today are labeled with conditions such as ADD and ADHD and given mind-altering drugs. It is my personal and professional opinion that there is no truth that these conditions actually exist.

Most children are full of energy, easily bored, and excitable. It is the normal state of childhood. The drum set is attractive to them because it is a good outlet for that energy.

One of the reasons they don’t seem to pay attention at times is that they learn so quickly and want to move on to the next thing or the approach to teaching is stifling to the student. If their energy is not channeled creatively with interesting learning activities, proper diet, and physical exercise, they will become wild and create pandemonium for something to do.

The old saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” applies here. I show it to the child directly, and continue to show it to him by example. In other words, I quickly show him how to execute the technique by explaining and demonstrating it. If necessary, I have him do it while I put my hands over his to guide his motion and have him do it with my help. Then, I let him play and I have him watch me play.

As I play with the child, he will watch me and absorb what I am doing, and how I am doing it, mentally. I adjust him quickly from time to time, without harping on him, and eventually he will get it. He must be respected at all times and not forced or else he will give up.

Beginners

Beginners are easy to teach because they have not reinforced circuits yet. I show them the natural motions and keep showing them. With proper instruction and practice, the motions will work their way into their playing over time.

Beginners should practice technique a considerable amount, but should actually spend more time playing their drums. Instruction at this level and all levels should emphasize development of a good sense of TIME and GROOVE as well as technique.

Intermediate

This is the level where I encounter the most problems. A drummer could be playing for quite some time and be at this level. He could even be a paid professional but not capable of executing more demanding music because of technical limitations and I would still classify him at this level.

Most are self-taught or have had minimal or poor instruction, and have been playing for several years. Circuits have rooted themselves and the student doesn’t know what’s holding him back technically.

At this level, the student must confront how his body is moving by observing his motions closely and slowly when practicing technique. It may take considerable time to undo the circuits; but it is well worth it. It is always gratifying for me to see someone execute something they could never do before after struggling for years without success.

Advanced and Professionals

I couple these two together because an advanced student should be a professional to a greater or lesser degree. If not, there is something wrong.

Any student who has not worked as a musician after studying for several years and has reached the advanced level should be sent out to play with other musicians for experience.

I have stopped teaching such students until they have worked a considerable amount. I do this because they need to get the experience of using what they learn. Without getting that experience, they will never appreciate what’s been taught to them because they can’t see how it is used in the real world of music.

At this level, the professional has usually had a considerable amount of training when they come to me, but still have something holding them back technically. It usually is a circuit that was never handled properly.

Retraining is usually quick. Slight adjustments go along way here. I don’t necessarily want to tear down the student technically. Rather, I build on what is already working. The same can apply for intermediate as well in some cases.

Procedure and Specialized Motions

As I explained earlier, I begin by teaching the natural motions of how the hands and feet move first. This is followed by muscle developing exercises that isolate these motions and build strength and form.

When the student builds some consistency of motion and strength, bouncing the sticks comes next. This is done with as much relaxation as possible with the grip of the stick and foot position on the pedal.

Adding isolated finger motions to stick bounces follows this.

Lastly, the arm motions are added for more power, speed, and endurance and to get around the drum set.

Finally, all the motions are combined and used together to achieve a solid technical foundation.

When each muscle motion is isolated and developed
separately to their fullest potential, no weakness is overlooked.

In addition to this, different grips are taught for technique with brushes, cymbal playing, and snare drum.

Various foot motions are taught for different applications on the set for several styles of music including double bass.

I hope this article has been enjoyable for you. No amount of words can replace one-on-one instruction. If you are experiencing problems with your hands and feet, I can help you break through your technical barriers.

Keep playing your drums and don’t stop learning.

Once you feel you don’t have anything else to learn, you are actually at the starting point again.

The journey never ends.

© 2007 by Tom Mendola – All Rights Reserved.

5 Responses to Proper Drum Technique

  • Sara says:

    Well how can I get your help . I’ve been playing for years, but now finally am trying to learn a better technique . Mine is self taught and not always loose … I noticed I get tense more now that I’ve been playing with a band . I feel like I’m almost there ; there’s just a wall I need to get over

  • Falana Emmanuel says:

    How can i get to you cause i need your help have being for some years now and i need to advance in the way i play

  • Pedro Colangelo says:

    What I read here is really amazing. Just amazing. It is pretty difficult to find some info about drumming with a approach focused on the motion of the arms, wrists and – especially – fingers. At least, I probably searched the whole internet, and this post is one of the most completed.

    I’m from Brazil and I play drums for 6 years and I always had problems with my left hand and, thanks to your “circuits” explanation, I understand what happens. From now on, I will read and watch everything I find about you, Tom.

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge!!

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Copyright © 2012 TOM MENDOLA