Drums Learning System

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Your Way Is the Right Way

by Omar on March 12, 2013

in Article, Education

This article originally appeared in edited form in the Winter/2011 issue of Target Audiance Magazine, an online, quarterly publication promoting independent artists of all genres - musicians, artists, writers, film-makers, and all entrepreneurs. The subject matter is even more relevant today than it was then, with ever-expanding options for drum instruction. This is the unabridged, updated version...

There are many aspects to drumming that contribute to a good performance.  If we’re talking about a live setting, making sure you hear the other musicians to ensure everyone’s in sync is always important.  As far as your kit goes, you check your setup to make sure all lugs are secure, drums are in place, throne is at the right height, extra sticks within short reach in case the inevitable stick drop occurs – the whole nine yards.  When you’re playing, you don’t want to think about the technical – you just want to think about the ‘artistic’.

Of course, it may be that you as a drummer are not at that stage yet.  You may just be starting off, playing the rudiments on the practice pad.  Or you have that shiny kit and you’re just itching to play your favorite song, however bad it sounds. 🙂  In any case, the endeavor begins in our quest to get better at playing our favorite instrument.

And ‘there’s the rub’, as they say:  “our quest to get better”.  What does that mean, anyway?  If we want to play on stage, as mentioned before, or even if we just play for ourselves, we inevitably want to play with some semblance of knowing what we’re doing!  So to do that, the drummer has a slew of options, more than ever before, for learning new skills – from the very basic, to the very advanced.

There are so many angles and slants to drumming, that sometimes it can be overwhelming to determine where to start.  For example, an obvious place to start for most is the actual drumming.  Focusing from the beginning on the 40 Rudiments is a very practical and wise approach, since you’re learning the ‘vocabulary’ of all drum beats.  Others may think it very important to start learning to read music first, and then carry that over to the practice pad, and then eventually to the kit.  Nothing wrong with that either!  Still others may think that a good place to start is to situate the drummer-to-be behind the kit and help with good posture, drum and cymbal placement, etc., something to the effect of getting to know the equipment before learning how to use it.

Even with all of the aforementioned scenarios, a better approach may be an emphasis on a combination of those scenarios!  A good teacher may touch up on the elementary of each of those ‘branches’ of fundamental drumming, thus establishing a solid foundation for the student.

Then again, in learning to play, or even bettering your play if you have intermediate skills, the student has a wide variety of sources to choose from.  We obviously have the local teacher, which can give you immediate feedback.  These days there are a lot of online resources and instructional DVDs that have made it possible for anyone, regardless of location and availability of local education (or lack thereof), to receive high-quality drumming instruction.

TheParadiddler.com has reviewed some of these exceptional courses, which have, once again, a different focus depending on the tastes and desires of the student.  Courses such as Mike Michalkow’s “Drumming System” and Dann Sherrill’s “Learn and Master Drums” cover all the bases, or at least attempt to, from absolute beginner to at least intermediate play.  Others focus on a particular aspect of drumming.  For example, Matt Ritter, a New York-based instructor, produced “Unburying the Beater”, which is a DVD dedicated solely to bass drum technique.  These are all excellently produced instructional courses and worth serious consideration for improving your play, especially for beginners, but more advanced drums can certainly benefit.

In addition to that, the Internet also has an abundance of resources available to the drumming student.  The benefit of the Internet is that you have at your disposal literally thousands of other drummers participating in forums, contributing their experiences, ideas, and solutions that very frequently is precisely what the student was looking to answer.  Websites such as Drummerworld.com make it possible to search for virtually any topic relating to drums, be it about gear, drum selection, drummer spotlights, hand and foot technique, etc.

A new drummer, and even intermediate drummers, may feel a little intimidated by the overabundance of knowledge there is on any particular drum topic.  But usually a drummer is searching to solve a specific problem they may be facing.  For example, many drummers starting off asking about drum placement, and their position relative to the drums.  So they may post a question on a forum saying something like, “I need help with how to position my toms.”  They then receive many answers, ranging from, “I like to angle my toms towards me, because I like to have the toms right in front of me.”  They may also see, “I like to lay the toms as flat as possible.  That way the sticks have the best rebound, working with the natural effect of gravity.”  What’s the new drummer to believe?

Here’s another scenario.  A drummer may want to know if it’s better to play the bass drum with the heel up or the heel down (this subject, by the way, is covered extensively in the aforementioned “Unburying the Beater” DVD).  The newbie will see many answers, such as, “oh heel up is the only way I play, because I need to play with a lot of power, and I play a lot of double bass.”  Yet on the other hand you may get an answer such as, “Most of the time I play with my heel down, because I feel I have better control of the pedal that way.”  Again, who do you believe?

Let’s not even talk about “traditional vs. matched” grip – that is a field unto itself!  (This topic is covered extensively in the article “Traditional vs. Matched Grip – The Paradiddler’s Take”.)

So who’s right?  Who’s wrong?  The answer may surprise you.  They're all right!  And, they’re all wrong.  How can that be?

It is quite possible that the drums are the most versatile and flexible of all instruments.  Although the snare drum is an instrument in and of itself, when incorporated into a kit, it becomes part of the whole instrument – the drum set.  And configurations of drum sets are as individual an art as the drummers who play them.

In addition, drummers come in all shapes and sizes.  No two drummers are really alike.  Sometimes close, but not quite.  Let’s take the example of bass drum technique.  The height of the drummer plays a role in how they learn to use the bass pedal.  Also, the height the drummer sets their throne also may affect bass pedal play.  The taller drummer may (I say may, but not necessarily so) set their throne a little lower since they have a longer torso, and can more easily reach the toms, and maybe even angle them a little flatter.  Their legs may be closer to a 90o angle, and thus this affects how their foot plays the pedal.  The shorter drummer, meanwhile, may need to set their thrown a little higher since their torso is not as long.  In addition, they may need to sit a little closer to the drums, and sitting higher means that their leg may be at a greater angle than the taller drummer.  This also, in turn, affects how their feet play the pedals.

Now let’s say that these two drummers have the same teacher.  As far as height goes, he’s in the middle of the two drummers.  This teacher insists on his method of bass drum play, because it works for him.  So he tells his students that the throne has to be a certain height, and your feet must be at this or that position for optimum bass drum play.  Neither student cares to disagree because, hey, he’s the teacher!  And they’ve seen him play, and he’s awesome!

So both drummers go home to their kits and set the drum throne at the height the teacher taught them, and place their foot on the pedal just as instructed.  But after trying it a few times, something just didn’t feel right.  Both drummers being curious, they then start playing with the drum thrown height until they felt comfortable.  Then they practiced a lot of bass drum technique, checking out several different sources, and noticed that after a while it started to feel, well, natural.  Since they practiced so much (notice that they practiced ‘so much’), they eventually found their groove and their bass pedal play became exceptional.  So they fired their teacher.  🙂

What the teacher told them was right, but for him.  It was wrong for the students.  Any good teacher will help the student determine what’s most comfortable for them, and teach them within that frame.  It may take time for a student to figure out their comfort zone regarding drum throne height, stick grip, drum placement, and the like.  But with practice and a continuing familiarity with proper technique, the student will reach a comfort zone.  Being comfortable is a key to constant improvement behind the kit.

It’s better not to get stuck on the opinions or techniques of others as to how to do something.  It’s better still to look at all possible variations, for educational purposes, and use that cumulative knowledge to find what works for you.  There are a lot of great drummers, and they all have their own style.  Be an astute observer, take in what works for you, and practice that.  You will get better – your way, and at your pace.

That’s not to say though that there aren’t guidelines.  You most likely don’t want to sit so low that your knees are bent to less than 90o; you’ll get much less leverage that way (regarding bass drum play).  Also, it is good practice to determine the fulcrum of the drumstick and learn to adapt your sticking technique to it; there are guidelines for that as well. (A very good resource regarding this topic is Jim McCarthy’s book “Stick Technique”.)

In saying the above, though, pretty much every rule in drumming is meant to be broken, so to speak, if it works for you.  Take two legendary drummers, Steve Gadd and Steve Smith.  Both of them use the traditional grip for the most part.  Steve Gadd holds the left stick way towards the back end of the stick, whereas Steve Smith holds it more towards the middle.  Who’s right?  They both are!  They’re both sensational drummers.  It’s whatever works for them.

Even the masters that we admire continually refine their approach to playing, always questioning what works and what doesn’t.  Both Neil Peart and the aforementioned Steve Smith sought the guidance of Freddie Gruber to help them refine their techniques.  All three of them have completely different styles of drumming, but Freddie was able to help them become better players.  And even after they adjusted their style, you still knew it was Steve Smith; you still knew it was Neil Peart – just better.  Whose techniques were better?  They were those that worked for each individual.

Online drum teacher Mike Johnston of MikesLessons.com observed that when students ask about his bass drum technique, they’re really not asking about the technique, but rather for the result.  He recognizes that the bass drum technique that works for him will not work for, say, 7’ Shaquille O’Neal with a size 23 foot!  He’d rather have the student figure out what works more comfortably for them, and practice like crazy, until the technique comes naturally and without excessive fatigue.  And this can be applied to every aspect of our drumming:  drum placement, grip, bass drum technique, practice routine, etc.  (Check the Podcast section for the entire Mike Johnston interview.)

The bottom line is that there’s a plethora of opinions on the best way to do this or that for every aspect of drumming.  So watch the videos of your favorite drummers, and observe their techniques.  Search the forums on the subjects you need assistance in.  Heed the advice of your instructors.  Then take it all in and mold it to you.  Always seek to improve, to make adjustments.  But for the most part, if your technique is comfortable and it allows you to get better and better, then continue on that vein.  Because in the end, for you, your way is the right way.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Harlan Brown March 7, 2016 at 9:47 pm

Thanks. I enjoyed reading your post. There are so many aspects and possibilities for refining how one plays. It’s always been interesting to me how each drummer puts each component of their kit in different places, be it cymbal placement or toms or kick, could be the snare height or angle. And the tone, how do the heads affect the sound. I for one have sat in on kits that I thought sounded fantastic out in front of the band but when I sat down, the sound was so alien that I didn’t feel comfortable.
Yes, drumming – if you really love it – is a work in progress, never ending, always learning something new.
Hope to read more of your articles.

Harlan Brown

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