Drum Technique & Ergonomics Part 7 – Movement

Paul ElliottBlog, Drum Technique & Ergonomics, Drums, MusicLeave a Comment

Last month we looked at somebasic laws of physics in relation to the mechanical movement of  the sticks and pedals. We established that an awareness of such scientific principles can be beneficial to the understanding of various technical principles, such as dynamic levels, the natural rebound and natural volumes. Of course, the movement of sticks and pedals requires a physical technique so, this month, we continue with our study of movement by highlighting some important physical issues. As always, please remember that any study and practice of technique should be undertaken with an understanding and awareness of all the issues highlighted throughout the recent Rhythm series on Drumming, Ergonomics and Posture.


In various disciplines requiring physical activity, the study of movement is a high priority. For example, professional sports people, athletes, dancers, and martial arts practitioners devote considerable time to the correct practice of mechanical and physical (ergonomic) techniques. Playing drums is a physical activity and, asdrummers, we should consider ourselves as being musical athletes with an understanding of the physical demands of the instrument. Furthermore, it makes sense to acknowledge that we should produce sound by moving the sticks and pedals in the most logical, natural and efficient way — although many drummers do not consciously take this into account. Ultimately, economy of effort, through natural body movement, is the main physical aim when playing drums. Ladies and gentlemen, take your partners by the hand… Choreographers and movement experts often refer to physical activity by way of the four ‘effort principles’ — otherwise known as weight, space, time and flow. This theory may well be significant in various dance routines but can we draw comparisons with that of technical movements in drummers? Well, we must co-ordinate the movement of weight (body parts, sticks, pedals) through directions in space (the area surrounding and incorporating the components of the drum set) and each movement requires a period of time (tempo, subdivisions, physical timing of various hand and foot techniques). Furthermore, movements of weight, in space and time, should naturally flow in an efficient and unrestricted way. So, it makes sense to be aware of how the ‘effort principles’ relate to movement, and dynamic production, when playing drums.


Correct execution of stroke techniques (hand and foot), and dynamic control, requires free-flowing efficient movement of the limbs. If the flow of stroke techniques becomes physically restricted, so will dynamic control, and, as a result of this, the music (as well as our bodies) will suffer. Therefore, our ultimate physical aim should be to play drums with the greatest economy of effort — and you will sound great too. So, with the ‘effort principles’ in mind, how can we work towards economy of effort and free-flowing movement? How we choose to move the body, for the purpose of technical execution, is important. If we look at how the body is designed, we can see that the main joints are organised logically from largest to smallest. For example, in the upper body we have shoulders (largest), elbows, wrists and fingers (smallest) and, in the lower body, we have hips (largest), knees, ankles and toes (smallest). This revelation might not exactly send shockwaves throughout the world of medical research, but it serves as a reminder that Mother Nature has designed the body this way for movement purposes and, of course, with drummers specifically in mind! The body has many different types of joints, and our joints work in conjunction with muscles, tendons, and bones, though it’s enough for now to concentrate on the main joints of the upper and lower body.


Restricting the natural movement (locking) of the joints, particularly in the upper body, is a common problem among drummers. Let’s take some time out to try a few simple exercises. Sit on your drum stool, opposite a snare drum or pad. With sticks in hand (any grip will do), let your arms hang by your side. Now, lock the elbows and wrists and lift up your arms, in front of you, from the shoulders (in a sort of Frankenstein’s monster-cum-deranged sleepwalker kind of way). Lower the arms to the level of the drum (or pad) and play a single stroke roll, from the shoulders, while keeping the elbows and wrists locked — not too comfortable or efficient, is it?


Next, with the shoulders steady, forearms parallel to the floor, and with wrists locked, try playing the roll from the elbows only, moving the sticks up and down (the back of the hand will move up towards the shoulder, then back down towards the drum – like the Duracell bunny rabbit, who has dreadful technique by the way). Although this should feel more comfortable than playing from the shoulders, it’s still physically restricted. Now, with the shoulders and elbows steady, forearms still parallel to the floor, unlock the wrists, and play the roll by moving only the wrists up and down. This should feel easier than the previous exercises. Finally, while in this position, lock the wrists (without sticks this time) and tap the drum by moving only the fingers, as though you’re typing or literally drumming your fingers, which, again, should feel physically easy, despite the fact that the other joints are static.


Let’s have a bit more fun with the lower body. Sitting on a drum stool, lock the ankles and knees, lift one leg off the floor, from the hip, quickly, and then let it drop to the floor — now try the other leg. You can feel that this is physically difficult and inefficient. Now, try lifting both legs simultaneously from the hip — difficult and not so comfortable. Next, unlock all the joints (from the hips to the toes) so that the legs feel relaxed. When ready, push up off the floor, quickly, with one leg, from the ball of the foot (similar to a hopping action), then let the leg fall back down to the starting position. When comfortable, try this with the other leg, then both legs simultaneously. If done correctly, this exercise uses all the joints in a natural way, and the movement should flow and feel less restricted. Finally, in the same sitting position, relax the joints and, keeping the heel on the floor, move the foot upwards and downwards, from the ankle, as though tapping along to your favourite Kylie Minogue tune. How does this feel?7 Finally, walk across a room with your knees, ankles, elbows and wrists locked, arms out in front — uncomfortable, isn’t it? Now, walk across the room normally and feel the difference. Of course, walking is something we do naturally. We don’t really think about how all the joints are working together to create natural and tensionfree movement. In the same way, we must learn to apply such natural principles to playing drums.


Obviously, some of the exercises described above are exaggerated. In drumming, every hand and foot technique relies on a physical movement and by creating an awareness of the natural movement and relationship between the joints, we can shed some light on the understanding, practice and execution of various technical methods — this will be examined in further detail in the coming months.


As always, please note that the study and practice of technique is best understood and appreciated through means of practical demonstration, observation and discussion. The aim of this series is to highlight and address a number of key technical issues and should accompany and supplement your general technical studies. In addition, you may also wish to refer to the following list of recommended reading and viewing. Dave Weckl — A Natural Evolution: How To Develop TechniquePart 7 E and T Paul (Hudson Music) Steve Smith — Drumset Technique, History Of The U.S. Beat (Hudson Music) Dom Famularo with Joe Bergamini — It’s Your Move, Motions and Emotions (Wizdom Enterprises) Thomas Lang — Creative Control (Hudson Music) Jim Chapin — Speed, Power, Control, Endurance (DCI Music) Joe Morello — The Natural Approach To Technique (Hotlicks Productions) Paul Elliott — Technically Speaking (RSJ Groove Productions/Hudson Music) You may also be interested in contacting the International Society for the Study of Tension In Performance (ISSTIP) located at 28 Emperor’s Gate, London SW7 4HS (www.isstip.com). The ISSTIP is an organisation dedicated to the study of music medicine. They have many fine journals and courses relating to the ergonomics of musical performance.

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