Over the past few months, we’ve been looking at the physical benefits of Alexander technique for drummers. This month, just when you thought it was safe to go back behind the drums, we continue with our theme of technique and ergonomics, paying particular attention to the mechanical and physical (ergonomic) principles of the lower body and foot techniques. It is recommended that you wear sensible footwear for the remainder of this article. 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.
PHYSICAL TECHNIQUE AND MOVEMENT
When talking about foot techniques in drumming, we generally refer to ‘heel up’ and ‘heel down’ techniques, which relate to the anatomical position and movement of the foot when playing strokes on the bass drum or hi-hat pedals. Some drummers play exclusively ‘heel-up’ or ‘heel-down’, while others prefer to use a combination of both techniques. In the coming month, we’ll be looking at many ergonomic principles of the various foot techniques.
However, to ease you in gently, it’s important to examine some natural movements of the feet, beginning with a few simple exercises. Are you sitting comfortably? (preferably on your drumstool). Then let’s begin.
With the feet flat on the floor, simply raise the feet upwards, from the ankle, keeping the heels on the floor. In physiological terms this is known as dorsiflexion and can be seen in Pic 1. Now, push the feet back down to the floor – this is known as plantar flexion – and rest. Try moving the feet continuously upwards and downwards, slowly at first, through means of dorsiflexion and plantar flexion, focusing your attention on the ankle joints, and keeping the heels on the floor. To make this exercise even more exciting, place your hands on your shins, and you’ll feel the muscles of the shins contracting naturally. Also, try placing your hands on your thighs, and then
knees. Are the thigh muscles contracting? Do the knees feel tight and locked? If so, you are too tense. So relax…
Next, and again starting with the feet flat on the floor, raise the heels upwards, offthe floor, from the ankle, keeping the balls of the feet, and the toes, on the floor. Pic 2 shows an exaggeration of this position, and could begin by maintaining more contact with the balls of the feet on the floor. The main consideration is that
the heels are raised. In physiological terms, this requires flexion of the hip, and plantar flexion of the foot. Now drop the heels back on to the floor. Repeat this movement continuously, and if you can contain your euphoria, place your hands on your calves to feel the muscles of the calves contracting naturally. Again, try placing
your hands on your thighs, then knees,to feel if there is any tension there. There
shouldn’t be. Next, try this exercise.
Starting with the feet flat on the floor, press your fingers (not too firmly) into the muscle at the very top of your thigh, close to the hip joint, and lift the foot on that leg completely off the floor. You will feel that muscle (known as an abductor muscle) contract, as a result of the hip flexion, which basically lifts up the leg.
Relax. Now, keeping your hand in this position, try the basic heel up exercise again (Pic 2). How does this feel? Is the abductor muscle contracting too much? Does it feel uncomfortable? If so, then you are too tense and you need to concentrate on pushing up from the floor, using the ankles, with knees and hips unlocked. If executed with physical efficiency, you will feel tension-free in all the joints and in the thigh and abductor muscle. This will
be a very important physical consideration, particularly in relation to the various heel-up techniques that are used in drumming.
These exercises are very important, not least to show you the latest in designer drumming footwear (imported from Denmark, details on request) but, more specifically, to demonstrate a range of typical physical movements used in
‘heel-down’ and ‘heel up’ foot techniques on the drumset. In previous articles throughout this series, we’ve stressed the importance of allowing the body to move in the most natural way possible, without physical
restriction. It’s important, therefore, to generate an awareness and understanding of the natural, efficient, tension-free movements of the feet, incorporating ankles, knees, and hips (particularly in heel up actions). Also,
when doing these exercises, you should avoid ‘curling’ or ‘crunching’ of the toes, which is surprisingly common. So, remember to keep your toes straight – after all, playing drums should not be a toe-curling experience. Finally, imagine yourself as a tap dancer, using all those wonderful, natural, free flowing movements of the feet. Better still, sign up for some tap dancing lessons! Don’t knock it ‘till you’ve tried it – it didn’t do Buddy Rich or Steve Gadd any harm.
PEDAL POSITIONS AND MECHANICAL CONSIDERATIONS
The position of the foot, together with an understanding of the basic mechanics of the pedals, is a key ergonomic
consideration. Basically, regardless of the techniques used (again, more on specific techniques next month), the foot should be positioned, and should move, in a way that allows the pedal to function most efficiently – without physical or mechanical restrictions. As a general mechanical rule, we should be aware that there will be a
natural pivot point on the footplate of the pedals, which is sometimes referred to as the ‘sweet spot’. The ‘sweet spot’ is similar, in principle, to the fulcrum position on the drumstick. Pics 3 and 4 show a typical ‘pivot point’ or ‘sweet spot’ on the bass drum and hi-hat pedals, respectively, with the ball of the foot in a resting position, placed approximately two thirds of the way up the pedal footplate.
Placing the foot in this position will generally (subject to good physical technique) allow the mechanisms of the
pedal to function freely. On the other hand, placing the foot too much further up, or further down, the footplate, from the ‘pivot point’ can prove to be physically and mechanically restrictive, in that the weight distribution of the foot may counteract the ‘depression’ and ‘release’ principles of the pedals. Pics 5 and 6 show the foot in a resting position, placed further up the footplate, while Pics 7 and 8 show the foot in a resting position, placed further down along the pedal footplate. Of course, it’s difficult to lay down any hard and fast rules on this, as there are many physical, mechanical and musical variables to consider. Different drummers will use different foot
techniques – perhaps not the most ergonomic techniques – and still achieve the desired results.
Nevertheless, it pays to have an awareness and understanding of key ergonomic principles – after all, is it not
best to go Au Nature?