Whether a young student, a high school player, a college percussion major, a teacher or a professional, a good percussionist can be identified by his or her attention to the essential “Five T’s”—time, technique, touch, taste and tuning.
Time is the first benchmark of any good drummer. The length of the silence between beats determines the tempo. I believe in practicing with a metronome some of the time, but not all of the time. Marching bands and corps do not perform to a click track; therefore, the ensemble should not rely on the metronome, so that live performances will be fundamentally solid. Good musicianship merely starts with playing “in time” but doesn’t end there.
Technique is the way in which a percussionist holds and moves the sticks and mallets. The great jazz drummers play traditional at least some of the time. Rock, Latin and orchestral players tend to play match. My advice is to learn both grips, so that you’re prepared for anything.
Regardless of which grip you use, technique involves your control of the sticks and mallets. I believe in a totally relaxed style of playing. Here’s an easy acronym to help you: REST—Relaxed, Efficient, Smooth, Tension-free.
Touch is the moment of truth for percussionists. It is the instant at which the stick/mallet/brush strikes the instrument. Many factors go into creating a quality sound: relaxed technique, confidence, an understanding of exactly how and where to strike the instrument, a knowledge of the various essential strokes and the realization that different instruments require different approaches. The Kevlar-headed marching snare, rope drum, concert snare and drum set snare all have different “sweet spots,” or “strike points,” and require slightly different approaches. And that’s just the snare drums. Same situation goes for tenors, basses, timpani, mallets and Latin drums.
Taste is simply a “T” word for musicality. As an individual musician, you must play with integrity, honoring both the music itself and the ensemble as a whole. Never forget that you are an individual member of a larger group. The snares comprise an ensemble unto themselves; the battery works as a larger ensemble; the battery/pit becomes an even larger ensemble; and the entire band or corps makes up the largest ensemble. Ultimately, your duty is to serve the whole.
As a judge, I must evaluate the musical contributions of both the arranger and the performers. Dynamics, accents, expression, time, feel, idiomatic validity, rhythmic accuracy, ensemble cohesiveness, color, texture, blend, balance and effectiveness are just some of the factors that judges and teachers consider. You must address all of them because you are the one who will bring the written music to life.
Tuning is important because if you have successfully addressed the other “T’s,” but your instrument sounds awful, (it doesn’t project adequately or is too “boomy” for the ensemble), then your efforts will be wasted. Here are some of my favorite tips for tuning your drums.
1. Use good drumheads that are appropriate for the musical style and the environment—indoors, outdoors, acoustic, amplified, concert or marching.
2. For a snare drum, tune the bottom (“snare”) head first, then tune the top (“batter”) head. The bottom head affects the sound dramatically. Tune it before addressing the top head, so that you will hear a true sound when adjusting the tension on the batter head.
3. For two-headed toms, tune the bottom head first.
4. For marching bass drums, tune both heads to the same pitch. I like to tune the largest drum first, then work my way to the smallest drum.
5. For tenors, tune the drums by striking them where you will actually play them, usually midway between the edge and the center. I like to tune tenors from the largest drum up to the smallest.
6. Muffle only as much as necessary for the ensemble’s style, blend, balance and sound—don’t overdo.
7. Remember the importance of air. A column of air makes the “resonant” head—the bottom head on a snare or tom, the non-striking head on a concert bass—vibrate. Kevlar material doesn’t give as much as plastic when struck, so the column of air is much less. Do not ignore the concept of airflow in determining how a drum will sound and project.
8. Always tune to the natural range of the drum. Size and shape will provide limitations.
9. Always tune for the style of music that you play.
10. Consider tuning your snares, tenors and basses to pitch or to intervals, so that your ensemble always sounds the same at every rehearsal and performance.