Developing Dynamite Dynamics: Part 1

In music, dynamics refers to degrees of loudness. Although good dynamics are important to successful drumming, they're probably the least practiced of any technique. That's the reason most drummers find it easy to get things cookin' when playing at loud volume levels, but have trouble maintaining the groove when the volume gets soft. If you are in this category, fear not. The ability to cook at various dynamic levels is easy to develop – through proper practice procedures. Here's how to go about it.

The Practice Pad
Although you should ultimately practice your dynamics on an entire drum set, the best place to start is at the practice pad. If you don't already have a pad, you should get one. They come in two basic flavors, tunable and rubber surfaced (see the accompanying sidebar). I use both myself, but prefer the rubber surface for practicing while watching TV. It's quieter.

How Many Dynamic Levels?
There are eight dynamic levels in music that mark the varying degrees of loudness. Here, from soft to loud, are the most commonly used abbreviations along with their corresponding Italian (the international language of music) words:

  1. ppp (triple-piano) – as soft as possible
  2. pp (pianissimo) – very soft
  3. p (piano) – soft
  4. mp (mezzo piano) – medium soft
  5. mf (mezzo forte) – medium loud
  6. f (forte) – loud
  7. ff (fortissimo) – very loud
  8. fff (triple-forte) – as loud as possible

In addition to the eight dynamic levels listed above, there are terms for gradually increasing and decreasing sound levels. These are the crescendo (notated by a < written below the affected notes) and decrescendo or diminuendo (notated by a > written below the affected notes). Crescendo means to increase the sound from softer to louder and decrescendo (or diminuendo) means to decrease the sound level from louder to softer. The beginning and ending dynamic levels will be written on either end of the crescendo or decrescendo mark. For example, on a decrescendo you may be told to start at ff and finish at pp.

The final two common dynamic markings are the accent (notated by a short > written above the affected note), and the sfz, also written above the affected note. The > accent means to play the note louder than the other surrounding notes. The sfz (sforzando) means to play an accent that is louder than the standard accent >.

These are the basic dynamic levels you will need to become familiar with. Now let's see how we can work these into our daily practice routine.

The Best Way To Practice Dynamics
You can buy drum instruction books that already contain dynamics (see sidebar), but you'll get a much better workout if you add your own dynamic markings. To do this, pick a page from any of your instruction books or drum charts and play it through using each of the eight dynamic levels. Start with ppp and play the entire page, then PP, then p, and so on. Each time you play the page, you increase the dynamic level one notch. At first, you'll be lucky if you make it all the way up to fff. Beginners usually find themselves at maximum loudness by the time they reach f (forte). If this happens to you, go back to the beginning and start over again. But play the ppp softer this time, so you'll have room to increase the volume. Remember, you need to be able to increase the volume over eight distinct levels.

Once you've gotten comfortable playing the entire page using each of the eight dynamic levels from soft to loud, it's time to reverse the above procedure and play your exercise page eight more times. This time, begin with the loudest level (fff) and work your way back down to the softest (ppp).

After you have completed this exercise, grab a pencil and go back to the beginning of your page again. Mark each few bars with one of the eight dynamic levels in order from the softest to the loudest. Once you've marked each of the eight levels on the same page, practice that page again.

Advanced Techniques
The next time through, mark each few bars with dynamic levels from loudest to softest and practice the page again. After you get good at this (and it may take a few lessons before this happens), you can get fancy. Try marking every few bars with one of the dynamics levels but not in any particular order. Skip around between soft and loud and loud and soft, mixing them up at random.

You'll find this technique to be an excellent source of limitless dynamic exercises, which will develop your sensitivity to all eight levels of sound intensity that music requires. As I said earlier, drum set practice is important but so is practicing on the pad. In the beginning, I recommend that you practice these dynamic levels strictly on the pad until you become proficient with them. Later, you can apply them to your drum set practice routines using the technique you just learned. (See Developing Dynamite Dynamics Part 2 in the sidebar for more.)

Good dynamics is one of the essentials that separate the true artist drummer from the average drummer. Be the best drummer that you can be. Learn how to develop dynamite dynamics.

Until next time: Stay loose.

Tiger Bill Meligari



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