Developing Dynamite Dynamics: Part 2

Last time we learned how to develop dynamite dynamics using the practice pad (see Developing Dynamite Dynamics Part 1). Now, we'll apply those dynamics to our drum set studies and, finally, use them on the gig where it counts.

Roll Your Own
Most drum set study books rarely mention – let alone include – dynamics for you to practice. But it's not difficult to add your own. Refer to the following dynamic table (from last week's lesson) to refresh your memory:

  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

Grab a pencil (so you can easily erase it) and let's begin.

It's not important what particular books you use for drum set practice, just choose a page or two and mark the first few bars PP (meaning "very soft"). Mark the next few bars ff ("very loud"). Mark the next few p (for "soft") and the remaining ones f (for "loud"). Practice the page on your kit but remember, whenever you come upon a dynamic marking you play that specified sound level until you reach the next marking.

Although most tunes that you'll play will probably never require you to switch dynamic levels as often as the above exercise, practicing complicated exercises will make the actual gig much easier to play. For this reason, I recommend that you create similarly complicated dynamic markings for practice purposes.

Let's try another one. Turn to a fresh, unmarked exercise page and mark it up as follows: f for a few bars, ff for one bar, p for a few bars, fff for one bar, and ppp for the remaining bars. Get the idea? The more complicated you get in your practice, the less trouble you'll have when you get a real drum chart that has dynamic markings on it.

Charts Stink in the Real World
In reality, most drum charts you'll come across will be poorly written compared to those in your exercise books. Many of them contain only the basic "cuts" or accents that you need to make with the rest of the band and leave the rest of what you play and how you play it, to your discretion. This is both good and bad. It's good in that you aren't locked into playing exactly what's written (which is usually awful), but it's bad when your interpretation of the tune differs considerably from what the composer had in mind. (Drum Charts and their interpretation will be covered in a future article).

When marking your music for practicing dynamics, don't forget to add the occasional accent (>) and sfz (sforzando), and throw in a crescendo and decrescendo once in a while. If you're not familiar with these terms, refer to the first part of this article, Developing Dynamite Dynamics Part 1 (in the sidebar).

The Pros Know
It's easy to mark up pages and practice playing at different sound levels, but the pros also use certain tricks to help them vary their dynamics. For soft playing, brushes are still the best bet (unfortunately, brush technique is getting to be a lost art and, you guessed it, another future article). Although pros can play extremely softly with sticks, it takes practice. The mark of a real artist drummer is to be able to play at ppp with sticks and still "cook" with the same intensity level as when playing loud. Many drummers lose their groove once the sound level comes down. However, if you practice as recommended on this page, you'll be able to avoid this problem.

8 Tips for Keeping it Quiet
Here are some of the tricks pros use to play soft:

  1. Use brushes.
  2. When playing ppp (extremely soft) using sticks, keep them less than an inch from the drumhead's surface.
  3. Play with sticks on the closed hi-hat or use an open-closed pattern, but don't allow the hi-hat cymbals to open all the way, open them no more than 1/4 inch.
  4. Use rim clicks instead of snare strikes. (Executed by holding the tip of the stick on the head and hanging the butt end about 2 inches over the rim of the snare or tom. Raise up the butt end and click it down on the rim while keeping the tip in contact with the drumhead.)
  5. When crashing or playing a ride pattern on the cymbal or cymbal bell, use the tip of your stick. If you are using brushes that have metal ends, the metal also sounds good on cymbals.
  6. For light crashes and effects, strike your cymbal with the edge of the stick while holding your stick at a 90 degree angle to the cymbal's edge.
  7. Keep your heel and toe down flat on the kick drum pedal while playing for a soft, controlled technique.
  8. For soft drums fills around the set, play snare and toms while keeping the sticks as close to the surface of the drumheads as possible, no farther than an inch.

8 Tips for Rockin' It Up
Here are some of the tricks pros use to play loud:

  1. Use thicker and heavier sticks for loud rock-type music than for the lighter jazz-type stuff.
  2. Cymbals and drums sound louder and more brilliant when played with nylon-tipped sticks than with their wood-tipped equivalents.
  3. When playing fff (extremely loud), use arm technique as opposed to wrists or fingers. (Arm technique incorporates the entire arm into the motion of the stick hitting the drum, and will be covered in detail in a future article.)
  4. When playing with sticks on a closed or open hi-hat, strike with the entire shank of the stick (the flat edge) as opposed to the tip for extreme sound volumes.
  5. Use rim shots instead of snare strikes. (A rim shot is produced by striking both the drumhead and the drum rim with the stick at the same time. A technique that takes a lot of practice to develop.)
  6. When crashing or playing a heavy ride pattern on the cymbal, use the shank of your stick. For extremely heavy cymbal rides, turn your stick around and strike with the butt end. You can use the butt end on the drums too.
  7. Play your foot pedals (both hi-hat and kick) with your heels up (that is, using you toes). This allows you to get the full weight and power of your legs into it.
  8. For extremely loud fills, play your snare and toms with full arm technique, keeping the sticks a foot and a half or more above the surface of the drumheads.

Some drummers switch to thin/light sticks for playing softly and pull out the heavy models for the loud stuff. While you can use this approach, you should also be able to play the entire range of dynamics from ppp to fff with any pair of sticks without changing sticks mid-song.

Musical Ears
Although good dynamics is one of the essentials that separate the true artist drummer from the average drummer, you can't begin to approach pro sound until you can apply dynamics properly to music. And that's where this article ends and your work begins.

The first thing to do is use the exercises I've given you to perfect your ability to play at eight distinctive dynamic levels.

The next thing is to listen to all kinds of good music and concentrate on how good drummers fit in with the other instruments in the band. For example, you might notice the drummer playing a tightly closed hi-hat in the first verse and then opening it up (letting the cymbals come apart slightly) to a fuller sound in the chorus, as the band gets louder and the rest of the music opens up. This is known as having a good musical ear, and it's something that no one can "teach" you. The only way to learn it is to listen to enough music and play with enough bands and make enough mistakes. Eventually, you will develop a good ear and the pro sound that comes along with it.

I've done about all I can. Now, it's your turn.

Until next time: Stay loose.

Tiger Bill Meligari



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