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You'd be surprised at how much time I spend trying to get drum students to achieve a more relaxed drum stroke. Many beginning drummers think – either consciously or subconsciously – that the faster they play, the more tension they need in their arms, and the harder they have to hammer the sticks into the drum. On top of that, they are determined to play quickly right away, before they give themselves a chance to work on developing a smooth, relaxed stroke.
What they don't realize is that no matter how much they practise rudiments or fuss over the details of their grip, with tense hands, arms and shoulders delivering a hammer stroke into the drum, they will never develop the degree of speed and control they are capable of.
When a stick hits a drum, or cymbal for that matter, it bounces back in the opposite direction. The student who plays with too much tension, who hammers the stick into the drum – and most often tension and hammering go hand in hand – will find that the direction of the stick continues to move downward contrary to the upward push of the rebound. To see the problems this leads to, watch what happens when you ask your students to play a single stroke roll (though any rudiment - paradiddles, double stroke rolls, flams, ruffs etc. - would illustrate the point equally well).
If the student is hammering the stick into the drum, the clean, single strokes will become less and less distinct as the speed is increased. The stick does not freely bounce back off the head. Rather, it is wrestled into the head by a hand still pushing down on the stick after it should have changed direction. This results in a buzz – as well as a tremendous loss of control.
The less tension there is in the muscles of the arms and hands, the easier it is to respond to the bounce off the head. What's more, by incorporating the energy coming off the drum head into the stroke, the student's playing will become quicker, more fluid and relaxed.
Dropping vs. Hammering
Along with a solid grip (see article), what teachers must emphasize from the very beginning is the importance of a relaxed stroke.
The relaxed stroke begins with a relaxed shoulder, arm and hand. Have the students hold their sticks with the arm dropped by their side. They should then lift the stick into playing position by just raising the elbow. They should feel the weight of the stick pulling the hand down from the wrist as the arm is moved into playing position. The fingers should be wrapped around the stick just firmly enough so that, when playing, it will not go flying out of the hand.
With a completely relaxed arm and hand in playing position, the student should lift the stick from the wrist, and drop it onto the snare. The hand should remain in the down position. If the fingers are kept in position around the stick without too much pressure, the stick will pop back and stop, with a minimal amount of shaking, about an inch above the head.
When trying this exercise for the first time, many students will be afraid that the stick will kick back and they will lose control. As a result, they often hold back on the drop motion, not allowing the wrist and arm to fall freely. But it is important that they learn to drop the stick without holding back at all. With a relaxed arm and hand, and with the fingers remaining in position under the palm of the hand (when using matched grip, the fingers should not flip out), the stick will bounce back and come to rest close to the drum head.
Students playing slow quarter notes from those first exercises in their method book would do well to play them in this way.
Once your students are comfortable with the single stroke, they are ready to try multiple strokes.
With multiple strokes, rather than resting the hand close to the drum head as was the case with the single stroke, the hand is guided back up by the rebound off the drum, then dropped down again. The pattern continues – all in one fluid motion. The movement is like that of dribbling a basketball. The hand and arm stays relaxed at all times, moving completely in synch with the rebound off the drum.
Keeping in mind that one drops the stick from a higher level in order to play louder, various series of notes can be practised with the sticks dropped from different levels above the drum. No matter what height the stick is dropped from, the motion should remain fluid and unforced.