Tempo, Dynamics and Musicality For Drummers

Obvious… but so hard to attain and maintain

I think I’ve come up with a topic that is universal for all great musicians, but for this article, I’ll focus on the drummers… I felt that being a great drummer overall was more than a single characteristic. The three key elements that I see in all great artists are solid tempo, proper dynamics, and mature musicality. They are the pillars that every musician must build upon. I have referenced these ideas in other writings, but putting them together as a collective concept is important for all players.

So you say… “This is obvious Carl.” … Yeah, I know. But they are the hardest to attain and maintain. I’m still working on these concepts, and teach them all the time to private students as well as clinic attendees. I’ve been playing for over 40 years… Yep, FORTY! Of course, I started playing professionally at two! HA! … OK, OK… I’ll move on. The idea here is that whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned player, you should always be reaching higher to improve your skill. So let’s focus on the big three.

These are the things that make us “artists”, not just someone who hits the drums. I know you think you’ve heard it all before, but hang on for the ride and keep your heart and mind open. There’s always more to learn.

1.) TEMPO

Keeping great time is the drummer’s first job! Right? I’ve always heard this. But there’s more to it than just being the metronome for the rest of the musicians. How we use dynamics and interpret the music also comes into play. Keep that in mind as we work on these concepts. Yes, being a solid timekeeper is important, but it has to be relaxed and flowing. This is a challenge for most of my students. I can get them to play to a click, but it doesn’t always “feel” good.

The key is relaxation and breathing. Simple!… Well… Not so much. I’m always reminding them, and myself too, to stay loose, relaxed, and fluid when drumming. Even when the click is playing, don’t tighten up. It’s amazing how challenging that is for most players. I’m constantly telling the drummer to relax their shoulders, arms, and wrist. Yes, keep a good solid grip, but don’t become physically rigid in the process. You should only grip tight enough to keep the stick in your hand. Don’t make a fist around the stick, let there be some breathing room in the palm of your hand.

Drumming is almost like dancing. It should look, and more importantly feel, like it’s flowing without hindrance. Think Fred Astaire! *Check out YouTube if you don’t know who that is…

Actually Steve Gadd took tap dancing as a youngster, and Buddy Rich performed and danced in vaudeville shows. There’s something about the looseness or grace of a great dancer that every drummer should use as inspiration.

One of the keys to this is proper breathing. Which is simply remembering to naturally breathe in and out. Don’t hold your breath. This seems so obvious, but many drummers become tense and actually hold their breath so long that they become fatigued. Even though drumming is a very physical thing, remember your body needs a lot of oxygen to function well. A good exercise is to actually exaggerate your breathing while practicing drum exercises or grooves. You won’t make this the focus when actually playing with a band, but it may cross your mind sometime when you’re feeling a little run down during a performance. That little reminder may help you gain some control and stamina when you need it the most.

2.) DYNAMICS

I know many of you maybe rolling your eyes right now. DON’T! Get this aspect of your playing together. Be able to play as loudly or as softly as needed to make any situation work well. Yes, the drums sound differently at different dynamic levels. I know that… but how you blend with the rest of the band is crucial. I always tell drummers to “play the room.” If you’re overpowering the rest of the band by playing too loud, that is not good. AND… if you play too softly when more volume is needed it will weaken the energy needed for that moment too. In the context of most worship gatherings you probably have to play a wide variety of dynamics. I hope so. But if the musical or acoustic situation requires a certain level of playing… be it loud or soft, then be mature and capable enough to bring the needed result.

So many worship leaders and pastors still talk to me about drummers who won’t work with them on drum dynamics and volume issues in their churches. Really!?… Come on drummers, we are here to serve! OK?! — Bring your best to the table. If it’s an issue of not being comfortable with dynamic control, I can understand that. Then you should practice it at home until you get it under control. Work on playing everything you do with a variety of dynamics. Use different sticks, brushes, or “bundlestix/rods.” Make your stick action stay lower when needed. Don’t swing so hard. This maybe tough if you’ve always been a “rocker,” but you can develop the skill.

Also, within the context of balance between your limbs, listen carefully! Make sure you’re not hitting the cymbals too hard, or hitting one drum at a much harder or softer level than the other ones. Balancing the dynamics of the whole drum kit is very important. I have to remind myself to always go easier on the cymbals. I have a tendency to just bash them if I’m not careful. I even allow the rest of the band or the engineer to tell me how it feels. Imagine that!

3.) MUSICALITY

This characteristic sort of encompasses the others and so much more. A drummer’s ability to sound authentic in many styles is super important! Even in the context of a certain style there are still so many variations to a musical idea. Music is meant to be a spiritual, emotional, and creative expression. The possibilities are endless. The only way to achieve this is to continually keep growing in your musical appreciation. You’ve got to listen and learn to play so much music so that you can be able to reproduce a sound and groove as needed.

I know this seems a bit unfair. I guess you could be a “one trick pony.” (*Only good at one thing.) But that’s not really very much fun, is it? I like so many different styles of music I can’t imagine doing that. AND… I’ve noticed most of my drum heroes are really good at many styles.

You may feel like in worship music that is not so important. Some people even make jokes about how easy modern worship is to play… I won’t turn this into a sermon about mockery not being a cool thing, but I think it’s important to play passionately no matter how technically simple something may be to perform. Great musicianship is in the nuances and details. Even the late great Vic Firth (percussionist for the Boston Symphony and stick manufacturer) mentioned playing scored classical music over and over in this way… “Finding the subtleties… how you color something… that’s what separates the pros.”

All that being said I carefully give attention to every detail of drumming within the context of the song I am playing. Each one! I always say, “Give every song its honor. Do your due diligence.”

I recently bought the book “The Drummer’s Bible” for my students and myself to use as an encyclopedia of drum styles. I know technically they will need to know how to play a variety of grooves and I don’t want them or me to be a one trick pony. Even though most of them are involved in modern worship music, I’m not allowing them to only know one approach to playing drums. This not only applies to drum grooves, but also to drum sounds and production. How we make the kit sound with drum sizes, heads, tuning, and more, affects the musicality of our playing. I never think of music as a “one way works for all”… or “my way is the only way”. I’m always looking for ways to improve to be more expressive.

Join me in the journey. As a friend of mine said, “I don’t dream about it, or talk about it, I just do it!” So just do it! – Blessings, Carl

Originally published in Worship Musician Magazine, March/April 2016. Used by permission.

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