Published on Sunday, 25 April 2010 16:01
Written by Bruce Gale
Selecting the Instrument
Holding the Sticks
The Basic Stroke
Most authorities suggest that beginning percussionists start on the snare or side drum. Not only is it the most commonly used percussion instrument in wind and brass bands, but much of its beating technique is also applicable to other membranophones such as the bass drum and the timpani as well. Certain technical skills are even applicable to instruments such as the xylophone. Needless to say, this makes the snare drum as good an instrument as any to begin a discussion of basic percussion techniques.
Selecting an instrument
A good snare drum will come with eight to ten tension lugs, individual snare-strand tuning, and gut, wire or nylon snares. Wire snares (most common in student line models) are adequate for general concert use. Gut or cable snares are more appropriate for marching bands. A snare release mechanism should also be present. The latter is important in order to prevent the drum from “buzzing” annoyingly due to sympathetic vibrations when the band is playing. It also enables the drum to be used as a tom-tom. That said, it is better to store the drums with the snares on rather than off. This will help avoid shrinking or warping of the case of gut snares and the possibility of getting bent in the case of other types of snares.
The batter head is the side that is played.
Student model drumheads are usually made of plastic. This material is cheaper than the animal skins preferred by professionals. It is durable and unaffected by the weather. The batter head (the head that is actually played) should be at least of medium thickness to ensure that it wears well. It will also require a coating for brush playing. The snare head at the bottom of the drum, on the other hand, should be as thin as possible. This is because the latter needs to respond to the sound waves inside the drum that are set into motion by a stroke on the batter head.
The head comes with an attached outer ring called a flesh hoop. It is held onto the shell by a metal counterhoop through which the tension rods are placed and evenly tightened. An important skill for percussionists to learn is how to tighten the drum head without the head pulling out of the flesh hoop. The batter head should be tuned to a tension that produces a good stick rebound. The snare head is usually tuned to a higher sounding pitch than the batter head.
A head has a lifespan of about one year.
Heads should be replaced periodically, even though they do not appear to be damaged. Used regularly, a head has a life of about a year or so. After this, it will stretch out and the center will become insensitive or unresponsive to the stick.
Many drums come equipped with an internal felt pad to be used as a muffler to prevent unwanted ringing sounds. This pad should be adjusted so that it barely touches the batter head. Adjustments are made with the snares off in order to hear the ring. Be careful not to adjust the pad so high so that it produces a bulge on the surface of the batter head.
Snare tension may also be adjusted according to the dictates of the music being played. A soft passage, for example, may require a slight loosening of the snares to produce a more delicate sound, while a forte passage may suggest the opposite.
Sticks come in a variety of shapes and sizes. When purchasing sticks, Gary Cook [Teaching Percussion, Schirmer Books, New York, 1988] suggests the following tests be employed:
- Roll the sticks on a flat surface to find a pair that are straight.
- Drop the sticks on a hard floor or tap them on a hard surface to match their pitch. Choose the pair with the highest pitch.
- Inspect the sticks to ensure that the finishes are smooth and free of flaws.
Avoid sticks with an excessive taper.
Wooden sticks are generally best. Some authorities have expressed a preference for hickory. A very light, small diameter stick will produce a thin sound, while employing a stick with a thicker diameter will produce a more full-bodied sound. On the other hand, a stick that is too large for the instrument being played will tend to muffle the vibrations and produce an unsatisfactory sound. Avoid sticks with excessive taper. They can facilitate a long roll up to about a mezzo-forte, but after that they become useless because they simply do not have the weight. Such sticks also tend to flex when played, resulting a loss of tone.
As in the case of most other percussion instruments, the forearms of a snare drum player should be parallel to the floor. All instruments should also be at approximately waist level, although in the case of the timpani it is usually somewhat lower. When playing, the performer should stand or sit upright and avoid bending over towards the instrument. If seated, he should avoid leaning back on the chair because this will interfere with the freedom of action of the arms and wrists. Tall players may need to employ a riser to elevate the instrument. This is far better than having the player bend his legs or stoop. Short players may need to stand on a small platform.
Standing too close to the instrument inhibits technical development.
The appropriate distance between the instrument and the player can be determined by placing the sticks or mallets (if a xylophone is used) on the instrument’s playing area and noting the location of the elbows. The elbows should be slightly forward or level with the sides of the body. This aids in relaxation of the shoulders and ease of arm movement. Standing too close to the instrument inhibits technical development. Tone is also affected because the hands tend to squeeze the sticks or mallets.
In general, it is best to play a snare drum, or any other membranophone for that matter, slightly off center. Playing at the centre will produce the lowest, fundamental tone, with a dry quality. Playing at the edge, on the other hand, tends to produce a very light, superficial tone. Playing off-center produces a low tone, but one with much greater resonance than at the center. That said, the performance of soft articulate passages can sometimes be improved by playing either at the center or on the edge.
Holding the Sticks
There are two types of grips for snare drum playing: the traditional and the matched grip. The traditional grip, which originally developed in military bands, evolved out of the need to find a convenient left-hand grip to accommodate the sharp angle created by the fact that the drum was suspended from the drummer’s side. In this grip, the left-hand stick is held between the thumb and the index finger. For much of the twentieth century, this grip was also used in the concert hall.
Players in marching bands still need to learn the traditional grip.
The matched grip, which involves both hands holding the sticks in the same way, is now the most common in concert bands. It is also the grip used by many timpani and xylophone players. Apart from the fact that it can easily be transferred (with only minor modifications) to other percussion instruments, the matched grip is generally considered more desirable because it aids in obtaining balanced strokes between the hands. Snare drum players in marching bands, however, will still need to learn the traditional grip.
One of the most important things to do before starting to play a snare drum is to determine the pivot point or fulcrum of the sticks. This is the place where the sticks will produce the greatest number of free bounces when they are dropped on the drumhead. Finding the pivot point involves holding the stick between the tip of the thumb and the index finger about a third of the way down from the butt end with the tip resting on the drumhead. Use the other hand to lift the stick about 10 inches above the head and then allow it to drop on the drum. Repeat this several times, changing the place at which the stick is held in order to find the point at which the greatest number of bounces can be produced. Normally, this fulcrum point will be located about a third of the way down the stick as measured from the butt end.
The basic grip is centered on the thumb and index finger.
Gripping the stick correctly involves holding it loosely between the thumb and the first joint of the index finger at the pivot point. The other fingers should then be gently wrapped around the back of the stick. The latter fingers only play a supporting role, however, and should never inhibit the motion of the stick. The basic grip should be thought of as being centered on the thumb and the index finger. Ensure that the tip of the index finger curls slightly around the stick. The sticks should be held almost parallel to the batter head, forming an angle of about 60 degrees.
The Basic Stroke
The correct stroke when using the matched grip is similar to bouncing a ball or cracking a whip. The motion is in the wrist and is primarily up and down, not side to side. Place the hand close to the drum (about two or three inches above the batter head) and lift the tip of the stick by bending the wrist to a position about six to eight inches above the head. Do NOT move the forearm. Then drop the tip of the stick to the head and allow it to bounce off. Do this with both hands.
Equal ability with both hands is very important.
Try to obtain a consistent quality of sound between hands with each stroke using even time values. The development of equal ability with both hands is one of the fundamentals of percussion technique and is probably more difficult on the snare drum than on tuned percussion. Keep the striking area small. This is important because the head sounds different when struck in different places.
Tuning the head is a process of simultaneously tapping around the circumference of the drum about two inches from the rim while making minor adjustments in tension, with a drum key. This is done until the sound is the same at each rod. The process can be an extremely frustrating, since a turn on any one rod often affects the pitch not only at that point, but also at the rod directly opposite and at the two adjacent rods. After tuning the head, apply pressure to the center of the drum to further seat and remove excess slack from the head. Check the tone at each rod again, and then re-tune the head if the resulting sound is not uniform. The heads should be tensioned at mid-range, where pressure by the thumb on the center of the head will indent the head about a quarter of an inch.
The most desirable pitch relationship between the snare head and the batter head is very controversial.
A major point of disagreement among percussionists is the pitch relationship between the batter head and the snare head. Some feel the bottom head should be looser than the top, while others feel the bottom head should be tighter than the top. A snare head tensioned tighter than the batter head will produce a symphonic sound. A snare head that is looser than the batter head, on the other hand, creates more of a stage band, jazz-rock sound.