Introducing Rolls on Snare Drum

Mike Lawson • Archives • November 6, 2009

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The most ubiquitous problem faced by percussionists is the question of how to sustain sounds on percussion instruments. The crux of the matter is that the sound percussion instruments make naturally decays at varying rates after the attack. Most non-percussion instruments create a sound which contains three parts: attack, sustain, and decay. However, the sound of most percussion instruments, especially the snare drum, begins to decay immediately after the attack, thus being devoid of the important quality of sustain. Therefore, percussionists have developed ways of implying sustained sounds.

While their friends in the string section are drawing a bow across a string to set the string in motion and keep it that way, and while their colleagues in the wind sections are filling their respective instruments with moving air to create sustain, the percussionists must create the implication of sustain through a rapid repetition of single attacks. These attacks occur close enough together to give the listener the illusion of sustain. This series of attacks is often referred to as a roll. To successfully create the illusion of sustain while rolling, percussionists can shape their rolls in a way indicative of the three parts of sound created by many non-percussion instruments: attack, sustain, and decay.

Attack: How does one imply an attack in a roll when a roll consists of a series of attacks? Most commonly, the first note of the roll is played with a slight accent. This gives the first note a stronger quality than the notes that follow, similar to the sound of an attack made by sustaining instruments.

Sustain: The notes following the attack should be slightly softer than the attack. If this variance is not achieved, the roll will sound more like a quick series of attacks rather than sustain. To achieve a sustaining quality, the performer should play at a rate of iteration which keeps the sustaining quality alive. On snare drum, several types of rolls can be employed and each one of them uses a different technique to achieve the illusion of sustain. These roll types will be discussed later.

Decay: Of course, decay is the easiest and most natural part of the sound to emulate because percussion instruments do this naturally. Although the decay of long-ringing percussion instruments can be altered by the player through dampening, the snare drum rarely requires such action. Generally, the snare drum player either ends the roll with a definite sound, such as an accent, or he will simply lift the sticks and allow the drum to naturally decay. This results in a slightly more ambiguous ending to the roll.

As educators, we must encourage our percussionists to understand these three parts of sound and put this knowledge into practical use when playing a roll. For beginning students, snare drum rolls can be daunting. Oftentimes, they never achieve an adequate roll sound. With a systematic approach to pedagogy, we can help our beginning students attain a good-sounding roll while experiencing minimal frustration. Before laying out a systematic pedagogical approach, we must first consider the importance of basic snare drum technique namely, grip and motion. We must also have a clear understanding of the three main types of snare drum rolls prior to presenting this information to our students.

Grip: Percussion educators use varying approaches to teaching grip, the scope of which is too broad for the purpose of this article. However, we will go over the aspects of grip that are pertinent to teaching beginners how to play a good snare drum roll. The grip must have a defined pivot point, or fulcrum. With matched grip, the fulcrum is usually formed between the index finger and the thumb and is held approximately five inches from the butt of the stick. This, however, can vary depending on the stick and the player. If a student’s back fingers are gripping hard against the back of the stick, the pivoting function of the fulcrum will not work properly. When the back fingers are touching the stick in a relaxed manner, or not touching the stick at all, the fulcrum will work as it is intended, allowing the back of the stick to move opposite the bead of the stick. A good fulcrum is needed to ensure that the stick can bounce freely off of the drumhead. The tension of the fulcrum becomes very important for bounced rolls. The tenser the fulcrum, the less freely the stick tip will bounce back from the head. The more relaxed the fulcrum, the more freely the stick will bounce back. This relaxed fulcrum will create a slower, or more open sequence of bounces. Depending on the speed of the roll, the player will be required to hold the fulcrum tenser or more relaxed for quicker or slower bounces. To have good control of the bounces, the player must be able to adjust the tension in the fulcrum.

Stroke Motion: When playing the snare drum, there are three main pivot points which combine to create the motion of the stroke. The elbow pivot moves the forearm to create a low velocity, weighted attack. The wrist pivot creates a nice, all-purpose attack, and is used for both moderate and fast passages. It is also the primary pivot used to create a stroke. Finally, the fingers are incorporated for fast playing with a light touch. By combining these pivot points and using them at the appropriate time, students can play the snare drum with great facility and relaxation. Young players can apply this understanding of stroke motion to develop the three main kinds of snare drum rolls: the single-stroke roll, the double-stroke roll, and the multiple-bounce roll.

The Single-Stroke Roll: To play a single-stroke roll (e.g. right, left, right, left), the student must use his wrist and back fingers to move the sticks in a quick, alternating fashion. The stick tips hit the head only once per stroke, no bounces or double-strokes are employed. Quite simply, the percussionist alternates strokes from the right to left hand as quickly as possible. To imply the illusion of sustain, the student should give the initial attack a slight accent.

The Double-Stroke Roll: The double-stroke roll, (e.g. right, right, left, left), can be played two different ways. One approach to playing a double-stroke roll is to allow each stick tip to bounce once after the attack, creating a total of two hits per hand. To achieve this, the student should set the stick into motion by using the elbow pivot (moving the forearm) and taking the back fingers slightly off of the stick. When the stick hits the head, if the fulcrum is tense enough, the stick tip should bounce on the head. In order to limit the bounces, the stick should be lifted from the head after it bounces once following the initial attack. Once again, the bounced double-stroke roll requires that the stick tip hits the drumhead exactly twice for each hand motion. The typical rhythm for a bounced double-stroke is based on a sixteenth-note hand motion, which, with the bounces, makes the overall rhythm a series of thirty-second notes.

Another approach to playing a double-stroke roll is to control both sounds of the double-stroke. With this approach the stick tip does not bounce on the drum head. When the double-stroke roll is controlled, the first hit of each double stroke should be set into motion by the elbow and wrist pivots, while the back fingers set the stick into motion for the second hit of the double. This creates very fast thirty-second notes, which are perceived as a roll. Both approaches create the same basic sound (right, right, left, left), but, especially for slower rolls, the evenness of the controlled double-stroke is desired. Often, the initial attack of a long double-stroke roll is given a slight accent to imply a sustained sound.

The Multiple-Bounce Roll: The multiple-bounce roll requires at least three bounces per hand motion (for example, right, right, right, left, left, left). On a technical level, it is actually an attack followed by two bounces. The way to attain a high-quality multiple-bounce roll is to achieve a uniform volume of bounces. This can best be accomplished if the player uses the elbow pivot (forearm motion) rather than the wrist to create the initial stick movement. This forearm technique will create a slow-velocity stroke, and soften the initial impact of each hand’s attack during the roll. It will also allow the following bounces to be more similar in volume to the attack because the slower velocity allows for a more relaxed fulcrum. A multiple-bounce roll is not necessarily based on a sixteenth-note subdivision of hand movement. Rather, the speed of the subdivision should reflect whatever speed is required to fill the sound of the roll evenly, regardless of the tempo of the passage. When this is done properly and is coupled with a slight accent at the beginning of the roll, the illusion of sustain will be obtained.

Teaching Rolls Students must understand how to use their grip and the previously discussed motions to achieve an even and desirable roll sound. The following is a systematic approach to teaching rolls to beginning or intermediate students. Although there are many technique exercises students can practice to improve the speed and sound of their single-stroke rolls, the main concept to remember in teaching them is that the back fingers must be used to keep the sticks moving quickly. That being said, we will focus more on the double-stroke and multiple-bounce rolls with the following exercises. We will first introduce bouncing the stick on the drumhead, followed by basic multiple-bounce rolls, then double-stroke rolls, and finally, more advanced multiple-bounce rolls. Please note that the numbered instructions are accompanied by roll exercises of the same number.

1. Begin by having your students allow the stick to bounce on the snare drum head. Have them let their back fingers come off of the stick so that the only contact point with the stick is the fulcrum. When they practice bounces, make sure your students use forearm (elbow pivot) rather than wrist to soften the initial attack of the stick on the drumhead. Have them practice with one hand at a time, and then both hands together. Encourage your students to try to achieve a unified motion and sound from both hands. (Note: the ‘z’ on the note stems means to allow the stick head to bounce numerous times.)

Example #1

2. After the students are comfortable allowing the stick to bounce and have achieved some control of the stick, encourage them to work to attain several bounces per attack. Technically speaking, this is an initial arm movement followed by two bounces for a total of three “stick hits” per hand movement.

Example #2

3. Once they are able to get consistent bounces, try having students alternate bounces between the right and left hands. Have them first play eighth-note bounces with just one hand. Once that is consistent, have them add in the other hand on the sixteenth note between the downbeat and the upbeat that follows. Have them add in the other hand until they are playing a slow multiple-bounce roll.

Example #3

4. Next, have your students do the same thing, but this time have them start with the left hand. Once this is comfortable, have them play at a faster tempo to make it sound more like a roll than a rhythm.

Example #4

5. When the students can achieve a decent multiple-bounce roll, have them return to practicing the original, eighth-note pattern; but this time, have them lift their stick after it bounces only once. When they can do this, they have achieved a bounced double stroke. This is the first step to playing a double-stroke roll. When this rhythm is consistent, have the students add a bounced double stroke with the other hand on the sixteenth note between the downbeat and the upbeat. Continue having them add double strokes with the other hand until a double-stroke roll is achieved. Have the students practice this at various tempi and alternate the hand with which they start.

Example #5

6. Once an even double-stroke roll is established, have your students practice playing a series of single eighth notes (wrist motion), followed by bounced doubles (arm motion). First, have the students try this with each hand separately, and then incorporate both hands at the same time. Make sure that they use the wrist pivot motion for the single eighth notes, and the elbow pivot (arm motion) for the bounced doubles.

Example #6

7. Next, have the students practice playing sixteenth notes followed by thirty-second-note double strokes in an alternating fashion. Note that the sixteenth notes should still be played with the wrist, while the double-stroke bounces should utilize arm. This should first be attempted by including a rest between the sixteenth notes and the double strokes to allow the students to prepare for the change of motion. However, eventually this exercise should be played as a continuous pattern.

Example #7

When exercises five through seven are smooth and even, have your students go back and play them with controlled double strokes instead of bounced double strokes. With this approach, the initial attack should still be mostly with the arm, but the following rebound, instead of being bounced, should be controlled with the fingers. When controlling the doublestroke, the back fingers should stay on the stick. Remember that fingers should only be taken off of the stick to allow the stick to bounce, which does not apply to controlled double strokes.

Have your students practice exercises six and seven utilizing the multiple-bounce approach. To achieve an ideal multiple-bounce, have your students try to get a total of three hits per hand. Having three bounces (technically, an attack followed by two bounces) per hand creates very full and even sounding multiple-bounce rolls.

Because percussionists will never be able to truly sustain sound on the snare drum, knowing the correct approach to achieving good rolls is very valuable. With some knowledge and practice, young snare drummers can achieve the kind of roll sounds that their band directors desire. Further, by emulating the three main parts of sustained sound attack, sustain, and decay young percussionists can successfully attain the desired illusion of sustain.

Brett Jones is currently the assistant professor of Percussion at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. Jones holds a bachelor degree in music education from the University of Colorado and masters and doctorate degrees in percussion performance from Texas Tech University. He has held faculty positions at Northland College, Blinn College, and Texas Tech University. Jones endorses Encore mallets, Silverfox Percussion drumsticks, Grover Pro Percussion products, and Planet Marimba mallet instruments.

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