The Musical Percussionist

Mike Lawson • Archives • November 15, 2012

By Jeffery Crowell

Making music is our ultimate goal, that’s a given. However, when playing percussion and engaging in the act of being “percussive,” it’s not necessarily the most musically capable or nuance-oriented interaction one can have with an instrument. The human voice or breath or a bow has much more shaping potential than the act of striking something. The short moment we percussionists have to interact with our instruments leaves little time to learn as much as we can – those are just the facts.

So what can we do about it? Our art is packed with things that aren’t necessarily our fault, but are definitely our problems to deal with. I feel it helps students understand that it’s not their fault, too, but they still have deal with the end result. Take rushing for example. How many great jokes are there about drummers rushing? Lots. Why? Because they are true! For example, show me someone who always alternates hands when playing notes that last a split second – even if marked quarter notes – and I’ll show you someone that anticipates each entrance slightly. When you anticipate an entrance you’re technically coming in early. Do that twice in a row and you have a recipe for pushing the tempo. Bingo. Like I said, it’s built into our craft and it’s not something we do consciously, but that doesn’t change the fact it’s a real issue that we have to address.

Something that falls into this category is that many young percussionists play with less than a full stroke and rebound, and not by choice. They do this automatically, and that’s what I want to help fix. If an educator wants to have a more legato or warm sound from an instrument, that needs to be generated from a more relaxed movement that falls toward the instrument and comes back to where it began. If you’re not in control of your playing and therefore, by default, don’t maximize that type of potential, aren’t you limiting yourself? The answer is yes, and I have a way to fix that.

The Piston Stroke

For simple purposes here, I’m defining what many might call a piston stroke. Use whatever term you want but it’s a stroke that starts high, falls toward the instrument, and returns back up to where it initiated.

There are many different types of strokes for different types of sounds, including ones that plays more into the instrument, some that don’t return all the way, or others (used in marching drums) where we catch the stick just after contact, and so on. But what I’m talking about here specifically is a full piston stroke, and here’s why I like to train my concert percussionists in this way.

If we train and can automatically and consciously play with the most movement possible (a full return to starting position), then every other sonic choice becomes less work or I don’t have to return “all the way back up.” If we can’t or haven’t fully trained this full rebound, then you’ll limit your return. This could be “not quite the work of the full stroke” and then that becomes your 100 percent potential. When, if musically needed, you need a full rebound stroke by default, it becomes more than you are normally used to doing. Isn’t it easier to do less than normal? If someone said I could do less work and get paid more, I’d say, “Sign me up!”

The goal of all of this is to provide students with the maximum amount of sound potential – to give them the most diverse sonic potential from a playing standpoint and be in conscious control of it. I make the analogy of having the biggest toolbox with every possible tool in it. If I need a small Phillips head screwdriver, not only do I musically want to have one, but I want to have six varieties of them. I never want to need something I don’t have. This is the same thing, just from a musical standpoint. When performing, if I need a quieter sound with the same sound quality, I can do that. If you listen to many young percussionists, when they get quieter, they change the way they play the stroke. Same thing applies to faster and slower passages. Watch someone playing fast alternating strokes that gradually slow down and you’ll notice the way they generate their stroke will change. They’ll normally move from a very rebounded/full stroke to one that stays closer to the head after it strikes it. Why? Because they have the time to keep it there. By definition, though, that’s a different movement, and that’s not necessarily what I want. I maybe want the same sound I get at the faster speed at the slower speed, too. Don’t change your movement unless you want to. To me, that means don’t change your sound or type of articulation unless you are specifically and intentionally trying to change it. The point here is that percussionists do this often, without really ever noticing it. Again, the purpose of working on this is to give your percussionists an awareness of what they are doing, so when they want to play consistently, they can. Without this control, our playing becomes limited – and we have less potential when it comes to color/timbre and ultimately musical expression.

I want to make clear that I don’t always play with this type of stroke/articulation. I make conscious choices of what I want and then draw from my technical ability to execute these sounds. The ability to play the entire range movement available is what I have to draw from, so I feel like I don’t have a wall or limit on what I can or can’t do. Since I’m able to run what I would call a complete spectrum of movements or articulations, when I play I’m merely choosing my best option for that particular situation. If I were to not be able to execute the required movement, I would be limited in my musical potential. If we’ve already established that we as percussionists have less articulative potential when compared to other instrumentalists, if we limit amount in some way and are not maximizing what we can do, then we’re really taking away from our musical potential.

Developing Consistency

Then how do we train that full stroke? It’s actually quite simple in concept, but will take some physical training. I remember re-tooling myself at age 27 during my DMA work, how easily I understood what I needed to do, but how I couldn’t cheat the hours that it took me to reach my goal. Stick with it and it’ll happen.

Before we get to the exercise, I mentioned something in my last article that needs repeating here. We as percussionists have to know what we are doing when we play and how to control the mechanics of our playing. A big part of this is listening to what we are getting from a sonic and musical standpoint. If a conductor tells me he or whe would like my crashes to sound slightly darker, then not only do I need to know how to do that, but I need to know the sound I just got. Simple, right? Ah, but to the percussionist it’s difficult! It’s difficult because our instruments are much more instantly gratifying – hit a drum and it sounds okay. Get a beginner on a French horn and it will take time for the sound quality to improve. Hand a beginner a stick and have them hit a drum and it’s really not half bad. We percussionists get a pretty good sound – good enough, right? Well, in our world B+ doesn’t cut it, we want to shoot for A+. Therefore, the mere act of having your percussionists really listen to what they are doing can open their ears to a whole world that’s been there all along, they might have just been missing it.

So as your percussionists practice, in order to incorporate the concepts presented below, they need to be constantly aware of what they are doing. Practicing in front of a mirror is a great way to give them that front perspective to their playing. After they have the exercise memorized, they can also look down on their hands and observe what’s going on. Watching and listening are the two best ways they can teach themselves.

The following exercise will help teach students about consistency and stroke. Since it’s simple in design, it allows the student time to focus on how they are moving, how they are holding the stick, how that stick is moving in their hand, the sound they are getting, the consistency of that sound between hands, and so on. As I tell them, “If you want to sound consistent, then you need to play consistently.” Again, a very simple concept, but once they start to really listen with detail, they’ll find there’s quite a bit that they are missing. It also has some interesting parts to it, such as 3/4 time and varied groupings of stickings, so there’s an element of focus that is required. That’s a good thing, because it keeps the player engaged in playing it – students can’t just turn off their brain and get through it. This exercise was written by my teacher when I was at the University of Southern California, Erik Forrester, and I’m amazed at how well it works as a tool to controlling and hearing consistency. Let’s call it Exercise A:

There’s no tempo indication. Take it slow enough to feel and control each 16th note. Maybe eighth note = 50. Speed is not the end result, consistency is and the only way to work on movement is take things slowly. Students will be tempted to take it fast, not only because we’re fascinated with playing fast (we just are!), but because they’ll see 16th notes and just want to play them quickly. Exercise A works on fighting that temptation on both levels.

What is Exercise A? Essentially it’s constant 16th-notes where the stickings change. They go from groups of fours, to threes, to twos, then to alternate strokes in the last measure. Obviously percussionists will play the sticking used in that last bar more often, but what this exercise helps us do is to get a “running start” at them. Pick one bar that your students statistically will play the most consistent stroke-wise upon first trying this exercise? Measure one. The least consistent? Measure four. So if measure four’s stroke control is the goal here, then what we’re really doing is starting with the easy and working towards the more difficult.

To think of it on a horizontal time plane, the full piston stroke here would then essentially make a “V” type shape. I would consider this a single stroke for this exercise. So by default then the first four 16th notes in the first bar in the right hand would look like “VVVV.” The key thing here is to play each stroke the same. What happens is that on the notes that finish several in a row on a particular hand (the fourth of the fours, the third of the threes, the second of the twos, and actually all the single strokes), the percussionist might end those down closer to the drum. Why? Because they can – they don’t continue on so there’s time to keep them there. But that’s not the same type of stroke. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. I do if I want to, but not by default. You’ll find that as they get closer to the last measure, it gets harder and harder to make sure that “last” stroke comes back up, since they get fewer and fewer groups of the same hand stickings. The one bar we play the most, the last, is the one that’s the hardest since it’s always changing between hands.

They should practice on practice pad, preferably something that doesn’t have a gum rubber surface. I say this because they need as much sonic feedback as they can get and gum rubber is very quiet. I prefer a coated head practice pad so I can hear lots of texture when I play. The more feedback I get on how I’m sounding, the better. They should also practice it at about a mf volume. You need a good amount of motion to practice motion, so barely moving off the practice pad won’t help train your ability as well, so think of it at 10” or so off the pad.

The beauty to this exercise is that it’s short and to the point. The ultimate goal is for the director to turn his or her back when the student plays and to not be able to hear any sound variations. All the notes are written equally so they should sound that way. It works on a lot without seeming to really do much – that’s why I like it. I do have a couple of other variations, one that works mostly on two-beat variations, and another on three-beat variations. They are Exercises D and E.

The same thing applies to these with tempo: students should take them nice and slow so as to digest every stroke and train themselves to be aware of what they are doing.

By focusing on this movement and making sure percussionists are aware of the sound and color they are making, it will enable them to be in conscious control of how they are moving. The results are musicians who are in total control of how they are moving and can then make choices based on what they want to do and not what just might happen. Another great result of this is that their attention to detail and consistency can only be increased, and their touch on other instruments that aren’t as necessarily as responsive as a drum (such as the bar of a mallet instrument or wood blocks) will be increased as well. I’m all about being efficient and when I can practice something that benefits my overall playing, I’m more than willing to do it. This is one of those exercises that will truly help your percussionists. Remember, our stoke type should be a matter of choice. I guarantee you’ll hear a difference in their playing.

Dr. Jeffery Crowell is an associate professor of Music and coordinator of the Wind and Percussion Division at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where he is the director of Percussion Studies, as well as assistant director of the award-winning Jazz Studies area. He is active throughout the United States as a performer, clinician, adjudicator, and educator with recent performances in South Africa, Argentina, Uruguay, and at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.  Dr. Crowell is also a member of the Percussive Arts Society’s Education Committee.


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