Thursday, July 09, 2015

Rudiments and tempo

The basis of everything, or, like, not.
A question posed in an online drumming forum:

The problem I have with rudiments is that it seems they're only useful within a narrow range of tempo.  
Most rudiments have a minimum tempo, below which they're not very useful at all. They also have a maximum tempo, beyond which either a drummer can't play them, or they're so fast they sound like a blur, at least in most musical contexts. 
That leaves a narrow tempo range where rudiments have practical application. If your band doesn't happen to play in that range, rudiments are pretty much useless to you. 
I'm aware there are indirect benefits of studying rudiments, but that argument says rudiments should be thought of as calisthenics for drummers. That doesn't seem like a terribly strong argument when there are so many other things a drummer could be working on.

Here are a few thoughts on this— it would be easy to go deep into the weeds on any one of these points, but I'm going to try not to:

1. The traditional snare drum rudiments were designed to get semi-trained drummers to play military music uniformly, with a lot of volume, while sounding pretty good. In textbook form, they're intended to be played, and sound best at around quarter note = 100-120. There are slower military pieces, but they largely consist of single notes and long rolls— if you've ever played The Star-Spangled Banner, that's approximately the experience. They are not heavy on hand-to-hand rudiments. In modern playing, you don't typically see even very rudimentally-oriented players improvising with, say, very slow paradiddles.

2. Even though they were originally made for a narrow range of tempos, it's more complicated than that:

  • Flams and ruffs are embellishments that can be used at any tempo. 
  • All forms of rolls— single stroke, open, and closed/multiple-bounce— have a natural speed limit based on the instrument on which they're being played; the rate of the actual hits has to be fast enough to sound like a long tone— finely-textured, or coarsely-textured, depending on what's desired. At too slow a rate, it stops sounding like a long tone, and at too fast a rate (for the particular instrument) the quality suffers. So regardless of the tempo of the music, rolls have to be played at roughly the same real speed. 
  • Other rudiments— like paradiddles, flamacues, ratamacues, etc— can be played at any tempo, by varying the rhythm. It's true that, played ridiculously fast, they sound like static— that's a concern with anything you play. And with a lot of current drumming, which has hyperactivity issues.  

3. The questioner is right that textbook rudiments are not all necessarily extremely useful in everyday playing, and that there are a lot of other things to work on; so you're allowed to use your judgment about how much time you want to dedicate to them. The major reasons I see for working on them are:

  • You will use some of them directly in playing music. 
  • You will develop other things from some of them. 
  • They are good for developing general snare drum facility. 
  • Learning them connects you with the culture of the instrument. 

A student who is serious, but who doesn't want to over-commit to a real traditional rudimental approach, could just learn Book 2 of Haskell Harr's snare drum method, and leave it at that. I think most drummers would benefit from learning that book, along with Charley Wilcoxon's Rudimental Swing Solos— which is actually a very serious course of study. There are non-rudimental* snare drum technical studies in Buster Bailey's Wrist Twisters, Ron Fink's Chop Busters, and Jacques Delecluse's Methode de Caisse-Claire— I think those books (Fink especially) may be more directly useful in modern playing than Harr.

*- I'll have to explain what I mean by that at another time. Those books include singles, drags, rolls, flams, and ruffs, which are included in the traditional drumming rudiments. Suffice it to say that Bailey, Fink, and Delecluse are “non-rudimental” compared to Harr and Wilcoxon.

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