Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Three bloggers: technique

“Technique we always think of as being a thing having to do with fastness, [but] technique is, in its highest sense, is the ability to handle musical materials.”

“You could get to a point where if you played any more notes it would be funny. So, I mean, how far can you go in that direction?”
- Bill Evans 

Another quasi-synchronized column by me, Jon McCaslin, and Ted WarrenThe Three Bloggers! The topic du jour is drumming technique. What is it, why is it, how to do it. I wrote an overview of my approach to technique back in 2018, so here I'll try to expand on that a bit, mainly from a teaching perspective. And I'm appallingly late posting this, and I'm not real satisfied with the content, but I blame the topic. It's not a real deep subject to me.   

The first purposes of technique are to get a sound on an instrument, and to enable playing normal repertoire— everything a professional plays in the course of working. Ordinary mastery. That kind of playing can be done with a range of idiosyncratic techniques, not all of them necessarily “correct” by conservatory standards. I think what's important is to use technique efficiently, and much of what this site is about is to designing and highlight practice systems that don't demand high levels of technique to master.     

So I'm not a technique-forward teacher, I'm a minimalist. I find that many or most students are able to hold the sticks more or less correctly by just looking at me, and grabbing the sticks, and hitting a drum. After getting an acceptable baseline there, we mostly work on learning what to play, and improve technique through learning musical materials, making adjustments and refinements, and acquiring new skills, as they become necessary.    

My dedicated technique instruction is primarily about developing an efficient wrist stroke, and a few basic things: grip, hand position, and the basic strokes— single strokes, double strokes, multiple-bounce strokes— and learning the level system for playing accents, flams, and dynamics generally. Fine control is a big focus, at the appropriate time. The major reason for it is to be able to handle the volume requirements of playing professionally— so you can still play well, and creatively, even when you need to play softer than you normally like. 

To that end I focus on simplifying the stroke, and eliminating some very common waste motions and habits— like lifting the stick unnecessarily before a stroke, or habitual downstroking. A side effect of the common bounce-oriented methods is that people don't know how to finish a stroke after hitting the instrument— their hands don't know how to do anything but let the stick bounce. So that's a thing I try to correct.   

For a more detailed description of all of this, see my technique post from 2018

At this point I'll talk about some popular misconceptions about technique, and teaching technique, as I see them: 

Right from the start
A popular idea among technique people is to focus on perfect technique right from the beginning— otherwise you're ingraining “bad habits”... suggesting that there are good habits. Maybe think about doing things on purpose, and not playing by habit at all.

At any stage of development technique shouldn't be grossly wrong, but it doesn't need to do more than to serve the player's immediate purposes— either the music they're playing right now and in the near future, or the next logical thing they're working on to continue their overall development. 

At any rate I don't believe in finished technique, or “set” technique— learning one thing perfectly as a student and then using that one thing to play all your stuff for the rest of your career. Personally, I've massively reworked my technique at least four times since I began playing, due to the nature of the music I was playing at the time. 

Fear of injury
People justify their obsession with technique by focusing on the possibility of injury— which I have never noticed to be as much of a problem as the online conversation about it suggests. In my experience most people don't practice or play long enough, or wrong enough, or intensely enough to hurt themselves. I think focusing on it with young students is demented.  

Consider it if you're blowing your face off in a punk band with your whole body tensed up, or if you're playing kevlar surfaces or hard practice pads 10 hours a day, or using hardwood sticks. Everybody else can relax. 

“Free stroke”

The free stroke— a technique where you basically fling the stick at the head with your wrist, and catch it when it bounces back to the raised position— is the founding move of the stick bounce-centric world, which is based on a doctrine of ricocheting the sticks off the playing surface, basically. 

It's impressive when it's displayed, but increasingly I don't see the point. Most percussion instruments are not optimally bouncy for that kind of kinetics-based technique. Playing a marimba with a rattan-handled yarn mallet, for example, or a concert bass drum, or a floor tom. What kind of tone would you get on the timpani if you were just flinging the mallets at them to make them bounce really high? Not good. Your touch on an instrument should not be based on how far you need the stick or mallet to ricochet of it.  

To be in that world, dynamics have to be basically irrelevant— it's a good technique if you're playing quite loud to extremely loud. But professionals and serious students have to play in a wide variety of settings, with a wide range of dynamics and volumes, and that kinetic style doesn't work for most of it. 

As I mentioned, people half-trained in this style also have the problem of not knowing how to play a complete stroke. You can watch them play at normal volumes, and after the hit their hand just flops like a dead trout thrown against the wall. 

With that, I'll have to end this. I imagine there's more to say, but I'm a week past deadline, gang. Be sure to check out what Jon and Ted have to say. 


Ted Warren said...

Good one Todd! Thanks. Lots to think about.

Todd Bishop said...

Only a week late! I'm a loser!