Have you ever finished a gig, or a session and left feeling like a prize fighter after 12 rounds with Tyson? Backaches, sore forearms, sore thumb joints, light-headedness and fatigue plague drummers everywhere. Even though we have the coolest job in the world, it is a demanding job physically, as well as artistically.
Drumming mimics running and swinging movements used every day by athletes. As a result, our bodies undergo many of the same stresses as theirs. That does not mean you have to train like a pro athlete. There are some simple guidelines you can follow to help maintain the proper physical balance. In music, we seek many balances, such as rhythm, melody and harmony.
In this article, we will concentrate on physical balance. There are 6 basic components to physical balance:
3. Body Mechanics
Let’s examine each of these a little more closely, and we’ll look at some helpful hints along the way.
As with any physical activity, you must stretch to achieve proper flexibility. In simple terms, flexible equals strong. Good flexibility will keep you injury and pain free. Remember, a good house requires strong materials.
A strong back is extremely important to all drummers. We are sitting nearly 100% of the time, and that means our back is completely supporting us the entire time we are playing. Some people will tell you to get a backrest for your throne. Backrests are crutches, plain and simple. They don’t fix anything. We need to attack the problem, not put a bandage on it. You need to stretch your back to help avert pain before it begins. Here are some stretches for you to try.
Sit in a chair on it’s edge so you don’t use the backrest. Put one leg up on a stool, or another chair. Make sure your back and shoulders are straight. Point your toes back toward you, and with your chin tucked, push your sternum forward until you feel a gentle pull behind your knee. Hold it there for three deep breaths, then switch legs. “What is this doing for my back?” By stretching your hamstrings in this fashion, you are better able to keep your pelvis aligned. That keeps you in good posture, and relieves stress on your back.
Try this one: Reach up to your neck and put your hands on your traps. Those are the muscles that rest between your neck and your shoulder caps. Now, point your elbows to the ceiling, making sure your back is straight. Take three deep breaths to stretch.
Not only does this stretch your entire upper body, it helps to realign your upper spine.
One other thing we have to be aware of. We do a lot of lifting in our job. It is important that we are very careful when lifting heavy objects. Never bend your back when lifting. Always bend at the knees.
The next area of concern is our forearms and wrists. One way to prevent tension at the source is to make sure our grip is relaxed. I was once told that you should hold a drumstick as you would hold a small bird. Firmly enough as to not let it escape, yet gently enough as to not crush it.
Just like our backs, we need to stretch our forearms and wrists. Here are a couple of good ones:
Extend your arm with palms facing away and fingers pointing down to the ground. Put your fingers against a flat surface, preferably a wall, and gently press forward to stretch. While doing this, you are going to stretch your thumb. You do this by grasping your thumb at the Proximal Phalangeal joint, which is the joint located at the bottom of your thumb, in the meat of your palm. When you pull back on your thumb, make sure the pull is along the axis of your arm. This whole process stretches your forearm flexors and it also serves to open up the carpal tunnel. This will increase the amount of circulation to your forearm.
To stretch the other side of your forearm, do the opposite of the above. Extend your arm with your palm facing toward you, and fingers pointing down. Gently press your hand to the wall to stretch your forearm extensors. Don’t be afraid to shake off excess tension.
By carefully following these steps, you can more effectively prepare yourself for the rigors that lie ahead.
To build a proper and solid house, one needs a solid foundation. Without a solid foundation, nothing that follows will be effective. This is where posture comes in.
The first step to good posture is to stay relaxed. To stay relaxed, we must you utilize good alignment of our body. An example of bad alignment is what I call “THE HIP-CAT SLUMP”. Imagine the generic vision of a cool jazz drummer leaning over his kit, digging in. His shoulders are forward, his head hung low. It looks cool, but is actually a good example of the worst posture imaginable. The proper way to sit is broken down into three parts:
1. Your shoulders should be over, or aligned with your hips.
2. Your upper cheek bone should be aligned with your sternum(this means you should be able to drop an imaginary line from your upper cheek, just below your eye, and it would hit your sternum).
3. Your knees must be even with, or higher than, your hips. If they are not, you are exerting excess stress on your lower back.
Remember, good posture is relaxed, not rigid. That is at the heart of the balance we seek.
The next topic is body mechanics. Proper body mechanics ensure efficient energy transfer in your physical system. In other words you must play using proper body mechanics.
While playing the drums, we are sometimes faced with last minute changes in direction. It is very important for us to maintain good posture while making these transitions. The tendency is to turn while keeping our hips stationery.
When you do this, you are twisting your spine. You must keep your shoulders and hips as aligned as possible.
Obviously, you can’t keep 100% alignment because your feet can’t leave the pedals. You can, however, keep your back straight and your chin up. This continuance of posture will help you achieve greater fluidity.
The way you hit your drums is also very important. The motion must be one fluid movement. Here is an example for you to try. Hold your stick in a normal place on the snare. Then raise your elbow to just below shoulder level allowing your arm to relax the entire time. Then rotate your arm at the shoulder so the stick is in the air over your head. Allow gravity to bring the stick down to the surface of the snare.
If this is all done in one fluid motion you can attain massive striking power. The secret behind this is what is known as the summation of torque in a system. Simply put, you add up all of the small motions in a system and apply that energy toward a target.
These have simple examples, perhaps in the future we can get into more depth. For now it is important to remember that posture, balance, and relaxed consistency are the keys to good body mechanics.
Oxygen is your primary energy source. Proper breathing is essential to life. Drummers tend to breathe with the music, and subsequently often tend to hold their breathe during fills. With this in mind we have to move breathing into a different realm. Independence.
Can breathing be done in an independent fashion with our playing? The obvious answer is yes. If steps one through three are followed we can begin to develop this skill. Good posture is probably the most important. Proper posture allows our breathing mechanism to correctly function.
The diaphragm, lungs and abdomen can move easily and allow the proper volume of air. If you are relaxed, breathing independently of the time you are laying down should become natural. The exercises below will help you to develop good breathing technique.
The three part breath: This technique deals with building air volume. The breath is drawn from the bottom up. Allow the abdomen to soften and then fill. Let the ribcage begin to expand with air then allow the air to flow into the upper chest. Once this is done, exhale slowly, allowing all of the air to drain out.
The Four Part Breath: This technique is based on the following premise: In order to inhale the proper amount of air you must be assured that all of the previously used air is gone. The four part breath consists of an exhalation that is twice as long as the inhalation. Here is how it would look: Inhale for a four count, then allow a natural pause and exhale for an eight count. Follow this with another pause. Repeat as many times as necessary.
These techniques both fall under a category known as deep breathing. The best way to do them is to inhale through the nose and out through the mouth. These exercises are designed to help to normalize your bodies operations.
Back to the independence we spoke of earlier, one technique used by many drummers that ensures proper breathing is to allow yourself to vocally express what you are playing, as you play. This can be grunting noises, shouting, speaking, singing or any other expression. The key to this is to relax.
When you play the drums your body uses a lot of water. It is extremely important to keep the H2O level high at all times. The only way to do that is to drink water before, during and after you play. Water is an excellent tool for keeping your system clean and well flushed.
Proper hydration can help you avoid fatigue. Fatigue is, simply, a prelude to dehydration. Soda pop, coffee and alcohol are not acceptable for hydrating your body. Soda and coffee contain caffeine which is a diuretic. A diuretic is a substance that increases urine production. The detriment to this is the depletion of your water supply. Alcohol is also a diuretic, and it obviously impedes your judgment. The human body consists of ninety-six percent water. Your system needs water to survive.
Drum kit Ergonomics
Now that you are playing with good posture, why destroy this new gain with a poorly laid out drum kit? The drums should be laid out in a way that will allow you to reach each part easily. Doing this in conjunction with the things we have discussed will help you to minimize your body motion and increase your efficiency.
Your drum kit should have a distinct flow. Your movement from one side to the other should be very fluid and with as little effort as possible. If you watch Dave Weckl you will see a perfect example of effortless, and fluid playing.
In conclusion, it is helpful to examine players who practice these techniques. Some prime examples are Dave Weckl, Steve Smith, Steve Gadd, Dennis Chambers and Vinnie Coliuata. Practicing the techniques detailed here will help you to refine your physical system which in turn will make you a better player over the long run. Enjoy!