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An Educational Dive into Joseph Tompkins' Nine French-American Rudimental Etudes: Part 1 by Dr.Tyler Wales

Nov 28, 2022, 08:00 AM by Rhythm Scene Staff

For a little over a year now, I’ve been working to record all of Joseph Tompkins’ Nine French-American Rudimental Etudes, Vol. 1. I started this project as I was finishing up my final year as a doctoral candidate in percussion performance at Arizona State University. The project began as a way for me to both practice the etudes and create accurate recordings of these pieces on YouTube for others to watch. It evolved, however, into a significant amount of time spent wondering how to approach the whole book from a detailed point of view, mostly focused on how I would actually teach these to future students. This two-part series of posts is meant to share some of my thoughts on each etude in the hope that it may help other educators approach not only these Tompkins etudes, but snare drum in general, with more care.

Following, you will find a separate section for each etude. Part 1 will address etudes 1–4 and Part 2 will discuss etudes 5–9. Within the evaluation of each etude, I will present various considerations for study and performance, including problem areas, particularly tough passages, and potential solutions I have developed through my own study. I have attempted to organize my thoughts in a way that makes pedagogical sense, so the information one may be looking for is easy to find. I will also provide a link to my videos after the explanation of each etude.

The first etude introduces a theme carried throughout all nine pieces: complex (yet fun for snare drum nerds like me) rhythmic figures set in a slower tempo. Many thirty-second-note based “fivelets” are scattered throughout both pages of this etude, and figuring out hand speed for these with a metronome was the first hurdle I overcame while learning it. Many other rhythms that fall under an umbrella of three or six overtop certain passages are tough; a particularly hard one can be found in the third bar at letter A, showcasing a 5:4.

There are many dynamic considerations in this etude, so taking each challenge measure by measure was important in my own practice. Possibly the hardest dynamic change is in the second measure of letter C where Tompkins asks the performer to play a flurry of notes, each with their own wild and short crescendos, while simultaneously crescendoing the two-beat macro phrase. I distinctly remember my teacher, Shaun Tilburg, claiming these as some of the hardest in the entire book! Using check patterns is helpful and finding the macro rhythms can teach students to understand the faster sections.

Upon flipping to the second etude in the collection, the performer should notice that there is a lot less “black” on the page than in the first etude. Much of this etude is centered around sextuplet rhythms and we become introduced to another very popular figure throughout this collection. This rhythm that I have nicknamed the “skip” note, happens very often and is typically comprised of a dotted thirty-second note and a sixty-fourth note. This figure is also similar to an inverted flam with the grace note played second and the primary note first. The “skip” note can be problematic for first-time players of these etudes, as it is fairly unique to this book. It is paramount for snare drummers to really focus on this rhythm early on in their practicing as truly understanding it and playing it with consistency takes some time. 

Another major consideration for this etude is how much the rhythms change from triple to duple bases. Accurate hand speed and constant subdivision is needed to tackle some of the more difficult switches, such as two measures before letter C. As long as the performer has great control over hand speed changes, flams, and the “skip” note, this etude is particularly more manageable. In addition, practicing flam taps, inverted flams, and working upstrokes will help make easier work of letter B to C.

I feel confident in saying that Etude III is one of the most popular selections in the book. Many collegiate-level players perform this piece, and it is included on some orchestral audition lists. There are likely many reasons for this, but most notably, the piece includes many different techniques the performer must address, plus there is no shortage of dynamics and other small details scattered throughout. The “skip” note is on display right from the first measure and is a primary focus for the duration of the two pages. One tricky beat even utilizes this rhythm within a “fivelet,” seven measures after letter B. The same practice habits apply here to master this “skip” note as I presented earlier.

Etude III is also the fastest piece thus far in the collection at quarter note equals 80 bpm. Some of the faster passages, like the double barline before B and all the thirty-second-note “fivelets,” may give players some trouble if they are not used to moving their hands at that speed.

Extensive finger control is needed, for which I used a simple warmup routine laid out to me by Shaun Tilburg. For 30 minutes a day I would play eight on a hand (eight eighth notes alternating between right and left hands every measure) from a very slow tempo to a very fast one. While I did this, I would stop any wrist motion and play only with my middle finger moving the stick, then only my ring finger, and so on. Within about two weeks, I noticed how much more I could control fast passages at all dynamics. This worked perfectly for moments like letter B where there were difficult rudiments meant to be played softly. Obviously, I still utilize wrist and forearm in my playing, but having the dexterity in my small muscle groups was extremely advantageous!

Number four is centered largely around “fivelet” groupings of notes, a theme given to us right from beat 1. Practicing “fivelet” hand speeds at many different tempos is important to solidifying this etude, and the work in this regard will also have a positive impact on one’s snare drum playing in general. The odd-numbered groupings continue on the second page where “sevenlets” are also introduced, one even including the “skip” note as mentioned previously. Constant rhythmic changes are very characteristic of Tompkins’ book, but Etude IV utilizes this technique to its fullest extent.

Another significant component a performer must work on within this etude is the short but fast flurries of notes in the form of buzz rolls and double-stroke rolls as written in line three, one bar before letter A, the first bar of the last line on page one, and more. Perhaps more than many other etudes in this book, this one keeps me on my toes throughout its entirety. The more performers focus on check patterns and breaking down the odd groupings, the more success they will have in performing it.

In part two of this article, I will examine the remaining five etudes within the collection and present some closing thoughts for consideration.

Tyler WalesDr. Tyler Wales is a performer and educator of percussion based out of Fort Worth, Texas. He completed his B.A. degree in music from Kutztown University, M.M. in Music Performance in Percussion from West Chester University, and D.M.A degree in Percussion Performance from Arizona State University. He is the Assistant Percussion Director for the Aledo ISD in Aledo, Texas. Tyler also arranges battery and front ensemble music for marching bands.

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