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An Educational Dive into Joseph Tompkins' Nine French-American Rudimental Etudes: Part 2 by Dr.Tyler Wales

Dec 19, 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 individual etude. Part 1 addressed etudes 1–4, and Part 2 will now 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 provide a link to my videos after the explanation of each etude.

This etude is one of my personal favorites from the book and certainly one of the “choppiest,” or fastest and most technical. The performer must possess the ability to play very quickly and the coordination to play some of the more difficult flurries of notes, especially on page two. Building up triplet rhythms with check patterns should be the first concern for the tough passages right before and after rehearsal letter C. After this, basic triplet exercises should be implemented while working the tempo up to half note equals 80 bpm. I initially set my metronome to 60 bpm and increased it in intervals of five until I felt comfortable at the written tempo.

The hybrid rudiment “hertas” are scattered throughout this etude and are very easily broken down with a right-right-left triplet sticking. Tompkins goes a step further than hertas and introduces the triplet rhythm with a grouping of sextuplets nested in a single triplet partial. These can be a very difficult rhythm to master, but going over the check slowly and taking care to space the notes evenly over the triplet will greatly increase the rhythmic accuracy required to play this second page. 

One more measure of note is the bar after rehearsal B; playing with a metronome to achieve perfect upbeats is essential! Overall, rapid hand speed changes and fast choppy sections make this etude unique and fun to learn!

Upon opening the book to this particular etude, you may think “that is a LOT of notes,” and you would be correct. The piece begins with a rather fast and unforgiving cold attack. The training to accurately start with a thirty-second-note sextuplet is tough and requires an intimate knowledge of the piece’s tempo. The flurries of thirty-second-note rhythms do not stop in the first line, and therefore players should take care to make sure their technique is prepared for these faster passages. For those playing through this book in sequential order, their hands should be set up nicely for this, and for many of the difficult “fivelet” rhythms, especially two lines before rehearsal letter C.

Our “skip” note is also back in this etude, nestled under sextuplet umbrellas. I had substantial difficulty figuring out the transition from measure 15 to 16. I played through the check pattern many times without the skip notes, and took care to play through the written stickings as much as possible. Eventually, I added the skip notes back in and made sure all of my accents were placed accordingly. 

Another, slightly lesser, concern for this etude is the number of quick dynamic changes that should be noted, mostly on the first page. I tend to play through these etudes the first time with minimal dynamics, and gradually add them in as I break down each section. This piece requires careful detailed reading and very crisp rhythmic accuracy, so make sure to simplify everything as needed during personal practice!

Etude VII requires a multitude of different techniques, possibly more than anywhere else in this book. The first two lines are relatively straightforward, except for some quick subdivision changes, mostly “fivelets” to sixteenth notes. The mezzo piano written for the first repeat, and the forte for the second time through need to be carefully practiced, and I have tried my best to exaggerate these dynamics slightly in my recording for a more dramatic effect.

Beginning at rehearsal letter A, there begins a theme of upbeat entrances. Tompkins has put a lot of detail into these measures rhythmically to make sure the player understands the difference in the drags and nested 3’s (such as in measures 8 and 10). Here, I have tried to overstate the “similar” rhythms and really portray the subtle differences. 

After this section at B onward, a lot of control is needed to constantly change from sextuplet-based rhythms to sixteenth-based ones. Some skip notes appear on the second page, so continuing the practice of becoming familiar with the check pattern is crucial. This etude needs some time with the skeleton, getting rid of diddles, to sound confident throughout.

One of my personal favorite etudes in this book is VIII, mostly because of the innate groove displayed throughout. There is a subtle backbeat amidst all the thirty-second-note rhythms in this particular piece, and portraying that in your playing can be rather difficult. First, executing the tougher rhythms like “fivelet” thirty-second notes or the nested 3’s four bars after rehearsal A is important. Break down these rhythms to their simplest form in order to gain a deeper understanding of them. Second, maintain control over ALL accents to help push the groove of the etude along. 

Some of the tougher sections in this etude need to be specifically highlighted so the performer can take extra care in practicing them. In bar five, Tompkins asks the performer to play a flam right after a double left-handed thirty-second note. Working on really soft 3’s should help make this one a bit easier. 

Timing wise, the bar before rehearsal A can be tricky, so practice without the drags as much as possible so the “fivelets” are extremely accurate. At rehearsal B, the two grooviest bars in the entire book must come across as relaxed and nuanced. I do this through minor stresses and other micro phrasing ideas to keep a half-time feel going. 

If the performer has all base rhythms in this one locked down with a metronome, and all the accents in the correct places, then this etude really comes alive and can be one of the most enjoyable to listen to from an audience perspective.

The last etude in this series is relatively straightforward and fairly comprehensive in nature if you have worked through the book from the beginning. The first thing one should work on for this piece is the check patterns of all rhythms, because of the numerous embellishments on top of “fivelets,” sextuplets, and sixteenth notes. Once the check patterns are perfected, add the buzzes and diddles back in to assure the hand speeds are all cohesive. 

I worked on dynamics during this learning process pretty extensively, as there are some quick crescendos and diminuendos. Players should also note that in these dynamic changes there are no indications of exact volume, so they should have a plan of how dramatic to make these swells.

The skip note should be built up from the base rhythms as the first page contains upwards of 10 instances. Quick flurries of notes are common on the short second page, so I singled out my hands individually and practiced one beat at a time. 

One last thing to note about page 18 of the book is the upstrokes and drop strokes. These should be given care, as the upstrokes especially give way to a peculiar pop sound when played correctly. This is further indicated by the joint staccato and accent marking above the notes.

This book has dramatically improved my snare drum playing through its complex rhythms, many dynamics, and “choppy” sections throughout. Many parts of this selection of etudes require quickly switching the muscle groups used, and they force the performer to play with finesse and intensity simultaneously. The musical growth that students and teachers alike can gain from playing any of these solos should not be taken lightly, and I implore you to add the book into your rotation of pedagogical materials.

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 has been teaching and playing for 10 years and also arranges battery and front ensemble music for marching bands.

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