It is likely that the first concert percussion instrument that most of us touched with some degree of instruction is the snare drum. In my case, it was the first instrument I owned. I remember carting mine back and forth every Wednesday on the school bus for fifth grade band. Often, by the time students get to high school, snare drum playing can be taken for granted, since they have played it for so long. In my experience teaching high school and college percussion, I have noticed a few common pitfalls, which if avoided, can help build a better snare drum technique and sound. The first installment of this article will tackle three issues that should be addressed before even playing a snare drum: stick grip, snare drum height, and snare wire tension.
A key component in a quality snare drum sound is the stick grip, or more specifically, the hand and finger position. I have seen quite a variety over the years, and I remember completely changing the way I played snare drum once I received focused instruction on this issue in college. This article will focus specifically on matched grip, with both hands employing the same approach.
The first step is to find the fulcrum, the point where one’s thumb and index finger meet on the stick. The exact point depends on the weight of the stick, but it is approximately four to five inches from the back end (a little bit of the stick should be sticking out the back of the hand). The thumb should be perpendicular to the index finger and parallel with the stick. The index finger should touch the stick on its first joint, with the fingertip hanging slightly below the stick towards the ground. It should be curved around the stick, not completely straight.
The fulcrum should be just firm enough to where the stick will not slide: not too tight as to create unneeded tension, but not too loose to where the stick will fall out of one’s hands when playing. It cannot be stressed enough that there should be “breathing room” in one’s snare drum grip. That means avoiding pinching the base of thumb and index finger together (there should always be a slight gap).
The rest of the fingers should wrap loosely around the stick, touching underneath the stick near the first joint of each finger. The back fingers will essentially “cradle” the stick in the hand; one should be able to release the fulcrum and balance the stick on the back of the hand and back fingers. Again, the back fingers should be loose, relaxed, and wrapped naturally around the stick, not pulling the stick up tightly against the palm of the hand. Conversely, they should not be hanging off the stick or completely straight; their contact is important for executing rolls and controlling rebound.
Improper Grip: Pinched Fingers
Improper Grip: Straight Fingers
SNARE DRUM HEIGHT
Now that a proper stick grip has been achieved, we must consider the height of the snare drum itself. I have seen many poor variations in this among young percussionists, too high and too low, both of which can negatively impact leverage and the ability to maximize all the muscle groups involved in snare drum playing. To find the right height for you, follow these steps:
1. With sticks in hand, relax your shoulders, and allow your arms to hang naturally by your sides.
2. Bending at the elbow, bring your forearms up until they are a little below parallel to the floor.
3. Making sure your elbows are naturally a few inches from your side and that your hands are naturally almost flat, notice where the tips of the sticks are when you bring them together. This is the height at which your snare drum should be positioned.
Again, the forearms should be at a slight downward angle, not at a right or acute angle, nor at too obtuse of an angle relative to your upper arms.
SNARE WIRE TENSION
Lastly, it is important to recognize how changing the snare wire tension affects the sound of the drum. Too often, even in college, I have come across snare drums that simply sound bad regardless of technique. Assuming the drum is tuned properly (which can be an article in and of itself, and likely will not be the responsibility of a high school or undergraduate student unless it is their own), proper snare wire tension can make or break the sound. If the snares are too tight, the drum will sound choked and lack snare response, particularly at softer dynamics. If the snares are too loose, the drum will sound too wet (there will be too much “fuzz” after the stroke) and lack clear articulation. The idea is to find a balance that achieves a nice, crisp sound with snare response at all dynamics. Pay attention to the sound of your snare drum, because even perfect technique cannot make a poor sounding snare drum sound good.
Audio: Too Tight
Audio: Too Loose
Audio: Just Right
Addressing potential problems like stick grip, snare drum height, and snare tension will put one in a better position to be successful even before striking the drum. In the next installment of “Sweet Snare Sounds” (part 4B of this series), we will discuss technical issues and address common problems involved in making sounds on the snare drum.
Dr. Alexandros Fragiskatos is Assistant Professor of Instrumental Music at Missouri Valley College. A proponent of contemporary music, he has commissioned, premiered, and performed new works across the U.S. and Europe. Alex also plays percussion and drumset for musical theatre, and steel pan, having directed the Arizona State University Pan Devils Steel Band while earning his Doctor of Musical Arts degree in percussion. For more information about Alex, visit fragiskatospercussion.com.