It is likely that the first concert percussion instrument 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. In the first installment of this article (February 2019 issue) we tackled stick grip, snare drum height, and snare wire tension. Now we will discuss two important technical matters of playing: stick velocity and rolls.
One of the most important and often neglected concepts in snare drum playing, or any percussion playing really, is the relationship between velocity, distance, and volume. Don’t worry, we are not going to dive into a deep physics lesson, but some realizations with respect to these things can pay dividends across one’s snare drum playing. Chances are that when young percussionists see music marked forte or louder, they are going to have a monstrous stick height, but volume can be achieved by distance and velocity. Let that sink in for a second if you have never thought about it. A faster stick velocity at a low stick height can produce the same loudness as a slower stick velocity at a greater stick height. This is not to say that a large stick height is never appropriate, but increased velocity comes in handy especially for passages that are loud and fast. In these cases, less distance traveled means less margin for error in tempo, i.e., dragging.
To demonstrate this yourself, starting at BPM = 120, play eight-on-a-hand at a forte dynamic level with a generous stick height (9–12 inches) and gradually get faster. You will notice that it becomes more difficult to maintain faster tempos while keeping the same stick height. Now try these faster tempos with a reduced stick height (4–6 inches) and with a much faster velocity by using less forearm and more wrist and fingers. You will be able to achieve the same volume but struggle less to maintain the tempo. The earlier this realization for a percussionist, the better, as it can be incorporate naturally into one’s overall snare drum playing.
Rolls are the bane of existence for many percussionists. It takes time for young players to understand and develop roll execution; nonetheless, some realizations early on can dramatically help. The goal is to develop a consistent, what I will call “macro-technique,” which works for both closed (buzz) and open (double-bounce) rolls at all dynamics.
Assuming one has a sound stick grip (see previous article), this involves initiating rolls with the forearm (bending at the elbow), with little to no break in the wrist. This will allow for consistent rolls across all dynamics. The micro-technique, or what middle and ring fingers do, will determine the type of roll. Therefore, it is important to keep the back fingers on the stick, and not over-tighten the fulcrum. These fingers apply a small amount of pressure to the stick to help cut off some of its rebound. An increase in pressure is proportional to an increase in stick bounces. A little more pressure than in normal grip results in a double-bounce, a bit more creates a triple-bounce, more than that makes a quadruple-bounce, etc. However, in all circumstances, one must be careful not to over-pressurize, as action in the back fingers should be practically unnoticeable to the naked eye.
For a closed roll, the number of bounces should depend on the intended volume of the roll. Volume is a result of the inverse relationship of both arm speed and number of bounces. In short, loud rolls mean fast arm speed and less bounces, and soft rolls mean slow arm speed and more bounces. This harkens back to the concept of velocity affecting volume. For loud rolls, there will be less time between arm motions because increased velocity is required for louder volumes; therefore, there is not enough time for many bounces. For soft rolls, there will be more time between arm motions because decreased velocity is required for softer volumes. As a result, more bounces are required to “fill up” that greater length of time.
To practice rolls, try the exercise below at any dynamic, isolating each hand. The BPM will depend on what dynamic roll you want to practice; louder rolls should be faster and softer rolls should be slower. Try to get a consistent sound (timbre, volume, number of bounces, etc.) between each hand, so when you go hand-to-hand in the third measure, a smooth sound will result. I would also suggest practicing with snares off so you can hear any inconsistencies more clearly.
In closing, velocity is your friend; don’t forget about your friends. Not only is velocity important to consider in rhythmic passages but in rolls, too. The interplay of arm speed and finger-guided bounce quantity helps to produce rolls. The less wrist the better when it comes to roll execution, because it is easier to control bigger muscles (in this case, the forearm). The wrist is more, for lack of a better word, “finicky,” especially for soft rolls.
If not already understood or incorporated, it will take time to alter one’s technique, so do not be frustrated if changes are not immediate. Adopting these philosophies will not only make one a better snare drummer, but a better overall percussionist.
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, as well as 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.