It’s Almost Spring

Although the weather’s been up and down, with snow one day and sunshine the next. I’m feeling spring in my heart. I have a new grandniece, I’m learning about myself through writing morning pages and I enrolled in a new drumming course with Dave EIitch. There are many cool things on the horizon.

Mindfulness will be the key to navigating through all of it.

Photo by Emily Hopper on

The Basics of Drumming: How to Hold the Drumsticks and the Full Stroke

There are four conventional grips for holding the drumsticks: the German, French, American, and Traditional. Although they look little different, they share some of the same features. All of them have a fulcrum, which is a place where the stick can pivot from as it strikes and rebounds off of the drum’s surface. They all incorporate the wrists and arms to initiate motion. And in all four grips, the fingers control in the stick in subtle ways. One way is by manipulating the rebounds following an initial, stroke. Another way is in helping to maintain the flow of continuous strokes. The fingers can also control the stick by applying pressure to restrict or regulate its motion. And the fingers can determine how the stick moves inside the hand – specifically before during and after the stroke has been played. The German, French and American grip are all matched grips, meaning that both hands look the same. In traditional grip, which originated as a way for playing a marching drum that was carried at the player’s side, the sticks are held differently in each hand.

See my video tutorial on Vimeo. Drumming Basics: How to Hold the Sticks.

The Fulcrum

In the matched gips the fulcrum is created when the stick is placed between the thumbprint of the thumb and the last joint of the index finger. For the traditional grip, the fulcrum is in the crook of the thumb.
When placing a stick in the fulcrum, it’s crucial to locate the point on the drumstick where it can achieve the most bounces. This can be done by placing a stick in the fulcrum at different points along its body and let it drop to the drum surface. One will notice at each of these points the sticks bounce differently. Determine the part of the drumstick that receives the most bounces. The drumsticks will move freely from this position.

The Grips

In the German grip, the palms of the hands face downwards, and the sticks are in the held in the fulcrum between the thumbprint of the thumb and the last joint of the index finger. The butt ends of the sticks are pressed against the palm by the middle, third and fourth finger. In the German grip, the stroke is created by a throwing motion from the wrist, which starts and receives the action of the stick. The remaining fingers control the reflexive movements of the butt of the sticks as it rebounds off of the drum’s surface. The arms can assist in the motion to varying degrees.

With the French grip, the palms face each other, and the sticks rest in the last joint of the index fingers with the thumbprint of the thumbs placed on top. In the French grip, the strokes are initiated by a rotation of the wrists with some assistance from the middle, third and fourth fingers. One the strokes are in motion, the remaining fingers assist the butt ends of the sticks as they move up and down inside the palms of the hand and under the base of the thumb. Because of the shape of this grip, one can access the weight of the sticks in each stroke.

The American grip is a hybrid of the French and German. The palms of the hands are similar to the German grip but are turned in slightly so that the weight of the butt end is accessible to the back fingers.

In the Traditional grip, the stick is held in the crook of the thumb and index finger, and it’s secured by the straightened thumb pressing into the phalanx or the area between the middle and last joint of the index. In traditional grip, the stroke is initiated by the rotation of the wrist, supported by the forearm.

Gravity and the weight of the drumstick assist the downward motions of the strokes in all of the grips.

Full Stroke

A Full or Free Stroke is one of the first types of strokes a student should learn because it teaches them how to play using the full range of motion available to them. The stroke begins with the stick at a sixty-degree angle above the drum. It’s initiated with a throwing motion or a wrist rotation which directs the stick towards the drum’s surface. Once the drumstick rebounds off of the drum’s surface, the hand guides it upwards until the inertia created dies out and the pull of gravity takes over. In this final moment, the wrist lifts the stick the remaining distance back to its beginning position. In this process, the tension of the fulcrum and the supporting fingers should be relaxed enough to let the stick move under its own weight.  The pressure in the grip increases only as the wrist lifts the stick back into its starting point. The idea is to let gravity, the weight of the drumstick, and the tension of the drum’s surface do as much of the work as possible. The wrist, fulcrum, and fingers guide and assist in executing the stroke.

I introduce the Full Stroke at the 8:39 mark in my video tutorial Drumming Basics: How to Hold the Sticks.

Improvising Music on the Drum Set

The drum set is not typically a solo instrument, so I find it challenging when I have the opportunity to play improvised pieces in this area. It’s a kind of playing that requires confidence and sensitivity where the outcome is a reflection of the sum of my musical skills and sensibilities. The context will usually determine what I play. In situations where there’s a need for atmospheric music, I’ll develop a loose compositional structure. If I’m playing for a dancer who is improvising, their movements inspire the things I play. Occasionally, I’ll take a more of a narrative approach, where I try to take the listener on a musical journey.

As I begin a piece, I try not to be too judgmental about the first sounds that come out, I have to allow time for things to develop. The process involves establishing musical parameters such as tempo, meter, repetition, contrasting timbres, changing dynamics and musical style. I try and create musical consonance and dissonance by juxtaposing musical extremes and the shades that lie between them. I play phrases that are smooth and connected and contrast them with ones that are more disjointed or angular. I can also do this by changing between playing in strict time and free or irregular time or setting sections that are polyrhythmic against parts that are built on simple rhythms.

Yesterday, in a sparsely lit performance space, I created over a dozen short drumming pieces for improvised dance solos that were done by the students in a modern dance class. I was set up in the rear corner of the space, and the students and the instructor sat in a row of bleachers, which were situated beneath a set of lights. Each dancer came up to my drum set to acknowledge that they were ready to begin. A few of the students whispered their musical preferences: a funky beat, something tribal, a nice groove, play slow and full, or nothing too loud or crazy. At the end their dance they returned to me to signal that we were done.

As I constructed the pieces I tried to make each contrast to the one that preceded it. I used drumsticks, brushes, timpani mallets, and my hands to create varying sounds. I sometimes played only the cymbals or just the drums. I also played the two types of sounds together in varying combinations. There were also two hand drums to my left, which I used sporadically. In one instance I limited my sound choices to the floor, the small movable wooden riser that the drums were set up on, and the metallic cymbal stands.

My recent experience was challenging and rewarding. Overall the dancers seemed to appreciate my contributions to their improvisations. The dancers who had experience in this type of moving before danced with abandon. I feel that my drumming help to launch them and carry them through space. For the students who were not quite as comfortable moving this, I think that my playing made it easier for them to explore their creativity.

I should play in this format more often. It’s very different the role of sideman, which I usually play in. Luckily, as a dance accompanist, I get to do this kind of playing.

Why the Drums?

As far back as I can remember I had a strong connection to music. I was also very curious about how music was created.

As a child, I sang all the time. I would often make up songs about where I was and who I was with. My grandmother would tell the story about a night that I was staying with her and my grandfather, when I was discovered standing in my crib and singing, “In the night, in the night, in the night at Pawpaw and Lorlie’s.”

My earliest experiences of participating in musical activities were singing hymns in church and being in the school chorus. I liked the idea of my voice blending with others, and I’ll never forget following along with my grandmother’s voice as we sang from the church hymnal. These melodies along with the songs my parents sang to me are some of my earliest recollections of expressing music.

I was also a fan of popular music. I learned about it from television, and by listening to the records my parents or my baby-sitters would play. The Ed Sullivan Show, American Bandstand, Soul Train and countless variety shows featured the top artists of the day. There were also tv shows like The Monkees and The Partridge Family, which were about people who formed bands  I was also introduced to rock and roll music by the teenage girls who often looked after me. Girls like my cousin Donna and Jill, the girl who lived next door. My friend’s older sister Jan, as well as a pair of distant cousins who I met when I was visiting my grandparents in the mountains, also introduced me to new songs and artists. I also listened to the radio all the time. When I heard a song that I liked, I would try to get a 45 r.p.m. recording of it. All of this was like a course in popular music appreciation.  By the age of five, I knew about the Beatles, and I knew that a combo consisted of electric guitar, a bass, keyboards, and drums.

In the neighborhood where I grew up, I had the chance to get a firsthand look at drumsets and drummers playing them. A friend of mine named Finley had an older brother who owned a gold sparkle drum set that I was allowed to fool around on.  There were also two bands that rehearsed in the basements of nearby homes. My friends and I would sometimes go watch one of the bands through the basement windows of the house where they practiced. When the teenage boys took a break to smoke cigarettes, we were invited in for a closer look at their instruments. Once, a different band set up in the driveway of the home down the street, where they put on a short concert for the neighborhood – I remember them playing “Come Together,” by the Beatles. At that time I thought that playing music was very cool.

Then there was my third-grade teacher Ms. Carter, and her colleague Ms. Neely, whose classroom was across the hall. These two African-American teachers introduced me to African-American culture in 1969: The Jackson Five, Joe Frazier, Mohammed Ali and soul music. I didn’t spend a lot of time learning the traditional school subjects that year; but, as I spent my time going back and forth between their two classrooms, I learned about different things, which were outside of my white middle-class world. These things would continue to shape my interests. My parents felt differently. They put me in a private school the following year.

With so much of it around me, I thought that music was another one of the elements in the natural world. And learning to play a musical instrument was the next step in the process.

My father bought me a snare drum and cymbal for my eighth birthday, I guess it to see if I’d stick with it before he invested in a full drumset. I don’t remember taking any music lessons, nor do I recall playing anything musical on that drum and cymbal; however, I must have demonstrated something, because the following Christmas day, I got my first drumset! Soon after that took my first lessons from a drummer in one of the neighborhood bands. At the age of eight, I became a drummer.

First Drumset

This is where it all began. My first drumset.