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Relax…It’s Just a Drum Set!

Do your hand and foot muscles start to hurt while you play the drums? Do you get blisters on your fingers from holding your drumsticks too tight? After you play the drums does your back ache? Do you have a chipped front tooth and don’t know how it happened? Do you have trouble playing fast tempos?  Do you have trouble playing slow tempos? If you answered “Yes” to any of these questions, you are most likely suffering from I call “Tense Drummer Syndrome” or TDS (I made this up).

You’ve probably seen drummers with TDS.  They’re the ones who play without bending their wrists, hunch over the drums, and have their face so contorted they look like they’re a monster.

When I started playing the drum set I had all the TDS symptoms:

  • If I played for any length of time, even 30 minutes, the skin on my forefingers would be raw (I play matched grip).
  • My forearm muscles would cramp when I played fast.  The more I tried to relax, the more painful the cramping.
  • I would get cramps in the muscles around my ankles.
  • My back would ache after a couple songs because I was hunching over my drums when I played.  I thought I looked cool and relaxed, plus one of my drum heroes, Buddy Rich, hunched over when he played.
  • I discovered one day that my top front teeth were chipped but I didn’t know why. I realized later that I clinched my teeth together when I played. In fact, I clinched my teeth so hard that a dentist offered to smooth out the rough spots.  And I let him!

If you saw me, I was hunched over my drum set, with my jaw set off-center clinching my teeth and my arms flailing without much wrist movement.  It was quite a sight!

It took some time and effort but eventually I was able to solve my relaxation problems. Now I can sit at my drums and play for hours without pain. I had to isolate each symptom and work at solving one at time.

5 Tips to Relax While Playing the Drum Set

Throughout my drumming career, I’ve always been on the lookout for ways to make playing the drums easier.  Here are 5 tips I collected from teachers, from other drummers and from experimenting on my own.

1. Get on a regular practice schedule

This will help build your stamina, build calluses on your fingers and improve your technique. It also will help strengthen your arms and legs.  Practicing everyday is important.  It’s better to practice 15 minutes each day of the week than to wait and practice a couple hours on the weekend.  If you miss a day, don’t worry about making up the time. Just continue with your regular practice routine the next day.

2. Sit up straight & put weight on your butt.

Sit up straight, put as much weight on your butt as possible and focus on relaxing.  I learned this tip from jazz drummer Jim Zitro.  I met Jim in Anchorage, Alaska while both of us were on the road with our bands.  He was playing with the great tenor sax player, Jim Pepper, and I was playing with a dance band from Medford, Oregon.

I had to talk Jim into giving me a lesson and I’m glad I did.  The first thing he focused on was not hand or foot technique but how to sit at the drums.  He taught me to sit up straight, placing as much weight as possible on my butt.  This allowed my arms and legs to move freely and independently.

In order to feel comfortable placing all that weight on my butt, I needed a sturdy drum throne that would not wobble or collapse.  The day after my lesson with Jim, I bought a new Tama drum throne!  I follow Jim’s advice to this day, focusing on sitting up straight and relaxing my body.

Buddy Rich, considered by many to be the greatest drummer of all time, hunched over his drums when he played. I have not heard a good explanation for his bad posture.  Some drummers have speculated that it got his arms closer to the drums.  Unfortunately, I think playing for hours hunched over, not to mention years on the road riding on buses and in automobiles, contributed to the back pain Buddy experienced later in life.

3. Work on your hand technique

Instead of hitting the drums with the full force of your arm and a stiff wrist, use a whipping motion.  It’s the motion you use when throwing a baseball or knocking on a door.  There’s lots of information available about this technique, known as the Moeller Method.  Super drummer Dave Weckl does a nice job of explaining it in this video: Dave Weckl – Moeller Technique.

4. Do foot and leg exercises regularly

The great drummer and teacher, Mel Brown, showed me this. Sit in a chair and lift the ball of each foot in the air at the same time, leaving your heels on the ground. Drop the balls of your feet and repeat.  I do about 50 of these each day. Try alternating feet: First the right foot then the left, then the right and so on.

Next, while still sitting in a chair, lift your heels while leaving the balls of your feet on the ground. Let your heels drop and repeat.  I do about 50 of these each day, too. I also alternate my feet: Right, Left, Right, etc.

The last exercise is for your legs and starts by raising your heels off the ground.  Then quickly lift your legs so the balls of your feet are off the ground and drop them back down without having your heels touch the ground.  Repeat about 50 times.  Then try alternating between your right and left legs.

5. Focus on relaxing your body and remember to breath

It’s almost as if you have to step outside your body while you’re playing and take a look at yourself playing the drums.  Is your face contorted?  Is your jaw locked? Are your teeth clinched or grinding?  Do you feel a tightness in your chest or anywhere else?

If you have any areas where you are not feeling relaxed, focus on that area and try to relax it while you continue to play. It’s best to try this while practicing and not during a gig, where you can easily lose focus and make mistakes.

If you get tense while playing fast tempos, try practicing the beat or fill with a metronome at a slower tempo.  As soon as you feel comfortable playing the beat/fill, increase the tempo.  Increase the tempo gradually, making sure that you can play relaxed at each speed.

Also, remember to breath in and out regularly. If you hold your breath while you’re playing a difficult drum beat or a huge fill, you will tense up.  It takes some concentration but try to breath normally while you’re playing.

Hopefully, by following these 5 tips, you will avoid muscle pain, back aches and high dentist bills for smoothing chipped teeth.  You’ll be able to play better with less effort, have a longer career and have more fun playing music.  Relax…It’s just a drum set!