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Take a Deep Breath & Relax

We’ve had some fun with the recent posts about how to relax while playing the drum set. You saw a picture of my chipped teeth from playing drums in Relax…It’s Just a Drum Set! Scumbag Steve made a cameo appearance in I’ll Practice Drums on the Weekend!

I wrote an Alaskan story about meeting jazz drumming great James Zitro in How Whale Blubber Improved My Drumming Posture.  You also read a review of Speed, Power, Control, Endurance by Jim Chapin, which I consider to be the best DVD for learning drum set hand technique. And then you got to see my feet: The baby footprint from my birth certificate in Bass Drum Foot Technique – How My Feet Have Evolved and my current day hi-hat foot in My Left Foot – Hi-Hat Foot Technique.

Now it’s time to get serious: Serious about relaxing while you play the drums.  And please excuse me as I get a little “preachy” because I’m passionate about this subject:  Not relaxing while you play is the number one reason most drummers never progress beyond a certain point in their development.

More preaching:  If you don’t learn to relax, you will never be able to play fast enough, slow enough, loud enough or soft enough to become a good drummer.  You will not be able to focus on the music and, worst than anything else, you risk injury.  Just look at my chipped teeth for proof!

When I started taking lessons from Portland drumming legend Chic Colburn, he had me buy two books: A beginning snare drum book and a notebook of music manuscript which is lined musical staff paper.  Each week he would make notes in the notebook; things he wanted me to remember.

During my very first lesson, on the first page of my notebook, Chic wrote some notes about rudiments and how to hold the drum sticks.  On the second page, during that same first lesson, he wrote the word RELAX in big, bold letters.  Think about that: The first thing Chic taught me was how to hold the sticks properly.  The second thing he taught me was how to relax while playing the drums.

In this series of posts so far, we’ve focused on preparation.  Things like establishing a practice routine, having good posture, and developing good hand and foot technique.

In this post, I’d like to focus on the “here and now” and provide you with some tips for relaxing when you’re playing the drums. Hopefully you’ve taken all the steps mentioned in the prior posts to prepare for your gig.  But maybe you are still experiencing overwhelming stress and tension when you play.  What are some things that you can do “real time” when your body starts to “seize up” or your mind starts to fill with doubt?

Sources for Drumming Stress and Their Symptoms
First, let’s make a list of drumming stress sources and symptoms for each source:

  1. Stage Fright – Nervousness Before and While You Play.  Symptoms: sweaty palms, weak/wobbly knees, heavy arms, and/or an upset stomach.
  2. Drumming Tenseness – Physically not able to play the music.  Symptoms: Burning sensation in your arms or legs while playing, arm and leg stiffness, slowing down when trying to play fast, speeding up when trying to play slow, and inconsistent volume when playing loud or soft.
  3. Too Much Focus or “Tunnel Vision” – Concentrating on playing drums and ignoring everything else.  Symptoms: Sore jaw, grinding teeth, chipped teeth, out of sync with the music, and missed musical cues.

Stage Fright
Do you ever feel sick before you play?  Maybe your palms get sweaty.  If you stand up, your knees are wobbly.  Your arms and legs may feel heavy.  If you’ve felt any of these things, you had a case of stage fright.

Stage fright is very common and there’s a lot of information available about how to get rid of it.  Here are some things that you can do to help avoid nervousness before you play.

  1. Prepare. Besides following the tips in the previous posts in this series, make sure you know what songs the band is going to play, and make sure you know what you are going to play for each song.  If you are counting off the beginning of each song for the rest of the band, make sure that you know the tempo for each tune.  I make sure to have a set list and jot some notes, including the tempo, for each song.  Sometimes I even use a metronome on stage to help me remember tempos.
  2. Focus.  Visualize yourself sitting behind the drum set, and counting off and playing each song successfully.  Meditate to calm your nerves. Breath deeply, but be careful not to hyper-ventalate. Do some stretching to loosen your muscles.
  3. “Hang out” with your band mates.  Laugh with the other folks in the band.  Tell some jokes, trade stories and talk about music.
  4. Listen to Music.  Try listening to the songs you’re about to play.  Play along with the songs while sitting in a chair.  If you don’t have drumsticks, slap your legs with your hands.
  5. Imagine you’re having a conversation with one person in the audience.  Focus on playing music for that one person, and feel the appreciation and love when they applaud your efforts.
  6. Consider talking to your doctor.  If you continue to get physically sick after, say, 5 performances talk to your doctor.  They may have some advice about how to get rid of these jitters.

Drumming Tenseness
Maybe a song gets counted off too fast or too slow.  Maybe the room you’re playing drums in has brick walls that causes the band to be really loud. Or the room is completely carpeted and the band can’t play loud enough.  These are all settings in which you may not be physically able to play a song because it’s too fast, too slow, too loud or too soft.

In these situations, the first thing you should do is try to relax while you’re playing the drums. Make sure you’re breathing regularly.  Then focus on relaxing your arms and legs.  If that doesn’t work, try these tips:

  1. A Song is Too Fast: Are your arms or legs starting to burn? Do you feel your drum beat starting to slow down? If relaxing doesn’t work, try playing fewer notes. Specifically, try playing half as many notes. See the post How to Play a Super Fast Drum Beat.
  2. A Song is Too Slow: Are your arms or legs starting to get tense from holding back on a drum beat? Do you feel the uncontrollable urge to speed up? If you’re not able to relax, try playing more notes. For example, Instead of playing eighth notes, play sixteenth notes. Or try tapping your left heel in sixteenth notes while your right hand plays eighths. See the post How to Play a Super Slow Beat for more information.
  3. Drums Are Too Soft: Are you playing as loud as you can but feel like the drums aren’t being heard? Are members of the audience or band commenting that they aren’t able to hear the drums?
    • Try focusing on relaxing and drawing the sound out of the drums. Make sure your sticks are not resting on the drum heads after a stroke.  Your sticks should be rebounding back from the drum head.
    • If that doesn’t work, try using bigger sticks. Make sure to practice with them before using them during a performance.
    • Another trick is to ask your fellow band mates to turn down the volume of their instruments. Chances are good that if you are not able to play as loud as the rest of the band, the audience would appreciate the band playing softer.
    • If all else fails, consider buying microphones to amplify the sound of your drums. However, this is a big investment that requires some research to get the best microphones for your situation.
  4. Drums Are Too Loud: Is the sound of your drums overpowering the band? Are you missing notes or do your notes have an inconsistent volume? Focus on the total relaxation of your arms and legs. Play as lightly as possible but don’t “tense up.” Try using smaller sticks.  Also try using the bundle of thin shish kabob sticks known as Hot Rods. If the volume is really soft you can try using wire brushes.

Too Much Focus or “Tunnel Vision”
Do you get injuries while playing drums that you can’t explain? Do you get blisters on your hands from drumming? Maybe your jaw hurts or, like me, your teeth are slightly chipped. Do you end up getting out of sync with the rest of the band without noticing? Does someone tell you that you played something that you don’t remember?

If you’ve experienced any of these things, it could mean that you are focusing too much and concentrating too hard on what you’re playing while ignoring what’s taking place musically around you. Even though you are the main timekeeper in the band, you cannot ignore the other musicians in the band.

The goal is to get to a point in your development as a drummer so you can play your parts effectively but also be aware of what the rest of the band is playing and how the audience is reacting. Since drummers usually sit behind the other players, you have a full view of what’s taking place on the bandstand, on the dance floor and in the rest of the room.

It’s important to see AND process what’s going on. You need to be able to see cues from the lead singer or a soloist to be able to adapt your playing in the middle of a song.  You can tell if your tempos are right by watching dancers and audience members moving to the music. And you can tell how good the band is doing by how the audience reacts to your performance.  Are they smiling and having a good time or are they covering their ears and heading for the door?

That’s why it’s important to be able to relax and not focus too much on your playing.  It’s almost as if you need to step outside your body while you’re performing and watch yourself as you play the drums. Is your face contorted? Are you looking relaxed when you play? Or are you smiling, having a good time and enjoying the moment?

I’d have to agree with my first drum teacher that learning to relax while playing the drums is almost as important as knowing how to hold the sticks and placing your feet on the pedals. Without knowing how to relax, you will hit a wall in your playing.  Learning to relax will allow you to reach every musical goal that you set.