Adjusting to music dynamics is a very important skill for being a successful drummer. In this blog post I’ll teach you what music dynamics are, how to adjust to them and when you need to do it.
Instagram drummers don’t adjust to music dynamics
Lately on Instagram I see many young drummers playing everything at one dynamic level, LOUD! Their playing is either ON or OFF. It’s like they have an on and off switch for their drumming. There’s no dynamic level in between.
I know it’s fun to play like that and I do that too sometimes. There are also, a lot of really cool drum licks and beats y’all are trying to learn. I commend you on working to improve your drumming! I think though, we need not forget that music dynamics play in a HUGELY important role in drumming.
So what are music dynamics?
Music dynamics are the when passages of a song are played at varying volume levels. Having contrasts in volume makes music more interesting for the listener. Playing with dynamics on the drums also makes your drumming more interesting for listeners.
It’s extremely important for you to adjust the volume of your drumming to match the overall volume of the music you are playing. For example, in Pop music, the verse is often where the vocalist will tell the story of the song and drums will be quieter. When the chorus comes around, we usually elevate our volume and energy to provide dynamic contrast.
The chorus or “the hook” as it’s often called is a secondary idea that supports the story of the verse. If there is a bridge (a tertiary idea) in the song, we may take the energy and volume even higher.
In Jazz, we use music dynamics in a similar way. For the A sections of an AABA song form, drums will be quieter during the A sections. The B section is usually more energetic and a little louder. That’s because, again, the A section is the main story-telling part of the song. The B is a secondary idea that supports the A.
Other examples of music dynamics
When there are solos in a song it’s common to start them quieter so that the volume can increase gradually and build tension and excitement. This approach might also be used in playing kicks or rhythmic figures played in unison by the band. There are many other musical contexts in which we can use dynamic drumming. The contexts I shared above are some of the most important.
Opportunity to improve my dynamic drumming
In my blog post about attitude I shared a personal experience receiving criticism about my drumming dynamics. It came from world class pianist Phillip Strange, with whom I work a lot here in Japan. His criticism really helped me to refine my dynamic drumming.
When we first started playing together about 3 years ago, he said I needed to pay more attention to dynamics. I needed to do a better job of matching my drumming volume to the volume of the music. I took that advice to heart and focused intently on my dynamics in both practice and live performing.
Since then, my dynamic drumming has greatly improved and my performance opportunities have increased. I was never a loud drummer to begin with but the additional work on my dynamics definitely helped my career.
Music dynamics and vocalists
A place we will need to use dynamic drumming is when we play with a vocalist. Almost 100% of the time you are going to have to reduce your volume when there is a singer.
You’re always going to have to blend your sound with the vocalist and support what he or she is singing. If you’re overpowering them, you’re not going to get called again. The vocalist has to be heard. They’re telling the story of the song and the story is important.
Your drums resonate differently when played softly. There are a completely different set of overtones that occur at lower versus higher volumes. When you can play with dynamic drumming, the soft parts of songs will sound more natural. Your softer overtones will match the softer overtones of the vocalist and other instruments. It’s comes down to Physics and Physics cannot be ignored.
The easiest way balance stage sound
The absolute easiest way to adjust your volume to fit the sound of the band is to zero in on the quietest instrument or vocal you can hear.
If we’re in a Jazz situation, the softest sound will be the acoustic bass. That’s generally how it’s going to be unless they’re pumping through an amplifier and they’ve got it cranked going up to 11! In that case it might be the piano or vocalist who are the quietest. For the most part, however, it ends up being the bass.
So, what I do on gigs, is focus in on the quietest sound and match my volume to that volume. When I do that, the balance of the band often self-corrects.
Volume control trick
If the rest of the band members are playing too loud, you can also use your dynamic drumming to bring them back to a musical dynamic level. If you bring your volume way down, the other instruments are likely to follow you which is a really nice little trick.
I use this a lot when the volume increases so much and I can’t really feel the music anymore. When it becomes just a wall of sound, I drop my volume and everybody usually responds by doing the same. That helps us to come back to a place where we can actually hear and feel the music more deeply.
Adjusting to changes in music dynamics requires fine motor ability
This is an easy concept to understand but it can be very difficult to play quietly with control. There’s usually one thing that stops drummers from lowering their dynamics. It’s fine motor ability.
When a baby picks up a Cheerio with his fingers, he’s using fine motor skills. It takes a baby longer to master this skill than it does to learn how to crawl or stand. Crawling or standing are examples of gross motor skills.
Fine motor means using small muscles and gross motor means using big muscles. The Instgram drummers I mentioned above are very comfortable with hitting hard because that kind of playing requires mostly gross motor skill only. It’s the fine motor skill that is so difficult for us to master. This is also why brushes are challenging for most drummers. Playing with brushes requires almost 100% fine motor movement.
Practice music dynamics with your drumming
We also have a difficult time with lower-volume playing because maybe we’ve practiced everything at one dynamic level. For example, we practice our flams or our flam taps only at forte. We never practiced them at other dynamic levels. So how do you practice adjusting your drumming to music dynamics? How do you get yourself ready to go out there in the real world and play with dynamics? It starts in the practice room.
What you need to do is practice all of the exercises, songs, hand patterns, grooves, etc…at a very soft, very quiet, volume. You will then train your muscles and your body to play softly. During your practice time, focus on trying to play everything at a piano (p) or mezzo piano (mp) volume level. You’ll be training your muscles to execute those particular drum patterns at a quieter dynamic level. Then when you get out to the gig, you’ll be able to play with more dynamic drumming.
Learn to play with brushes
Another way that you can improve your dynamic drumming and increase your fun, is learning to play with brushes. They’re a lot harder than learning how to play sticks, but very rewarding. The sounds and textures you can create are vast. So much creative drumming is available to you if you learn how to play with brushes.
Recently, I’ve been putting up some videos of me practicing brushes with my drumless drum practice tracks on DRUMMING4LIFE.COM. I also have a lot of brushes instructional videos for you to see.
In the videos you’ll see that brushes have a nice dynamic range of piano (p) all the way up to probably just below forte (F). So brushes are another thing you can add to your dynamic drumming toolkit.
If you are looking for somebody to help you learn Jazz drumming, I encourage you to contact me. I’m now doing online lessons through Zoom. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. We can work something out to help you achieve your drumming goals.
I hope blog post has been helpful for you. I want you to remember that dynamics are going to be a really important part of your playing and your success as a drummer. The drummers that can nail the dynamics get called over and over again. The drummers that don’t pay attention to the dynamics don’t get called. I’m being honest with you because I want you to be successful!
Please stay safe out there. There’s a lot of crazy things going on in the world right now. So, please be careful and as always KEEP ON DRUMMIN’!
PREPARE FOR YOUR JAZZ GIGS. Download high-quality, effective DRUMLESS TRACKS. Improve your time, feel, comping and soloing. Learn to play better with real musicians.
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Also check out my BEYOND DRUM BEATS PODCAST. If you are pursuing a career in music and drumming, this podcast is a valuable resource.