Quiet drumming is a very important skill in playing drums. In fact, if you know how to play quietly, it can make you more money. In this article I’ll share about music dynamics and the power of dynamic drumming.
Not too much quiet drumming on instagram
On Instagram I see many gifted young drummers playing very cool stuff. There’s only one problem, the playing is usually at one dynamic level, loud. They’re playing like they have an on and off switch for their drumming. There’s no dynamic level in between.
I know it’s fun to open up and I do that too sometimes. It’s also awesome that Insta-drummers are working hard to improve their playing. We can’t forget though, that being able to play music with dynamics is HUGELY important to a successful drumming career.
So what are music dynamics?
Music dynamics are when passages of a song are played at different 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.
The Verse is perfect for more quiet drumming. When the chorus comes around, we usually turn up our volume and energy to provide dynamic contrast to the Verse.
The chorus or “the hook” as it’s often called, is a second musical idea that supports the story of the Verse. If there is a bridge (a third 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 have more quiet drumming.
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 quiet drumming and dynamic drumming. The musical contexts I shared above are some of the most important.
Here’s a video of me on a gig. Check out how I ebb and flow with the dynamics of the sax solo. This is a good example of dynamic drumming in action.
Opportunity to improve my quiet 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 and we do a lot of work together here in Japan. His criticism really helped me to refine my dynamic drumming.
When we first started playing together about 6 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.
He could hear that I was good with brushes at lower volume levels. I wasn’t as comfortable though, using drum sticks for quiet drumming.
Phil said I should make my stick playing more dynamic. I took that advice to heart and focused intently on my dynamics in both practice and performing live.
Since then, my quiet drumming with sticks has greatly improved and my performance opportunities have increased. I was never a super loud drummer to begin with but the additional work on my dynamics definitely helped my career.
Quiet drumming and vocalists
A place we will need to use quiet drumming is when we play with a vocalist. Almost 100% of the time we are going to have to reduce our volume when there is a singer.
You’re always going to have to blend your sound with the vocalist and support what they’re 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 really comes down to Physics and Physics cannot be ignored.
The easiest way balance stage sound
There’s a really easy way to adjust your volume to fit the sound of the band. Listen to the quietest instrument or the vocalist.
You might also like my article about listening to be a more successful drummer.
If we’re in a Jazz playing situation, the softest sound will usually be the acoustic bass. If the bassist is using an amp and they have it turned up too loud, 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 drumming volume to that volume. When I do that, the balance of the band often self-corrects.
Quiet drumming volume control trick
If the rest of the band members are playing too loud, you can also use your quiet drumming to bring them back to a better dynamic level. If you bring your volume way down, the other instruments are likely to follow you. It’s a really nice little trick that helps control the volume on stage.
I use this trick when the stage 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.
Quiet drumming requires more fine motor ability
Playing softly is an easy concept to understand but it can be very difficult to play quietly with control. The goal is to be able to play the same things you play louder, softer.
The thing that usually stops drummers from lowering their dynamics is fine motor ability.
An example of fine motor ability is when a baby picks up a Cheerio with his fingers. Fine motor means we’re using our smaller muscles.
It takes a baby longer to master this skill than it does to learn how to crawl or stand. Crawling and standing are examples of gross motor skills. Gross motor is when we use our large muscles.
The Instgram drummers I mentioned above are very comfortable with hitting hard because that kind of playing requires mostly the easier gross motor skill. It’s the fine motor skill in drumming 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.
If you struggle with playing drum brushes, I have a complete course that will teach you how to play drum brushes in many styles of music.
We also often have a difficult time with lower-volume drumming because we’ve practiced everything at one dynamic level. For example, we practice our drumming rudiments like flams or our flam taps only at loud volumes. We’ve never practiced them at softer 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.
Practice music dynamics with your drumming
What you need to do is practice all of the exercises, songs, hand patterns, grooves, etc…at a 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 comfortable with quiet drumming too.
Check out my article on the best drumming technique to learn how to get bounce even small drum strokes.
Quiet drumming gets you more gigs
Roughly 85% of all of my drumming jobs involve a singer. Singers feel comfortable with my drumming because I support their singing. I know when to play quietly and when I can kick up the energy and volume.
I rarely hear from singers (or anyone), that I am too loud because I am always focused on balancing the sound of the band to support the singer’s voice. Some singers I perform with are powerful and others have very soft voices.
Because 85% of my work comes from singers, I have to be skilled at quiet drumming or I simply won’t get the gigs. Singers also talk and regularly recommend backing musicians to each other. If your quiet drumming is strong, word-of-mouth will be a powerful tool to grow your drumming career and your bank account.
Use quiet drumming in your solos to get more work too
Below is a video about how I add dynamics to my drum solos on gigs. Working professional drummers also know how play drum solos that fit the dynamic context of the music.
When you also use quiet drumming in your drum solos, other musicians in the band and the audience will quickly notice this skill. This too will get you more playing opportunities.
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 the call. Quiet drumming with both sticks and brushes is also going to be key, especially with singers.
Always strive to balance the sound on stage and even try my volume control trick. Many times other musicians won’t be honest if you’re playing too loud. They just won’t call you for other gigs. If someone says you’re too loud, it’s a great opportunity to get better as a drummer.
Keep swinging with dynamics and KEEP ON DRUMMIN’!
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