Dynamics: Sometimes Rules Should Be Broken

Between A Whisper And A Scream

Beginners working through Stick Control might think drumming is all about rudimental patterns, but they’re only partly right. Sure, it’s essential for every drummer to build a rudimental foundation, but in the long run it will be just one of many building blocks that combine and intersect to finally make up a complete drummer.

We’ve talked about these skills many times in these pages, driving home practical advice about grip, technique, musicianship, tempo, tone, and on and on. But this month I’d like to focus on one element that often constitutes the dividing line between drummers who are musicians and those trundling along with the rest of the pack. I’m talking about dynamics.

In the broadest sense, playing dynamically means a drummer has the ability to execute patterns with equal precision at both loud and soft levels. But dynamic drumming is not only about deafening volumes and near silence. Rather than being a light switch that is flicked on or off, dynamics are more analogous to a dimmer that allows any shade of luminosity, depending on what the situation calls for.

I vividly recall watching one of the most distinguished orchestral percussionists of all time, and my former teacher, the late James Blades OBE, demonstrate passages that involved dynamic phrasing. Employing the grace of a ballet dancer, the mechanics of his hands were unique, deliberate, and yet changeable depending on the amount of volume he needed to pull from the drum. His absolute dynamic control was a thing of beauty.

All drummers should aspire to the ability to shift volume with as much ease as Mr. Blades could. But there are also times when we want that proverbial room to be basked entirely in blinding light or utter darkness.

For example, I recently had a rehearsal with a bandleader who I haven’t worked with for a couple of years. After we played one of the songs, he said, “Things have changed, Andy. We now come way down on the verses and bring it up on the choruses.”

Okay. I get it. But being a loudmouth, I had to ask, “On all the songs?”

“Yes, on every song,” he replied.

“But that’s not necessarily true of every song we play. Some of them demand that we keep the groove chugging along at approximately the same volume level throughout.”

He rolled his eyes.

“Okay, I’ll bring the verses way down on every song,” I consented.

But I don’t think that’s very musical. Applying the same rule to every song creates a sameness that eventually dilutes the effectiveness of dynamic phrasing. Shouldn’t some songs be loud, others be soft, while the rest shift between those two poles to varying degrees?

Of course, I know there are many popular songs that come down on the verse and up on the chorus. But there are plenty of others that barely change at all dynamically. “Lust For Life” by Iggy Pop, “Sex Machine” by James Brown, “Give It Away” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and “Born Under A Bad Sign” by Albert King are just a few incredible songs that come to mind. Go on Spotify and check them out for yourself. I’d love to know what you think.

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