Drumming In The Present: Explosive Playing

Most, if not all, of us have watched a stereotypical martial arts movie: the over-the-top aerobatics, the perfectly choreographed fight scenes, the main character screaming “Hiiiii-YAH!” as he or she delivers the final blow to the villain. Actually, not unlike playing a rock show – controlled chaos with feats beyond normal human ability followed by an explosive ending.

You have to be up at 6:00 a.m., it’s a Thursday night, and you’re playing a show for 30 people in a backwoods bar. It has been a three-hour set with no break in sight because the singer’s college flame from Jersey is in the club, and he wants to put on a good show. Suddenly, halfway through the band’s 15-minute rendition of “Crossroads,” the front man looks to you for a solo. You’re exhausted, and it’s the last thing you want to do – but you dig deep and find some energy, clear your mind, and explode onto the set. It’s one of the best solos you’ve ever played! After the gig, your band even acknowledges its creativity, musicality and energy. Okay – they use words like “cool” and “loud,” but you know what they mean.

We all probably have had experiences like this. The trick is, how do we recreate that flowing, musical, energetic fill every time? Just like a martial arts movie.

Let’s dive a bit deeper into that stereotypical “Hiiiii-YAH.” In traditional martial arts, this sound is called a kiai (pronounced “key-I”). It is an intense burst of energy accompanied by a loud vocalization made to focus attention and strength and startle an opponent. In our martial arts blockbuster, you will hear them complementing especially devastating thumps and wallops to the villain. But in traditional practice, these are almost a spiritual event; clearing one’s mind while focusing the spirit and preparing the individual for a burst of power obtained only by digging deep and finding strength inside.

To begin, just touch upon the idea of clearing your mind. Sounds only happen once; we can never replay a snare hit, only duplicate it. So every sound has to be played like it is the most important sound ever because it is the only one you are making at that moment, and the only one people are hearing. Play the following beat. (Ex. 1)

drumming workshop

Most of us will read the beat, think about how our bodies move, which drum to strike, how hard to hit the cymbals, and how to repeat it so that it feels natural. This is all fine and good if we are to work on the strict mechanics of the rhythm so as to reproduce the individual notes in the specific order. But a clever drummer – a musician – will read that beat and immediately imagine how it sounds as a whole, and concentrate on the sound being produced as he or she plays, not how he or she is playing it. That sound is all that matters in the present – not how to repeat it, not if they just played it correctly – only that they are producing the sound the best they can in that moment.

Try these beats, and remember, concentrate on the sound being produced, not the mechanics behind the rhythms. This will help clear your mind of all the extra noise up there, focus your thoughts on what is important, and free you from worrying about what is coming next. Every snare strike, every thump of the bass, is like your musical kiai, focusing your efforts on one sound produced to evoke emotion in your audience. (Ex. 2-9)

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Extending this idea one step further, what about the drum fill? (Ex. 10)

This is even closer to a musical kiai. The structured beats and phrases around a fill support the fill itself, and vice versa. But the fill should be an explosive display of grace and power combined into a musical idea, much like Daniel-san displays confidence and strength while defeating his foe – “Hiiiii-YAH!”

drumming workshop

Again, we should start by practicing clearing our mind. When we play a fill, it is easy to become caught up in the mechanics, the motion around the kit, the tempo and timing. But if we concentrate too much on the notes of the fill, or the mechanics of obtaining them, or the end or beginning of the fill and how to transition to and from, we risk losing all musicality, spontaneity, and power.

Try this. The below chart outlines an eight-bar phrase, but instead of a chart full of notes, consider this a score of a thought process. Begin the phrase by concentrating on the feel and tempo of an easy beat for the first four bars. Then, as the fill approaches, imagine a direction and phrase of a fill – high to low, triplets, or straight eighth notes, etc. Return to concentrating on the groove once you have a roadmap in place, then clear your mind and think of nothing. Finally, explode with the fill in the moment, hear the sounds you produce, and enjoy the music you are making in that instance. (Ex. 11)

drumming workshop

Through practicing this method, your fills will gradually sound less mechanical and robotic, and more flowing, energetic, and musical. Below, you will find some great examples of fills you can play explosively and in the moment once the mechanics are securely under your belt. Remember, clear your mind, focus on the sound, and explode onto the kit with power and grace. (Ex. 12)

drumming workshop

It is true that drumming is an athletic activity where the way we use our bodies directly affects the outcome of our actions, just like that all-to-elusive perfect golf club swing. But drumming, and making music, should also be very spiritual, deeply rooted in who we are as people, our experiences, and our personalities. Just as a martial artist focuses his or her entire spirit on one strike and one kiai, we too should be able to focus our entire self on one sound, one fill. Play every beat like it is your last, because no other beat matters like the one you are playing right now.