Without a doubt, the question I get asked the most from music educators is “how do I deal
with the volume from the percussion section?” In my clinics I usually joke that “yelling at your
drummers just gets them madder!” In truth, there are two types of volume predicaments:
the obvious one of too much volume, and the less obvious but problematic not enough volume.
Not enough volume from any section usually indicates a low level of confidence among the
players. When the player is not confident in their counting or playing ability, entrances are
timid and unsure. One way to overcome this is to have the players rotate within the
section. Often out of necessity, school directors place talented students on snare, leaving
the auxiliary percussion in the hands of less experienced players. A gifted snare drummer
needs time on tambourine and triangle in order to round out her percussion education.
Conversely, less talented percussionists need to build their confidence by getting some
time on snare.
Motivation is always a challenge, and a good way to gain unity is to include the percussion
section in the warm ups . Use drill routines that include the batterie.
For volume problems where there is too much of it, there are different tactics to take. One
has to take into account not only the high level of volume but also the quality (or lack of it)
of the soundscape coming from your percussion section. The following tips and techniques
will help your percussionists with dynamics.
The stick is the first place to look for control. I prefer a thicker but lighter stick for my students
and ensembles. The thicker the stick, the better the handling. The more surface there is to
grab, the less tension is created in the grip. Less tension in the hand produces a relaxed
stroke without a staccato stroke getting transmitted to the drum. The staccato stroke
introduces distortion into the sound landscape.
“Yes” ...you might be thinking “but a thicker stick is heavy and cumbersome”. Not if it is
made of maple, which is durable yet lightweight. A stick like the Vic Firth SD2 Bolero fits
the bill for most concert band and orchestral literature. This stick also features a smaller
round tip which produces a focused and dry tone, and is great on cymbals.
Snare stands included with drum sets are for use in the seated position only. Standing
with one of these short stands, places the drum too low, and forces the player to fully
extend the arms while playing. This introduces tension into the stroke resulting in distortion
and a lack of stick control. In addition, the stick is traveling some eighteen inches to hit the
drum head. I challenge any drummer to play from that height and have any dynamic control
other than loud. A concert snare stand (like Ludwig’s LM923SSC) allows placement of
the drum at the player’s waist . While you still will need to remind your players to lower
their sticks when playing tight rolls, drags, and ruffs, this single change in hardware will
dramatically reduce the volume level. A side benefit will be a reduction of backaches from
young drummers as a result of leaning over a drum that is set too low.
Of late, many players have been setting their snare drum at an angle facing the player.
This angle cuts off the stroke and stops any follow-through necessary for good technique.
The very tip of the stick is what makes contact with the head accentuating the high
frequencies and adding distortion into the overall sound. Leveling the snare drum allows
for a good stroke, as well as better contact with the side of the stick’s bead, producing a
darker and more appropriate sound.
The tension and condition of the top batter head of the snare drum is another piece in the
dynamics puzzle. If the drum head is worn out, the wrong type, or too loose, the natural
tendency is to strike it harder in order to get the drum to speak. One of the sure tale signs
that the top head is worn is the coating is chipped off and worn through. Heads with
dimples, dents and/or holes, can’t be tuned well and should be replaced. Change snare
heads at least twice per year. I recommend once in the Fall for the new year, and once
when your group is heading into festival season.
While many choices for heads abound, a medium weight single ply coated head works
best for concert literature. A clear double ply head may be ok for tom toms, but they are
inappropriate for concert snares. For one thing, they are not as responsive as single ply
heads, and have to be struck harder in order to get the snares to speak. Additionally, the
coating on the heads makes the tone a tad darker.
Snare drums in schools need daily tensioning. Push lightly with a finger in the middle of the
top head to see if it sags. After adding tension with a drum key, release the snares
(disengage the strainer) and tap the head two inches in front of each tension rod. Tapping
the head will allow you to hear whether or not the head is in tune with itself. Tighten or
loosen accordingly, and engage the snares back against the bottom head. Tap the top
head lightly with your finger. If the snares are responsive and the tone sounds good, you
are done. If the snares are choked and only respond when you tap harder, loosen the
tension knob at the snare strainer, and reduce the snare wire pressure. Detune the snares
until they rattle, and then tighten them up again until they just stop rattling.
If the snares continue rattling after tightening, the wires are probably bent and need
The beast is subdued!
Cary Nasatir is a Vic Firth Endorser and Director of the Nasatir School of Percussion, a private teaching facility in San Francisco's East Bay. His website is: www.nsopdrums.com