Taming the Volume Beast in the Percussion Section
Cary Nasatir

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 replacement.

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