Dynamics

Today I spent my entire practice session working on dynamics. It might seem easy to alternate between playing loud (forte) and soft (piano) but it’s not. The challenge is maintaining a smooth transition between the two. Like everything else I look to the masters to see how they approach this process. Papa Jo Jones and Steve Gadd are masters of dynamics and seamlessly work them into their groove. Jones was exceptional at feathering the bass drum and Gadd’s brush work is flawless. Both styles utilize dynamics in a way that always compliments the piece. This is what separates the amateur from the pro. Amateurs tend to play at the same volume all the time. Professionals use dynamics throughout the composition. Some do this simultaneously between all four limbs.

I have come up with a few exercises of my own. For the first pattern I alternate beats between the bass drum and floor tom while playing off-beats between the snare and hi-hat. I start out as lightly as possible to the point you can barely hear it. Then I gradually build in intensity until I am playing so hard its borderline obnoxious. (boom-bap-BOOM-BAP).

For the second exercise I alternate single beats between each drum in descending order (striking each drum twice), once around softly then once around loudly. I repeat this pattern over and over. The tendency is to speed up but a steady tempo is required. (This exercise could also be played on a drum pad with every two strikes representing a separate crescendo or decrescendo.)

It helps to look at your drum set as a series of different voices. Each voice of your drum kit (hi-hats, snare, kick drum, etc.) can all be played at various levels individually and in relation to each other to create a unique sound. Dynamics drive the emotion of the song. Soft parts can signify a gentle or romantic section while loud dynamics can represent danger or action. Here are some tips for developing dynamics:

  1. Limb Independence and Control: It is crucial that you develop your ability to play independently with control. Each limb has a separate assignment within the beat. Practice playing different patterns simultaneously between your limbs. This may take some time to develop muscle memory but once you grasp it everything else should fall into place. This pattern will help to give you better four-way independence.
  2. Individual Voices: Begin by playing a beat you would normally play fairly loud, and then adjust the volume of each limb individually. For example – continue to play the beat the way you normally would, and then lower the volume of your snare stroke to a ghost note. Bring the volume back up slowly and then do the same with the kick drum, the hi-hats, or the ride (one at a time) – all the while maintaining the original beat with the other limbs. This is challenging but it forms the foundation of applied dynamics.
  3. Drum Fill Control: This is the most difficult practice to master (and remember). Typically you want fills to ascend or descend with the flow of the music. If you are building into a chorus with more energy, use the dynamics of the drum fill to build volume towards that chorus. Likewise, if you are coming out of a chorus, you want the dynamics to bring the volume and energy down slightly.
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