Tension

Pollyanna

Platinum Member
As a clueless teen my approach to drumming was something like "You can play anything if you try hard enough".

So I tried hard and I played tense. I've relaxed a lot since then over the years but there's plenty of room for improvement.

Curious to know about approaches to backtracking - breaking bad drumming habits. The ideal is, of course, to learn to plat relaxed from the get go. Any tips for going back and tidying up?

Also, I can't quite put my finger on the difference between exertion and tension. Brian Blade looks like he's tensing up at times here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8VdtC9WhnCg but it must be a different type of tension to what interferes with my drumming pleasure.

Any thoughts?
 

uniongoon

Gold Member
I attended a Dom Famularo clinic last week in Toronto. His main focus was technique and relaxation. He as well as I, have no callouses on the hands. In the words of Buddy Rich, relayed through Dom, if you have callouses, you are doing it wrong. First step, slow down and study your motion. You can't really get fast if you don't understand what and how you are playing first.

There are volumes I could write on this and I am sure you will get a 2 to 3 page thread here, so that will be my contribution for now.
 

Mark_S

Silver Member
I attended a Dom Famularo clinic last week in Toronto. His main focus was technique and relaxation. He as well as I, have no callouses on the hands. In the words of Buddy Rich, relayed through Dom, if you have callouses, you are doing it wrong. First step, slow down and study your motion. You can't really get fast if you don't understand what and how you are playing first.

There are volumes I could write on this and I am sure you will get a 2 to 3 page thread here, so that will be my contribution for now.
Agreed, except I believe you can still be tense and have no callouses or blisters. I say this because my hands still get tense sometimes, but I'm not squeezing at the fulcrum particularly tight. Try it - you can make your fingers (and thus your hand) tense without even closing the grip with nothing in it.

The way I've been trying to unlearn tension and get it out of my playing, is just playing exercises that seem to bring it on and then conciously thinking about releasing the tension while playing.

I think tension is when there are 2 or more muscles countering eachother.. so I'm not sure exertion would be felt as tension as long as there is nothing countering the muscles providing the exertion.

Lately I've been trying to use my arms more for louder more exertive playing, and keeping my hands and wrist a little looser.. Again not sure if this is the best way, I'm going to bring it up with my teacher sometime soon. I only see him for an hour a fortnight so I try not to bring up too many subjects for each lesson else nothing gets done! We are re-working my doubles from scratch at the moment as they suck worse than.. a big sucky thing.

At the moment my biggest tension problem is my right leg. I have a habbit of scrunching my toes up and tensing up the other muscles too. Oddly my left leg doesn't have this problem and I play the left pedal(s) the same way, but I'm on top of it and it's getting better thankfully! Oddly if I bounce my left leg on the hats, the right leg problem seems to go away...

No idea if that helps. If I find out more I'll let you know - it's a subject that's been on my mind for a long time too.
 

TTNW

Pioneer Member
Hi Polly,

I've had some recent problems with tension over the last year. I was at a point for quite a while where I had a very relaxed grip and I felt very loose with my arms and legs.

Then we added a bunch of songs to our repertoire that were louder and harder and I started tensing up some. Especially live, so I attribute some of this to nerves, but anyway.

Do you know that wonderful spot you can get into where you're playing and during the open spaces between notes, you can let the sticks turn a bit in your hands. Depending upon the tempo, sometimes the tips of my fingers will touch the sticks and tickle them a little to turn in my hands.

As far as my hands and my arms go, this is when I feel the least tension while playing.

When I drop a stick nowadays, it's almost always in this really loose grip zone trance that I'm trying to concentrate on without trying to hard.

It doesn't bother me at all, because dropping the stick means I'm right at the edge of looseness at the opposite end of tense/loose range.

So I practice playing this loose and getting into this zone quickly. Usually by playing along for 20-30 minutes with deep groove mid tempo songs. You know, stuff like Steve Jordan on John Mayer's stuff or some Matt Cameron on Jacob Dylan tunes. Anything like that.

Now when we start cranking up the volume and I've having to hit harder, I can do my little "looseness" exercise for 8 bars during a verse and I lose the tension.

Try it, it may work for you.

As far as bad habits, I have been rife with them, off and on, for years.

Last year I started letting my left hand hit my leg again when rocking out. I started doing this, I think, when I was sitting in on different kits more often, and I went back to some old bad habit from the early days as a comfort level. I raised my snare up about an inch and a half on my practice kit. I threw away three pairs of jeans with a worn spot on the left leg and in two weeks, I stopped the leg smacking.
 

unfunkyfooted

Silver Member
As a clueless teen my approach to drumming was something like "You can play anything if you try hard enough".

So I tried hard and I played tense. I've relaxed a lot since then over the years but there's plenty of room for improvement.

Curious to know about approaches to backtracking - breaking bad drumming habits. The ideal is, of course, to learn to plat relaxed from the get go. Any tips for going back and tidying up?

Also, I can't quite put my finger on the difference between exertion and tension. Brian Blade looks like he's tensing up at times here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8VdtC9WhnCg but it must be a different type of tension to what interferes with my drumming pleasure.

Any thoughts?
good topic.

regarding tensing up, i'd like to quote a great man who once said "When I Drive That Slow, It's Hard To Steer" (Sammy Hagar - I Can't Drive 55).

if the part is difficult, (one) can take a deep breath and go for it.
if the part is requires less effort, the tension you see will be that person holding himself back, so that the performance plays up an even plane. restraint takes great effort sometimes.

relax during the hard parts. tense up during the easy parts. sometimes the latter is confused as the Oh This Is Sooooo Hard Syndrome. but it's not. it's Chiffon.*

*Chiffon was an old school margarine whose slogan was - "If You Think It's Butter But It's Not, It's Chiffon".
 

larryace

"Uncle Larry"
OK tension while playing...are we talking muscle tension or feelings of tension inside?

If it's muscle tension, that indicates that whatever is being played is out of the comfort zone of the player, (or the player is tensing themselves up unnecessarily) and if you are feeling tense inside...that's a different issue altogether. Neither tenseness is good. I sometimes have to play at the edge of my abilities on certain fast difficult beats, and in those cases, I'm not as relaxed as I want to be, but the more I do it, the better I get at it, and the more relaxed I eventually become. And I guess I do feel some tenseness inside when I solo. That's probably where it is the most apparent w/ me, during a solo. But that tension is self imposed tension, which is more of a mental issue than a physical one.
 

brentcn

Platinum Member
Hey Pol, I think you're able to play in a relaxed way with each of your limbs, one at a time, but maybe the tension sets in when the limbs play in combination?

Tension shows up in 3 spots usually, the shoulders, wrists, and thighs. If your issues are shoulders and wrists, then it's obviously Moeller exercises (Jojo Mayer's DVD breaks it down quite nicely!) on a daily basis, paying special attention to making full use of your wrists' ability to bend your hand downward, and relaxing your shoulders, retaining decent posture, etc.

But don't stop there! Apply the Moeller motion to your right hand within your groove playing, i.e. accent slightly every other 8th or 16th note. Also apply the Moeller motion to shuffles and 6/8 grooves, slightly accenting on the down beat, no matter where the snare and bass drum notes may fall within those grooves. Try many different bass drum patterns! When you want to plow through all of the possible snare and bass combinations within a right-hand ostinato, pick up Time Functioning Patterns (Vol. III of the Patterns series).

With your left hand, apply the Moeller motion to execute proud back beats and super-low ghost notes, again, making full use of your wrist's ability to bend downward, even pointing the stick down at the drum head during ghost note execution. At slow tempos, use small wrist motions to accurately place ghost notes within your grooves. Practice at first with only the left hand and bass drum, and then again with the right hand part.

If there is also tension in your thigh, it's probably coming from your bass drum technique. If you play heel-up and "bury the beater", then obviously there is some tension in your leg, and it will usually affect the rest of your playing, too. Steve Smith's "constant release" method is great, as is the "Unburying the Beater" material. But it's more than just relaxing your leg and foot: you'll need to be relaxed as your foot plays along with, and in between, what your hands are doing. So, whatever you practice for foot technique, also practice it as your right hand plays some repeating pattern, and then with the left hand, and then with both hands, so that you fully incorporate the new technique within a playing context, and not as just some technique drill that exists only in the practice room.
 

JohnW

Silver Member
We have a motto in our pipe band corp "Big Sticks, Soft Hands".

Try this for one week: play everything 1/2 as loud as you normally do. Or even less. Keep everything else the same, but just play quieter. Now onto my spiel about technique:

Think of it this way: Once you set a stick in motion (by dropping or throwing it at the drum head), what could your hands do except get in the way and mute the stick? I know this oversimplifies it because you need your hands to change volume or change note values. And if you're aiming for a consistent sound, you don't want the stick flopping all over the place. But for much of the time, it's easy to overplay the stick, like you're driving with the emergency brake on. We're all guilty of this to an extent. But whatever style of music you're listening to, watch players (not only drummers) who play great. Compare their economy of motion, how it's unimpeded; as if an idea goes right out of their head, through their body and into and out of the instrument. There's almost no second guessing. And though they're immersed in the music and might be sweating a lot (think Elvin Jones) there's very little physical strain. Nothing is blocking the energy coming out of them.

In our band, basically all of our busy, intricate playing is low to the drum head. But we bring the sticks way up for timing and "natural" accents (ends of phrases, gentle crescendos, etc.). Loud accents come out of a "snap" of the stick. But whether the stick is high or low, we have a very loose grip. If we snap an accent the stick can come way back and you should barely feel it. But you can hear it a quarter mile away. If it's low, quiet stuff (the bulk of our playing) you can feel each stroke coming off of your fingertips. And you should feel about the same amount of exertion whether it's low or high.

When you mention Brian Blade's solo, I'm thinking of 3 things related to your comment:

1) Exertion- a workout. I don't think there's any way around that in a high energy performance. You roll up your sleeves, get you spandex on and sweat to the oldies! You will experience that muscle "burn" from time to time.

2) Creative body suspense- I don't know how else to describe it, but it's like a build up of musical tension manifest in the body and released in a crescendo or musical climax. This is a good thing!

3) Muscular tension- this is not so good. Again, it's like driving with the emergency brake on, the hands cramp up, tighten around the stick, choking the resonance of the wood and making you play harder. This in turn gets transferred to the head which amplifies that choked sound. In addition, the stick motion is usually beaten into the head rather than pulled out of it, creating an even thinner sound in this vicious cycle.

With the solo you put up of Brian Blade, I see examples 1 & 2, but not 3. His hands look fairly loose. But he's certainly getting into it!

As you're challenging yourself, you will step out of your comfort zone and encounter some tension from time to time. This isn't a bad thing in short doses, especially as you're trying to push tempos. And along with that "bad" tension, you'll feel that muscular burn too. What I've found is that when these situations come up and I'm fighting to get to that next level- the next day or so when I go back to it, it's so much easier. It's as if overnight my body and mind has worked out what I'm trying to do and is preparing me to accomplish it later.

Another thing to think about is taking smaller bites of material. Instead of 3 exercises in a practice session, do 1 but focus on it more. Maybe isolate a reoccurring area in your playing where you feel tension. For instance, if it happens when you're playing a fast tempo, experiment in finding that transition point where you seem relaxed to where you're not. Then come up with a transitional exercise to help you bridge the two.

-John
 

GruntersDad

Administrator - Mayor
Staff member
I'll be brief and say that tension is OK just before the hit, or strike, but then you have to immediately relax. That is just my thought. Not to tight however so as not to hurt your hands. But on the hit or strike you need to have control of the sticks. Watch some Benny Greb videos and watch his hands if they do an upclose. I saw him at a clinic and I swear it seemed at times no part of his hand or fingers were touching the stick.
 

Pollyanna

Platinum Member
Much to mull over so I'll hold off on a response until I have my head around it..In my case it's not emotional or mental tension - more like an automatic "trained" response that probably started with my playing along with Smoke on the Water and Highway Star very early on ... and a dodgy record player that probably ran at around 38rpm lol

Something I'd like to clarify ... in that Brian Blade video he's regularly scrunching up his shoulders and neck. Yet, if it was "bad tension" (for want of a better term) he wouldn't be able to play the way he does. Or is he playing at that level despite some bad habits?
 

8Mile

Platinum Member
Something I'd like to clarify ... in that Brian Blade video he's regularly scrunching up his shoulders and neck. Yet, if it was "bad tension" (for want of a better term) he wouldn't be able to play the way he does. Or is he playing at that level despite some bad habits?
I think that clearly falls under #2 in JohnW's excellent reply. And I don't think there is any serious disadvantage to that kind of physical expression. You can view it as tension, and I suppose it is, in a way, but I don't think it's a detriment or any kind of obstacle he has to overcome.

I view the tension/relaxation as a bit of a balancing act, especially with the hands. You can't control the sticks if you don't grip them with your hands, and you have to tense muscles in your hands to grip them. But I think the ideal is to only use muscles you need to use, and to only use them when you need to. It's easy to fall into the habit of tightly gripping the stick all the time, even when you aren't playing anything. That will only increase your risk of fatigue and injury and it's really unnecessary.

Now, having said all this, the most accomplished, rudimental drummer I ever saw in my life plays what appear to be an almost vice-like grip on the sticks, uses no rebound or finger control at all and articulates every single grace note, diddle and tap with full deliberation and conviction from his wrists and forearms. In fact, you judged how successfully you were adopting his methods by the size of the callous on your left ring finger. He plays faster, louder and cleaner on a snare drum than anyone you've ever heard in the professional or WFD ranks. Buddy, Mangini, Cobham... they all would look like cream puffs next to him when he was young.

Which gets me to my next point: I really think the big down-side to tension is not so much performance (although I think it can be bad for that, too), but the increased risk of injury to your body. The reality is that the stress that it places on muscles, joints and ligaments is not sustainable. Eventually, and probably sooner than later, excessive tension will hurt you, and then you can't play at all.
 

BassDriver

Silver Member
There is a Dave Weckl video called A Natural Evolution that basically addresses this problem:

part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GUPu9yA_-7Q

part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MhSURjNmKRo&feature=related

part 3: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Caxagzt7oAs&NR=1

its not the full DVD but this focuses closely on technique.

I seriously changed my technique before watching the video and I became really relaxed with my technique, but I am nowhere near as good as Weckl with the Moeller technique or doing a relaxed double stroke (which improved a little since my technique changed).

Habits are hard to break, so do not start bad ones.
 

John Lamb

Senior Member
breaking habits: Ultimately, people do what they think will work. If you change how you understand mechanics, what it takes to play, how your body works, then those bad habits will fall away, and you couldn't stop them from leaving if you wanted.

However, if you don't change the way you understand those things, then breaking habits can be similarly unstoppable.

Unfortunately, we usually can't change the way we think by reading a book. We think the way we do because of our experience, and we have to fight it on that level. Thus breaking bad habits means gaining new experiences... exploring, asking, experimenting and really listening to the results we get.

One good way to start is by comparing ... write more later. students here.
 

fixxxer

Senior Member
Hi Polly,

I've had some recent problems with tension over the last year. I was at a point for quite a while where I had a very relaxed grip and I felt very loose with my arms and legs.

Then we added a bunch of songs to our repertoire that were louder and harder and I started tensing up some. Especially live, so I attribute some of this to nerves, but anyway.

Do you know that wonderful spot you can get into where you're playing and during the open spaces between notes, you can let the sticks turn a bit in your hands. Depending upon the tempo, sometimes the tips of my fingers will touch the sticks and tickle them a little to turn in my hands.

As far as my hands and my arms go, this is when I feel the least tension while playing.

When I drop a stick nowadays, it's almost always in this really loose grip zone trance that I'm trying to concentrate on without trying to hard.

It doesn't bother me at all, because dropping the stick means I'm right at the edge of looseness at the opposite end of tense/loose range.

So I practice playing this loose and getting into this zone quickly. Usually by playing along for 20-30 minutes with deep groove mid tempo songs. You know, stuff like Steve Jordan on John Mayer's stuff or some Matt Cameron on Jacob Dylan tunes. Anything like that.

Now when we start cranking up the volume and I've having to hit harder, I can do my little "looseness" exercise for 8 bars during a verse and I lose the tension.

Try it, it may work for you.

As far as bad habits, I have been rife with them, off and on, for years.

Last year I started letting my left hand hit my leg again when rocking out. I started doing this, I think, when I was sitting in on different kits more often, and I went back to some old bad habit from the early days as a comfort level. I raised my snare up about an inch and a half on my practice kit. I threw away three pairs of jeans with a worn spot on the left leg and in two weeks, I stopped the leg smacking.
I totally relate to this and have even been criticized by a former drum teacher (who was actually really good) for "playing like a wet noodle" and not playing "with enough authority". But I prefer that loose grip. However, I do tense up on some song parts either because of being uncertain or from really trying to nail a good fill or something. I have taken into consideration what my teacher told me and attempt to play with more "authority" but the loose grip is my preference during the groove.
This thread should have some very interesting perspectives.
 

TTNW

Pioneer Member
I totally relate to this and have even been criticized by a former drum teacher (who was actually really good) for "playing like a wet noodle" and not playing "with enough authority". But I prefer that loose grip. However, I do tense up on some song parts either because of being uncertain or from really trying to nail a good fill or something. I have taken into consideration what my teacher told me and attempt to play with more "authority" but the loose grip is my preference during the groove.
This thread should have some very interesting perspectives.
I understand both sides. There is a lot of music that requires a tenser style. Also, for me, there has to be at least a little of the performance aspect. Nobody that comes to our little dysfunctional shows wants to see me play Fortunate Son like John Reilly. (Wonderful drummer, BTW, but you get what I mean). Some songs require a little more of the Tommy Clufetos approach. Sometimes you have to throw down.

Also, you can sort of do both. I can still play reasonably hard and keep it loose.

We recently started covering The Who's, Who Are You and I find myself tensing up on that one a bit. I just try to stay aware of it.
 

Pollyanna

Platinum Member
Some thoughts on the attitudinal side: I was just experimenting on the pads. Bounce is huge - these days I'm going for a lot more bounce so I can let the natural charm of the drum sound come out without me getting in the way. So I stay pretty loose when playing time but I often get a bit surprised by the sound when I play the changes, as though my listening isn't incorporating the next thing to play enough. Does that make sense?

Better turn off the PC for now - there's a huge electrical storm going on!
 

BassDriver

Silver Member
Better turn off the PC for now - there's a huge electrical storm going on!
We just had the storm last night!

Some thoughts on the attitudinal side: I was just experimenting on the pads. Bounce is huge - these days I'm going for a lot more bounce so I can let the natural charm of the drum sound come out without me getting in the way. So I stay pretty loose when playing time but I often get a bit surprised by the sound when I play the changes, as though my listening isn't incorporating the next thing to play enough. Does that make sense?
Confidence is a big part of it. I have been at jams and felt nervous and stiff at first (just playing very simply worried about playing over the top of others) but then I got my drumming mojo on after I went to a jam again and felt comfortable - letting loose with my fills and really listening to the other musicians.

If you observe musicians (including non-drummers) with virtuoso technique playing like nuts, they often seem to be 'in the zone', somewhere between relaxation and excitement.
 
Curious to know about approaches to backtracking - breaking bad drumming habits. The ideal is, of course, to learn to plat relaxed from the get go. Any tips for going back and tidying up?
I was in a similar position when I returned to drumming after a hiatus of six or seven years. That was about a year ago. I carefully constructed a practice routine, but quickly realised that my almost total lack of focus on technique was a major obstacle to every aspect of my playing.

For me the answer was (and this is not something that many people want to hear) basically to start over. In fact for the last six months or thereabouts I have been practising almost exclusively on the pad, working predominantly from "Great Hands for a Lifetime" by Tommy Igoe. I don't want to sound like some kind of shill but that DVD is a good place to start with re-evaluating your technique. Or rather, I should say it was good place to start with re-evaluating MY technique... what works for me may not for others.

It sounds a bit extreme to say "start from scratch", but in reality what has happened for me is that I sort of have two parallel tracks of development, the old and the new. When I sit down to play, most of my technique is still derived from the old tense way of playing, but as I continue practising loose technique I find it gradually creeping into my playing.

Hope that's useful :)

Nigel
 

John Lamb

Senior Member
I understand both sides. There is a lot of music that requires a tenser style. Also, for me, there has to be at least a little of the performance aspect. Nobody that comes to our little dysfunctional shows wants to see me play Fortunate Son like John Reilly. (Wonderful drummer, BTW, but you get what I mean). Some songs require a little more of the Tommy Clufetos approach. Sometimes you have to throw down.
I disagree. The only way you can really achieve the loudest, most forceful playing styles is through looseness and relaxation. Listen to the top drummers... for example Mike Mangini who says "You'd be surprised how loosely I hold the sticks"

The top volumes and speeds, and the most tense edgy playing, are found through holding the sticks loosely. The tighter you hold the sticks the more the sticks slide across the skin in your hand (a la dragging your feet while walking) and the less bounce they have. More resistance = less speed. Additionally, the more energy you waste holding the sticks (doesn't take much, really!) the less you have to play the drums.

John Riley is light playing, but muscular tension doesn't equate to good athleticism. Imagine Michael Jordan trying to play more tensely? You can then use your athletic ability to play whatever you would like... lightly like Riley or Blade, powerfully like Chambers or whomever
 

John Lamb

Senior Member
Some thoughts on the attitudinal side: I was just experimenting on the pads. Bounce is huge - these days I'm going for a lot more bounce so I can let the natural charm of the drum sound come out without me getting in the way. So I stay pretty loose when playing time but I often get a bit surprised by the sound when I play the changes, as though my listening isn't incorporating the next thing to play enough. Does that make sense?

Better turn off the PC for now - there's a huge electrical storm going on!
A good way to experiment with tone is by throwing a ball at the drum. The loudest, most open sound you can achieve is this way. Take some sort of bouncy ball (e.g. tennis ball) that is easy to catch and throw it against the drum, and check out the sound. try throwing it at different angles. This is one of those things you can do to reform your experience (what you know), which is what you need to do to reform the way you act (what you do).


One expeiment you may be familiar wqith is by holding the stick at the fulcrum and playing... then moving it to far to the center, then to far back, and checking out how it feels at each place. Do the same with holding the sticks too tightly, sitting too high, too low, etc etc. It is through this kind of experience - combined with book learnin' that the fastest habit breaking occurs.

Incidentally, if your grip is loose enough you will probably feel like the stick is out of control. A good way to find the right looseness is by rotating the stick in your hand while you play (so that the label turns around)... you don't really want to perform this way, but its a good way to find how loose your grip should be.


Others have made great points... just because the grip is loose doesn't mean that the rest of you is. The way you sit, the way you distribute your weight into the drum throne is huge. The bones are designed to hold you up, the muscles to move. If you are using muscles to hold you up, you're doing it wrong. That is a load of tension right there that is handicapping you (I learned that the hard way... through injury) ... came to find not only do I play easily and without pain now, but I can also play louder, quieter, faster and more easily.
 
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