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You’re probably playing too loud!
Dynamics crafts the MUSIC out of your notes. When this instrument really speaks, when it really moves people, it’s going to be by exploring the quieter range contrasting and complimenting the more obvious louder range. The drums are so powerful when used in this way, so here lies a huge opportunity in expanding your expression. Think of taming a wild horse or driving a Ferrari, keeping that power in reserve and not maxing out the entire time. Playing quietly gives your louder ideas more meaning.
When a child yells and is overly excited, this is unbridled enthusiasm. We’ve all heard this, and we’ve been that kid! But as we mature it becomes controlled enthusiasm, which draws others in, instead of alienating them. Just like a movie, dynamics is how you change the emotion of a performance. There’s a whole world of potential within your grooves that you may not be tapping into. Every song will have ups and downs, they may be subtle or extreme, but find them!
Sometimes you get a bigger sound by playing softer. Sounds like an oxymoron, I know! A great drummer who embodies this is John Bonham as he matured over his 10 years with Led Zeppelin. He learned to do more with less, to say more by using dynamics and space. I often tell my students ‘play light.’ This could be loud or soft, but keep your lightness. What did Muhammad Ali say? Float like a Butterfly Sting Like A Bee! I have spent a lot of time studying Bruce Lee’s approach to his art, and applying this to my instrument. There is power in subtlety.
Dynamics can be used to draw someone in, or push them away. When I hear soft dynamics, it makes me want to hear what the next musical idea is, keeping me on the edge of my seat. Have you ever yelled at somebody? It pushes them away! If I really want you to listen to an idea, I will play it softer and even add space so you can really hear what I’m trying to say. This is about playing with ENTHUSIASM, letting others feel how much we are in love with what we are creating. And everyone knows, enthusiasm is INFECTIOUS! We want to live with passion every day, and play every note on the drums like it is our last, and dynamics helps us get there.
HOW TO PRACTICE WITH DYNAMICS
Practicing with lower dynamics gives your louder ideas more meaning and impact, and also inputs the idea faster into our muscle memory. There’s also dynamics WITHIN your drumset. Think of yourself as a soundman listening to all the levels you are creating, constantly adjusting. Is your hihat too loud? Is the snare popping enough? Remember this concept: understate it a little. You’re probably too loud! Videotape yourself, and see how much you are truly exploring the world of dynamics.
Cindy Blackman has a great technique for practicing dynamics. In her apartment in crowded New York City she would practice playing quietly, her ideas burning with fire and intensity, but never going over the volume threshold. The challenge was not to let the phone ring for a noise complaint. If the phone rang, it was game over!
My friend and excellent drummer Max Senitt practices his softer dynamics while his baby sleeps soundly upstairs. If he can’t hear the baby monitor propped on his music stand while drumming lightly, then he’s playing too loud!
Older records sometimes had more dynamics because of the lack of powerful PA’s and amplifiers at that time. Discover some of history’s masters from the archives, listen and play along, and feel the effect dynamics has on the music. I remember my piano teacher always telling me to exaggerate the dynamics of a piece, stretching them a little farther than you initially think they need to be.
Music is a language. Think of how great speakers and storytellers use the entire range of their voice. A saxophone player once said to me ‘someone that plays loud all the time is compensating for not having any good ideas, and has nothing to say.’ Makes you think! If you can play soft it’s easy to play loud, but not the other way around. Watch your tempo when you’re going from extreme one to the other. What’s the loudest and softest you can musically play? Stretch your limits!
If you play with dynamics, other musicians will call you back to play with them. Ask others that you play with for their honest feedback on your dynamics, and how it can be better. Everyone needs a teacher or a coach to constantly work on perfecting their craft. Having a wide range of dynamics to draw from is what will make your ideas shine!