Small World Stuff and Stick Technique

This is a story about how a shrinking planet has changed my POV on the issue of proper stick technique on the drums.

(For those of you who are not drummers–don’t run away yet. This is meant to be relevant for everyone.)

My formative years of drumming were spent in a drum and bugle corps in high school and college. I didn’t totally realize it then, but this was a technique adapted from Western European master drummers and their American counterparts. It was a technique that evolved for the purposes of rudimental drumming. They were wonderful at this music, and I’m very much in their debt for what they created and how I benefitted from it.

However, many of these folks had no idea idea how to play jazz music, let alone Elvis, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin or Nirvana music. Afro-Cuban, Brazilian, West-African? Nope. None of these types of music were around back then when these techniques were developed.

So now we get to me.

When I first started teaching, this technique I grew up with is what I taught. Even though I have many injuries from using this technique playing too tight, too loud, too fast, etc. This is what I stuck with…it was what I knew.

One day when I lived in Portland, I decided to rehearse with a Brazilian drumming group–the Lions Of Batucada. Wonderful group, great people, great fun playing that music.

When I first joined, I was very judgmental of the variety of stick techniques I saw around me. I was the new guy, so it made no sense to say anything, but I thought to myself, ‘given time, I could straighten out all this weird stuff’.

But a funny thing happened…

My problems with injuries started to get more acute when I played that music for an extended time. So, I adapted my technique to manage the pain, but I stayed within the boundaries of the Western European/American technique that I knew. What I was doing wasn’t 100% effective, but at least I was able to manage the pain a bit.

I don’t know exactly when the realization dawned on me, but I do know I was playing the Brazilian repique (heh-PEE-kay) at the time–sort of a small timbale, played with one bare hand and one stick. I was trying to play the repique rhythm for Samba Rio-style, and I was having huge problems with my hands–esp. the hand holding the stick. Finally, out of desperation, I tried one of the techniques that I had seen while playing with these other Brazilian players–a technique that, until that moment, I had considered ‘crude’.

And you know what? It worked. It totally worked. It did take me a while to get used to it, but it totally worked for that rhythm on that instrument. Then, over time it slowly dawned on me–my technique was totally inappropriate for that rhythm on that instrument, much as that Brazilian technique would have been totally inappropriate for the drum corp drumming I did as a kid.

And so we finally get to my new outlook on stick technique:

It’s all good. As long as you can get the sound and ‘feel’ you need consistently, without hurting yourself, it’s all good.

And…it all came from my exposure to a technique from another culture–a culture with some European roots, but more strongly influenced by West Africa. Small world stuff, right?

And lastly, to connect the dots from marching drumming to Brazilian to Nirvana–that Brazilian repique technique I learned? It’s perfect for playing that ‘thrash’ ride cymbal technique that Dave Grohl popularized with Nirvana. Yessir.

Check it out in this video of Dave Grohl and the surviving members of Nirvana…What I call the ‘thrash’ ride is what Dave is doing when the music gets loud on this tune with St. Vincent (who is a total badass–not many humans can hang with Nirvana). Check her out on this version of “Lithium” at the R&R HOF.

(BTW, I’m not saying that Dave is using this repique technique. I’m just saying that that’s what works for me when doing the same.)

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