First Steps of Snare Drum (Part 2)

In my last article, I spent a great deal of time focused on getting the student to set up the correct grip, understand the angle of the sticks, know the checkpoints of playing and get a feel for being relaxed, yet in control.

Now, it’s time to start playing.

The goal for this is to help students understand that they will not be doing all of the work. The pad or the drum will generate bounce and the students will learn to use that as they play.

The best analogy I have found is that of dribbling a basketball. When you dribble a basketball, you are trusting that the ball is in good condition and properly inflated. Beyond that, dribbling is a matter of cooperating with what the ball was made to do.

Once everyone gets that analogy, I like to have students do the snare drumming equivalent by bouncing the butt of the stick off the pad similarly to the way they might dribble a ball:

first steps of snare drum

Get ready to watch your students drop their sticks and chase them around the room. Ahhhhh… beginners are SO uncoordinated!

Anyhow, it’s time to relate that bouncing concept back to playing. Now, for me and the flow of instruction in my class, the pathway of the stick is crucially important. To that end, I like to use an illustration of a hotel. It usually goes a little like this:

“You probably didn’t realize that when you signed up to play percussion, that you also bought an imaginary hotel. That’s right, you are all owners of a 12-story hotel that’s 12 inches tall. And it’s sitting on top of your drum pad as we speak. [Feel free to embellish at this point by giving your hotel a restaurant, game room, gift shop, etc…] In your hotel, you are going to need a way to reach all 12 of those floors, so let’s install two elevators. Have you ever noticed that most of the time there are at least two elevators?

“Our elevators will be the beads of our sticks. Now, if we want them to travel from the lobby [holding sticks in the “Letter A” formation discussed in Part 1] to the top of the penthouse, we’ll need to make sure they go straight up and down.”

Hopefully, you are starting to give your students an idea that their sticks will travel a vertical pathway devoid of slicing. Another way to describe this is to tell students to make sure they can always see the top of their hands (remember the cookie?). Sure, it’s going to fall off when we start playing, but at least they’ll know that they started in the right place and understand that they shouldn’t be rotating their forearms.

“If we pivot our wrists, our sticks should travel to the top of the hotel. Let’s make sure that we don’t also try to raise our arms. That will only complicate our elevators!”

This is a great chance to tell students to try knocking on their pad with their fists like they are knocking on a door. That soft fist will already know what motion to use. Just make sure they are knocking politely: not like your neighbor does when the music’s too loud, or when your landlord comes to collect the rent…

From there, let students try playing some smooth, legato strokes on one hand at a time. Always be reminding students that they should feel the stick bounce up off the pad on its own. If they don’t, they are too tight and are working too hard!

There are a couple of schools of thought about this next part, but I’ll share what I do:

I like students to raise their sticks up to the top of their hotel (12 inches, about a full wrist stroke) and approach strokes as a drop and return — like the basketball analogy or a little like bungee jumping. The point of origin is “up.” The point of return is “up.” Because of that, students learn to rebound early on. In my experience, it is much easier to teach a student to rebound freely first, then teach them to “control” the stick later by stopping in a specific place — like a downstroke.

All together, it should look like this:

teaching snare drum

There are a lot of things to look for. But, because this will be the foundation of all of the percussion playing your students do in their percussive career, they can’t afford to learn it wrong.

Depending on the method book you choose to use with your class, you will hopefully find a page of simple sticking patterns that you can use that will not only provide lots of practice, but will also keep things interesting. Start having students play play these strokes around 100 bpm (each stroke is a quarter note) and gradually increase tempo (up to 180 to 200 bpm after time).

Here’s an example of a sticking pattern exercise

  1. RRRR RRRR LLLL LLLL
  2. RRRR LLLL RRRR LLLL
  3. RRLL RRLL RRLL RRLL
  4. RLRL RLRL RLRL RLRL
  5. Etc…. (you can make up your own sheet if necessary)

As students begin working through legato strokes, here’s a checklist of things you can be on the lookout for:

  1. Are the thumbs FLAT on the stick?
  2. Are the hands FLAT (the cookie; seeing the top of their hand)?
  3. Are the fingers WRAPPED around the stick (soft fist, not tight)?
  4. Are students RELAXED (no white knuckles!)?
  5. Are they making the Letter A at rest position?
  6. Are the thumb and index fingers directly across from each other on the stick?
  7. Students should not be “opening and closing their hands” and using their fingers actively. This should only be wrist strokes for now.
  8. Are student’s pathways vertical? Is there diagonal slicing?
  9. Are students using only wrist strokes and not using the arm to raise and lower?
  10. Do students feel the bounce off the pad? Be sure to ask them this as they play.

By the way, there’s no substitution for demonstration. If students can see you do this well, they are MUCH more likely to “get it” sooner. Emulation is the name of the game. If you need to work on this in order to demonstrate to your students, there’s no shame in that.

Lastly, it’s so easy to forget all of this technical information as students start reading actual rhythms on the page. Be diligent in addressing this no matter what students are doing in class. You should begin every snare drum/pad session with some sort of legato stroke exercise like “8 on a Hand.” Mix it up and have students play along with some fun music. (We played our legato strokes today to “Single Ladies” by Beyonce. Yes, we did. It was awesome!)

Have fun with this and continue to keep things lighthearted for your students! Technique work can get boring, but that doesn’t change how important it is. If your students are having fun while you drill technique (or anything for that matter), they’ll do anything you ask and become better players in the process.

Good luck and happy drumming!

Eric Rath is an active educator, clinician, adjudicator, arranger, and composer. He has served as a band and orchestra director as well as a percussion specialist at the middle and high school levels. He and Ralph Hicks are the co-authors of the percussion ensemble collection, “Beyond Basic Percussion” and the snare drum and keyboard fundamentals book, “Five Minute Drill” (Tapspace Publications). Recently, they launched their latest book, “The Golden Age of Ragtime,” which features five ragtime piano pieces transcribed for xylophone soloist and marimba ensemble or piano accompaniment. ericrathmusic.com

Related Reading:
Keeping Ensemble Drills Interesting
Lines and Spaces Chant
Flute Embouchure – Simple Steps to Great Success

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