Teaching Snare Drum, Day One.
We all know that those very first moments of instruction and learning on a new band instrument are so critical. What you say and the first steps you take to show a student the simplest basics forms the context of their understanding of how to play it.
No pressure, right?
In this article, I want give you some information in plain language that I use on the first day I teach beginning snare drum. I am especially hopeful that non-percussionists will find this information useful.
Before you get into playing, you should take a few minutes to encourage your percussionists to label each piece of their beginning percussion equipment. I tell mine to use a black Sharpie, then cover their name over with packing tape.
Setting up the Instrument:
Once you have instructed your students to set-up their drums or practice pads, go to each student and check the instrument’s height. Generally speaking, your student’s pad should be just below their waistline. Another way to check this is to have your students make a fist with their thumb on top. Have them place their fist in their belly button. The pad should come up to the bottom of their fist.
Holding the Sticks:
- To begin, have students relax their hands and look at the natural curvature of their hands. You should explain that holding drumsticks should be as natural and relaxed as possible* while still exerting control over the implements.
Show students that their thumb fits naturally into the bend of their index finger. From there, have them create a “soft fist.” This will be the foundation for the grip.
- At this point, students will be ready to hold the sticks. Have them take one stick and pretend that they need to cut its length into three equal parts. Ask “Where would you draw those lines?” An easy way to assess their understanding of this is to ask them to make scissors with their fingers and show you where they’d cut
From there, explain that the place they marked the “third” closest to the butt of the stick is the place where their thumb and index finger will go.
Before we go on, I want to point out the absence of the term “fulcrum.” I’m not opposed to calling the thumb and index finger the fulcrum, but at the beginning of the year, I am much more interested in wrist strokes. The fingers will not be active until the speed increases greatly or the complexity of the drumming increases (quick flam passages, ruffs, double strokes, etc).For this reason, I do not use the term “fulcrum” with students yet.
- Once students have found where to place the index finger and thumb, have them try holding the stick. I like to say that their thumb should be flat on the stick (the fleshy part!) and that if I took a 3 inch nail, I should be able to drive it through their thumbnail, through the stick and have it come out the other side of their index finger (rendering their hands and fingers useless!)
And then we enjoy our first nervous laugh of the year.
Once the thumb and index finger are placed correctly, have students wrap their back three fingers around the stick forming the “soft fist” mentioned earlier.
- From here, I like to have students put their sticks down and show me what their hands would look like if they were panting like a dog. In 9 out of 10 times, students will show me relaxed hands and fingers with their palms down and about as high as the correct playing height. Find the student who fits this description the best and have the other students try to copy it. Then review the placement of the index finger and thumb on the back third of the stick.
Ask, “What letter does that almost look like?” Of course, we’re looking for the letter A.
Again remind your students that this should all feel natural. Be on the lookout for these improper angles:
Or this angle:
- This is good opportunity to talk about cookies. Mmmm cookies…. If the school food police won’t haul you off to jail, you can even use Oreo’s for this next step:
As students start to get the hang of the grip and proper angle of hands, tell them to imagine a cookie is resting on the top of their hand. If their hands are not flat enough, the cookie will fall off and that would be a genuine tragedy. To be sure, students can overdo the flatness of their hands, so keep an eye out for that as well. If everything is relaxed, the students should be fine, but do remind them to not have any extra strain in their wrists or hands. (If you don’t have cookies you can modify this exercise by using quarters.)
One quick thing I like to have my students do is to step back away from the instrument holding their sticks and rest their hands down naturally by their sides. In doing so, you are hoping that they will reevaluate each step they have done so far, from the formation of the grip, to the flatness of hands and also to verifying the height of the instrument.
Tell students to raise their arms up over an imaginary practice pad. Look for the angle of the sticks to be too high or too low. Once it looks correct (slightly angled down below parallel), have the students move up to the pad. If they have to raise or lower their shoulders or arms, you know you don’t have their stand height quite dialed in yet. Also recommended is marking the height on the stand so that students can set-up their equipment quickly.
That’s quite a bit of information to absorb before students start to play, but I prefer to be systematic in the way that I explain the grip. This is literally the basis of all percussion playing involving sticks and mallets. Not only do I explain the grip down to the minutia, I reinforce it to students constantly throughout the year (as well as every year after that).
The grip is the same as the embouchure. You should never stop examining a student’s embouchure and neither should you stop examining a percussionist’s grip.
Here are my four checkpoints that I look for with the grip. I even have students learn this so that it becomes participatory:
- Hands are FLAT.
- Thumbs are FLAT.
- Fingers are WRAPPED around the stick.
- It should feel RELAXED.
*It’s a good idea to constantly remind students to stay relaxed as they work through these steps. Often they are so excited about learning to play, the will want to “death grip” the sticks in order to do everything “right.” I let my students know that if they drop their sticks, they won’t be punished for it. I want them to keep their hands loose. I trade out words like “tight” for “firm.” After a few weeks of playing and when I notice that the student’s control is increasing (and fewer stick drops are occurring), I tell students that they are no longer allowed to drop their sticks without dire consequences (No one wants to drop a stick during a performance, do they?!?).
Make sure to check out part 2 of this snare drum series next!
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.
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