Dynamics and the Energetic Drummer
Dynamics for a drummer are different volume levels and how energy flows in the worship set. The main responsibility of a worship drummer, outside of leading people in worship well, is giving form to music. The drummer plays a large role in determining the energy level coming off the stage. Our parts can make the music too loud, soft, out of control, lacking or just right. Even if we use a basic four-piece kit (kick, snare, two toms, and cymbals), we have a huge assortment of sounds and rhythmic possibilities to add to the music. The big question: What and how much should we add?
Let’s talk basics.
What’s the Difference Between Full and Loud?
Benny Greb teaches about the drummer having to take responsibility of any sound he/she produces. That means we have to stay in control of overall volume and different energy levels any time we sit behind our instruments. Our instruments don’t have the ability to make any sounds by themselves; it’s the player that needs to initiate and control all sound.
Playing full means playing open and easy to follow grooves so other musicians can fill space without stepping over each other. Drummers create space for other instruments to fill, they decide how big/transparent the music can actually sound and feel. Another great way to play full is to use more low frequencies in your sound than high by letting the kick and toms lead the way. Knowing how the kit sounds through the PA is crucial to form full parts without being overbearing. Always make sure the kit is properly tuned and your sound engineer has it dialed in. Plan for the peak(s) of the song to be your resolution point. All the tension from building and developing ideas should probably be released at those points. Be careful not to play too loud too long to give people’s ears a break during the set.
Excess tension in the upper body and hands can easily yield a thin sound. This is especially true on the snare. Work on posture and relaxing your hands as you play. Your goal is to allow the stick to resonate as it’s striking the instrument.
Every drummer has heard they played too loud. It’s easy to get frustrated when there’s not a clear definition of what loud actually is. Loud usually refers to overly bright. The brightest instruments on the stage are the electric guitars, vocals, snare and cymbals. Drum parts can sound overly thin if the snare/cymbals are bleeding into vocal mics or any other mics on the stage. Humans have a natural sensitivity to the 1k-5k frequency range and the snare/cymbals mostly sit in it. (refer to Todd Hartmann’s psychoacoustics blog) Too much of that range can turn brutal quickly for someone in the audience. One thing to also keep in mind is that when those instruments get out of control, lyric/speech understanding suffers because consonant sounds live in the 2k-10k range. If the audience can’t understand the lyrics they’re singing, we are not doing our jobs correctly. The drums are causing a distraction.
What are ways to fix that?
Learn to have a lighter touch on cymbals by relaxing your hands. For fills or builds, hit more aggressively but then lighten the touch once the groove opens up. Also try gaffing cymbals heavily in small rooms.
Experiment with tuning down the snare and killing most of the resonance until it sits well in the room. I’ve even had to put a handkerchief on the snare in overly resonant rooms with a lot of hard surfaces. Excessively boomy or resonant rooms don’t need a long sustain to sound full. The room takes care of that itself. These things can be frustrating but remember our initial sound preferences don’t always have to be met. Our mindset as a believer needs to be set towards serving others well. A good solution for a poor sounding room might be cutting way back on volume and the voices on the kit possibly having unnaturally short sustain. These steps allow lyrics presenting the gospel to resonate strongly for everyone in the audience. That is worth fighting for and we have to remind ourselves constantly of it. I certainly have to.
Worship Leaders/Sound Engineers: It helps a drummer to know exactly what voice is too loud. Sometimes one cymbal pokes out a bit more than the others and is the main culprit rather than all of them. Sometimes the snare is too bright/resonant and needs a simple fix. The more specific you can be to your drummer, the more he/she can fix. They don’t need to just hear it’s too loud unless the entire kit actually is.
What is soft?
Playing softer should be a large drop in volume but not a noticeable loss in energy. Softer sections can be less energetic, but the two should not be directly related. It is extremely difficult for any drummer to play soft without losing energy. Due to the smaller hand/arm motion, tempo can suffer if the drummer is not comfortable playing at lower volume levels. Even with pros it’s still a stretch to get it right the first time. Other than extreme circumstances, it’s simply not a good fix to tell a drummer to play softer five minutes before a worship set. There has to be planning, reworking of some parts/fills and compensation for the lack of motion. Give them time and give them grace. Coaching a drummer to play softer needs to be a patient process. They need to have several realistic and small goals over a longer period of time.
Working at a lower volume level doesn’t imply we should play lacking or wimpy drum parts. It means we add form in a different way. One fun way is taking away sounds from a normal groove. For example: play a standard rock groove without hi-hats or possibly half the information (notes). The hi-hat/ride part and ghost notes on the snare usually determine the intensity of the groove. Adding/taking away information dramatically shifts the focus of the groove. An easy way to shift dynamics toward the softer end is losing some rhythmic density. There’s also no shame whatsoever in adding tempo on the ride cymbal to keep energy going during sections with no drum parts.
Am I overplaying?
You’ll know you’re over/under playing if the groove itself, time or clarity of parts by the other musicians suffer. If you notice yourself consistently getting ahead or behind the click, chances are you haven’t spent enough time making the groove/fill comfortable. One of my favorite ways to think about this comes from Christopher Deane, “It’s not too hard, it’s just new.” Some grooves and fills take a lot of work and a long time to feel good. Take the time to make it right. Try simplifying if time feels frantic or adding information if time feels lacking. Grooves that have more notes and rhythmic density are harder to get feeling right. They also tend to feel overly intense/frantic if notes are constantly popping out of place.
Drummers: record yourself playing on a Sunday morning at church. Were there parts that feel chaotic or frantic? That’s usually a timing issue that can be resolved with time spent practicing. Did you initiate the big sections? Did you set the band up for success? Don’t be the person that automatically assumes a mistake or bad run is a one-time thing. Work through it! Address each sound individually, and build into a solid composite sound.
More consistency builds more trust between everyone on stage. If your worship leader doesn’t feel consistent time or trust that you can make it to the end of a set without a major issue, they will not be able to lead to the best of their ability. Be creative but play parts that are reliable. It’s easy to give too much information behind the kit. You can usually tell by the body language of the other musicians on stage how your parts are sitting. My band mates will give me a funny look if I play too much/little or if the groove suffers. That’s my checkpoint and I love it…most of the time. Don’t be afraid to play it safe and work parts in that you can play first.
Also, another more vague way to gauge over playing can be from people’s specific comments to you after a worship set. If you hear player centric rather than worship centric comments like, “you did so well. How did you play that fill/groove/etc?” Chances are you might have been a distraction if they’re focusing on your parts rather than the message they’re singing about. Consider dialing back if you get a lot of those comments. It’s a much better day when people are overwhelmed by the truth of the gospel more than your drum parts.
Dynamics Within the Worship Set
Worship leaders: If we need to be intentional about every note we play on the kit, it means planning ahead. It greatly helps drummers to know where they need to go to prevent overplaying. Our maximum volume needs to be appropriate for the room. If we reach peak points too soon, we have nowhere to go. Control will then suffer. It’s important to think of the worship set as a cohesive unit. It’s not just one song at a time; it’s all of them over a period of time. Plan ahead to give the biggest moments the biggest amount of sonic space and energy. Allow the other stuff to build to that point. What no one wants is a drummer bashing a ride cymbal for 30 minutes straight.
If a part is meant to be aggressive, drummers most likely need to be aggressive but controlled. The same is true for the opposite end the spectrum and anywhere in between. They need to lead, even at times force, your band to go where you want to go. It’s the band’s job to follow the drummer dynamically. Give your drummer that responsibility and let them own it.
A meticulously planned out set where you spend a lot of time running through carefully planned transitions and sections of songs can take out distractions and gives you a clean sound from your band. Having this structure makes multiple services a day less exhausting. It does not negatively affect the spirit/passion of worship. This foundation gives you the opportunity to play even more passionately because you are not worried as much about the details of your parts. Eventually, if you are relying on emotion to push parts through services, you will make mental mistakes that cause distractions. Having a plan also develops a more consistent worship culture through multiple services and even campuses. All of the drummers play differently and have their own voices, but there are similarities that demonstrate the needs in a specific culture.
Dynamic maps are a visual way to represent dynamics. I use these in lessons to help younger drummers connect the dots section to section. They’re great because it doesn’t require any music theory to understand. It doesn’t have to be pretty. They can be drawn after listening to a song one time.
Find the peaks of the song and draw a line at those points. Find the low points of the songs and draw a line representing them.
Draw the middle points as well and start connecting the sections. The diagonal lines represent where natural fill points or build sections are. Drummers, you don’t need to cure world problems with your builds and fills. There’s no shame in simple parts that tell the band exactly where to go. Make sure you reflect what you want to do in how steep the diagonal lines look. Some sections have abrupt volume changes and some might grow the entire section.