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A goal for all musicians is to produce the best possible sound from their instrument. Although, for the percussionist, tuning and mallet selection are always important, the method of playing is paramount. Roy Burns, a great drummer and clinician, once wrote an article in which he described technique as follows:

  1. Technique is control: the ability to play something evenly, consistently and in tempo. Control is the result of practice, listening and patience (which is the key element of practicing).
  2. Good technique involves relaxation: economy of motion, relaxed posture and fluid moves suggest a comfortable confident player who can produce a musical, controlled sound. If you are straining/pushing yourself too hard physically, then your playing will sound strained and stiff.
  3. Technique is the ability to produce a musical sound. Listening and an understanding of a good sense of "touch" are essential components of a musical sound.
  4. Technique is the ability to play quickly and evenly. Never sacrifice quality for speed!! Never display musical immaturity by playing "technical" passages that are out of character with the music.


The first component in playing is how to hold the stick.

  • Right Hand

    1. Hold the stick between the underside of the thumb and alongside the first knuckle of the index finger. This "hold" is called the fulcrum or the point at which the stick pivots.
    2. Wrap the remaining fingers (middle, ring and pinky) around the stick lightly and never allow them to leave the surface of the stick while playing. These fingers constitute the control point for intricate movements of the stick.
    3. Align the forearm, wrist and the back of the hand to form an approximate straight line.
    4. Keep the back of the hand on a slight angle (approximately 10-15 degrees).
    5. Use your wrist as a hinge: straight up and straight down, any rotation will cause an undesirable slice in the stroke.
    6. Keep your elbow underneath the stroke and not sticking out in mid air.

  • Left Hand (Traditional Grip)

    1. Place the stick in the crook between the thumb and index finger. The thumb lays on top of the stick and points down the stick towards the bead. This constitutes the fulcrum or the pivot point for the left stick.
    2. The index and middle fingers remain straight but not rigid and acts as a brace and a guide to the stick as it moves vertically.
    3. The ring finger bends down to form approximately 90 degrees at the second knuckle. It then rests against the middle finger at the first knuckle to form a cradle. Place the stick on the ring finger between the first knuckle and the fingernail. The ring finger will, in this configuration, act as a spring of sorts and allow more intricate movement of the stick.
    4. The pinky finger rests against and supports the ring finger with the same curvature.
    5. With the bead of the stick in the center of the head the palm should face the right hand with full view of the top of the thumb.
    6. Align the forearm, wrist and the back of the hand to form an approximate straight line.
    7. The wrist rotates as if turning a doorknob.
    8. The elbow should remain close to the body and relaxed.

Live Sticking

"Live Sticking" deals with how the stick is griped as far as pressures are concerned.  The idea is for the stick to be loose and relaxed so as to allow the stick to resonate or vibrate within the grip of the player.  It is always visually apparent when a player is gripping the stick too tightly however it can also be very apparent by the type of sound that is produced.  A tight grip equals a tense and choked sound, lacking projection.  Properly utillyzing live sticking will result in a fuller, smoother sound and will allow a more musical projection of the sound.  A good illustration is to take the stick between the thumb and index finger and tap the stick on your head while allowing the stick to resonate. The feeling of the stick vibrating is an approximation of what should be experienced with the "Live Sticking" technique.

Playing surface

In order to play properly the drum must be at the proper height. The playing surface of the drum should arrive roughly 2-3 inches below the bellybutton. Always adjust the drum to fit the individual. Never adjust the drum relative to the ground or other players.

A player must also strike the drum in the correct playing areas; this eliminates needless expenditure of energy and produces the best tone and clarity. When striking a drum´s playing surface, the optimum point of contact beween the stick and the head occurs at the flattest part of the stroke or roughly when the stick is parallel to the head.  For the snares the playing area is the exact center of the drum with variations for effects. However, the tenors speak best when played just off center allowing for more resonance and projection.

Proper tuning of the drum will also result in a correct feel from the playing surface.  Too tight or too loose of heads, or improperly tuned snare mechanisms will not only result in poor sound quality but in a lack of good response and feel coming from your head and therefore subsequent poor technique and execution.

Economy of motion

Once you know how to hold the sticks or mallets and you have your drum set up for playing, the next step is to move the stick. The economy of motion concept is when the shoulders, arms, elbows, wrists and fingers operate together to create one smooth, fluid, tension-free, relaxed motion. Even though the fingers may control speed and softer volumes; the wrists may control pulse, accents and middle volumes; and the arms may control power, strong accents and louder volumes, they are all connected and must flow together to produce a good musical sound. 


It is essential to understand that the strokes are about what is happening between impacts of the stick on the head and that they have a defined starting and stopping point (i.e.start high, stop low).

  • The Down Stroke

    1. Turn your wrist so that the stick is on a 45-degree angle up from the playing surface.
    2. Play a stroke into the head.
    3. As the stick starts to rebound upward stop it with your fingers at a point roughly parallel to the playing surface (Approx. 1"-2" above the head).
    4. Do not crush or rub the stick into the head!

  • The Up Stroke

    1. Begin from a point roughly parallel to the paying surface (where your down stroke stopped).
    2. Without lifting the stick before the stroke, play a stroke into the head and "draw" the sound out of the instrument by turning your wrist so the stick is back to a 45-degree angle up from the playing surface. The key is the use of the control point fingers.

  • Legato stroke

    1. Relax.
    2. Start with the stick on 45-90-degree angle.
    3. Play a stroke into the head and let the stick bounce back up to its starting point of 45-90-degrees. This involves maximum finger action.
    4. Remember: never ever let your fingers leave the stick or mallet!
      1. Matched-grip: As the wrist (hinge) moves downward, the three fingers under the stick pull upward.
      2. Traditional: As the wrist rotates (as if turning a doorknob clockwise) the thumb pushes down on the top of the stick.

  • Closed Stroke 
    1. Start with your stick 1-2 inches above the playing surface.
    2. Play a stroke and only allow the stick to rise back to its original position of 1-2 inches.
    3. This uses a closed palm approach and plays mainly from the wrist with minimal finger action.

  • Buzz Stroke

    1. Start with your stick 1-2 inches above the playing surface.
    2. Play into the head and maintain contact with the head allowing the stick to "buzz" on the surface.
    3. The goal is to maximize the length of the "buzz" by maintaining even pressure of the stick on the head during the entire process by squeezing and releasing at the index finger and thumb and using a push/pull method by pumping with the fingers open on initial contact and closing as the stroke is ending.


There are 40 different standard rudiments recognized by the Percussive Arts Society (P.A.S.). However there are a myriad of hybrid variations found in the world of rudimental drumming including the Scottish, Basel and DCI styles. Rudiments are the basis for this style of playing and therefore essential repetoire. Anyone who plans on playing seriously needs to make a concerted effort to learn and master the rudiments both standard and hybrid.


Dynamics are always relative. Even though the music might specify a dynamic the true musician must always be sensitive to the overall sound and make the part fit musically. For the sake of uniformity there have been many systems contrived to create an effective way to interpret dynamics as a drum corps. Here is one way.  Assuming the drum is at the proper height and the hands are utilizing proper grip and technique the following is a rule of thumb to interpret five dynamics levels.

•  Level 1 = pp

The bead of the stick does not pass through the horizontal plane of the playing surface.

•  Level 2 = p The bead of the stick just barely passes through the horizontal plane.
•  Level 3 = mf Average playing volume. The stick passes approx. 45 deg. above the horizontal plane.
•  Level 4 = f Maximum wrist turn occurs relative to individual flexibility with arm motion 
•  Level 5 = ff Maximum wrist turn coupled with an arm stroke.

Musical Interpretation

When considering interpretation, the most important thing is to give each note its full and correct value. When you think this way, what actually becomes most important is what is not being played (i.e. the space between the notes). If you put the correct space between the notes you will always play the correct interpretation. Look to the sound model or section leader for specific interpretations of musicality and style. In dealing with rolls the attack (beginning), pulsation (the strokes or pulsing of the roll), and the release (end) of the rolls greatly affect the musical interpretation.


The first step in achieving mastery of timing and tempo is to understand exactly where everything is in relationship to the pulse. One can do this by religiously practicing with a metronome. Few people are "natural" at timing and it must be taught especially on a muscular level with repetition. As a general rule, easy passages rush and difficult passages tend to drag. By practicing with a metronome you can learn how it feels to play in time with both kinds of passages.

Visual Aspect

The drumming experience is as much visual as it is musical and the many visual facets of a drum corps are very exciting to an audience. Facets such as movement and visual patterns can add a new dimension to a show that is unattainable with just music. The sight of everyone´s feet moving in unison (marking time or marching) and the "visuals" (what is done with the arms, sticks, mallets, instruments, bodies etc.) can add to the audience´s excitement and gain a better overall effect. The very performer´s excitement in showing emotion and feeling for the music (performers should feel free to communicate from their soul) will make a show more enjoyable for both the performer and audience. When combined, all of these aspects give the performer the ability to more fully communicate with the audience.


Al Payson, the great percussionist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, once wrote a paper outlining Alfred Whitehead´s description of the true educational process as "going from freedom through discipline to freedom again." In his paper "freedom" refers to a musician´s state of relative disdain for the detailed mechanics of his/her instrument. "Discipline" refers to a period of concentration on and practice in the technical aspects of hi/her instrument and/or music. And "freedom again" refers to the phase in which he/she has mastered all the technical elements of his/her instrument or piece of music and then transcends the technical to achieve exceptional performance. Payson refers to a person who gets stuck in the "discipline" phase as a pedant: one who is technically perfect but whose performance always seems wanting, perfunctory, emotionless. Rudimental style percussion, with its emphasis on uniformity and unison playing, can easily get stuck in the "discipline" phase. It is up to the individual to attain "freedom again."