Often times, as percussionists, we focus on rhythms and articulations 1st (which you should), but many young percussionists tend to allow dynamics to fall by the wayside. A little louder here, a little softer there; doesn’t seem very important to an untrained ear, but it is! Here’s why dynamics and dynamic contrasts are so important…
Frame of reference:
As a child, you know that you live in the state of Florida (or whatever state you came from), but you first had to understand what America was, and Earth before that. Music is similar. For my audience/judges to understand that I am playing a soft ballad, I must at some point contrast this with a loud and brash ram. If I simply play loud and never show them soft, there would be nothing to compare it to. The frame of reference would be lost, diminishing the effect of the music.
Most experienced and seasoned musicians see music as an entity that can take on a life of it’s own. As humans, music should present a color and expressiveness in life that connects us to one another. You understand me because I somehow understandably convey what my idea is. Music is the same way, you want it to connect with the audience. Dynamics are a very large portion and what some consider the basis for musical expression. Creating and releasing tensions is a key role that dynamic fields play when utilizing musical expressions. Here’s an example: The arranger says, “I’d like to build this section of the piece a bit more without changing the entire structure, so lets utilize a crescendo.” This is often botched by many percussion groups. Lots of indoor shows tend to start with some sort of soft introduction or harmonic bed laid down by the mallet players and the arranger intends to introduce the drums by building into it, many times starting off with a battery solo. Often we hear these solos played way too loudly, breaking away from the track the arranger had put us on. Now we cannot build our volume into the drum sounds, there is no perceived crescendo, and we have just disconnected the audience. This also disconnects judges, and when that happens, scores suffer. These are the reasons dynamic expression is so important.
As a professional percussionists, it is my job to demonstrate impeccable control over my instrument’s sound. Dynamics are a huge part of this. Students who strive to take their skills beyond the high school realm must understand and demonstrate the same; as most colleges, independent lines, drum corps, and professional ensembles will expect a reasonable amount of dynamic control out of them. Being prepared for these ensembles is of extreme importance and demonstrates the type of attitude that they will look for. Sending a student into a post-high school audition without the tools that will allow them to achieve dynamic superiority would be a grave error for any instructor teaching younger children in our activity. We have a dynamic standard, and students who intend to continue with percussion must strive to meet it.
So for those students/instructors that don’t focus much attention on dynamics, you are doing your students and yourself a great disservice. Dig in, sculpt the music, and make those phrases sing out! It is an essential part of what we do.
Often times instructors find it difficult to teach a new concept/maneuver to young students. If you have ever found yourself in this position, here is a step by step process to help you the next time:
- Introduce – Tell your students exactly what you want to accomplish and why. Explain how this specific skill/concept will be useful to them. Do not begin teaching the students without this step, they can become distracted or disinterested. (Example: You want to teach your kids to play a 5 stroke roll. Explain that you are going to teach them a 5 stroke, it is a basic rudiment that appears in their music, and that it is sometimes asked of percussionists that may be auditioning. Show them what it looks like on paper).
- Give an example – Allow the students to visualize/observe the skill/concept you are teaching at work. Show them what the goal is. Many people learn well visually. Demonstrate yourself or show them a video of someone else. You do not have to master the skill to teach it. (Example: Play a clean 5 stroke roll or pull up a YouTube video of another instructor playing a 5 stroke exercise).
- Break it down – This is the hardest part and it takes the most time. Get your hands dirty and show the kids what to do in small steps. Take things down to their molecular level. Use checkpoints, metaphors, and mathematics to get your point across. Be exact. If the students aren’t getting it, break it into smaller parts. (Example: Explain that you begin a 5 stroke by diddling on each hand and finish off with a tap. Ask them to play exactly at a 6cm stick height. Explain that 6cm is about the size of a pink eraser).
- Execute in context – Now that your students know all the steps. Take it slowly within the context of the material. Practice the transitions in and out of the specific skill as well. Show them what it feels like to actually execute from beginning to end. (Example: Now play the 5 stroke within the passage of the show music along with the students. Start slow and allow them to rest their brains between takes).
- Repetition – Do it over and over again until muscle memory or the brain’s “auto pilot” takes over. (Example: Have the students play the passage containing the 5 stroke over and over again with a metronome. No extended breaks in between).
- Perfection – Ask the students to execute on their own, without your help. Step back and take a look. Analyze what their difficulties may be. When you properly diagnose the issues, you can prescribe a fix. Sometimes this means returning to one of the previous steps on this list. That is ok. Figure out what it will take to remedy any problems and then do it. (Example: Watching the kids play the passage, you notice they are having trouble with the left hand diddle. Go back and talk about what they can do to strengthen their left hand. Explain that it should sound the same as the right hand. Return to step #4 and continue down the list again).
This list is neither right or wrong for any specific group of students. This a simply a helpful tool in the event that you do not know where to start. Each kid learns differently. You may need to modify or combine some steps as needed with your specific group. Do what is necessary and do not be lazy. Set the students up for success by giving them all the tools they need to achieve.
On the morning of July 2, one of the busses carrying some volunteers and staff members for Phantom Regiment (DCI) blew a tire while traveling. Subsequently, the bus went out of control and ended up rolling near the Arizona-California border. The bus driver was killed and several others were taken to hospitals in serious condition, some being airlifted. Officials believe the driver was not wearing a seat belt. 14 people were on the bus at the time, none of which were performers. Since the accident, Phantom Regiment cancelled their DCI performance in Mesa, Arizona but is now performing again and plans to continue with the rest of their tour. All who were injured have been released from hospitals and are either back on tour or at home recovering. Please keep Phantom Regiment and their loved ones in your prayers.
photo by 12 news