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Can You Play Quieter, Please?

Article by Jayson Brinkworth // February 02 2009
Can You Play Quieter, Please?

Throughout my years of playing, I can not count the number of times I have been asked this question (some of which were not followed by the word “please”). Whether it comes from a listener or a fellow band member, this is a task that we as drummers will have to undertake over and over.

I used to get very defensive when this was asked of myself. I would think, I play drums and hit things. How can you do that quietly? Or how can I deliver the energy of the music at a low volume? Don’t get me wrong, I can still get my back up, depending on the source, but I have realized the beauty of low dynamics on this instrument and the power it brings to the music.

In some of the gigs I do, low volume is absolutely necessary. These gigs include small clubs, weddings, casinos (with a visible db meter and a limit of 100), as well as other smaller more intimate venues. In order to cater to the gig, I will take all precautions, but sometimes I might need to dig deep into my playing to come up with a solution. I want to share some of my thoughts on these “low volume” situations, and how, by having an open mind, we can get the most out of our instrument and learn valuable lessons along the way.

DYNAMICALLY SPEAKING

The first thing we must have in our playing is control, and the only way to develop this is through dynamics. I stress to my students that anyone can play loud—as this is a primal way of drumming—but to play quiet takes a lot more control of our muscles and emotions. My students always get a good dose of slow and quiet in our exercises, rudiments and other areas of drumming. We should always feel like we are in control of what we are doing on the drums, and practicing at a low volume is a great way to develop this.

This is obviously the first skill needed to be able to play quieter on a gig. Emotional control is even more vital than controlling our muscles. It is very easy for us as drummers to become so emotionally fired up during a gig that our dynamics go right out the window; I know this has happened to every one of us. We have to really pay attention to what it feels like to play “in control” and strive for that head space all of the time.

One exercise I find helpful for students is to work with a song they know. We will play a song with a heavier rock feel such as “Back in Black” by AC/DC, and we will play it two ways. First they will play it at their normal dynamic, which ends up being fairly loud. Next, they will play it again, but the catch is to play it at about 75 % less volume while maintaining the feel and forward momentum. This becomes quite a struggle, as they are thinking a lot, but the students eventually get the idea as we play it quietly a few more times.

I also teach my students to be very aware of dynamic balance. We will start all exercises with accents at their lowest volume, as this establishes their soft dynamic. They will then add the accents after playing a couple of times through and usually this time they have a nice balance between soft and loud. The soft dynamics are always a lot harder to nail down than the loud.

GEARING DOWN

The next thing that I keep in mind for these situations is my choice of gear. I am fortunate to have a few different sets to choose from for a particular musical situation, but this doesn’t mean that what you have won’t work. You might just have to be a little creative (Great, more learning!).

In a low-volume situation, you can usually count on stage space being an issue as well. For these gigs I will not bring out my 22 or 24 kick drums and large toms. Instead, I will opt for my trusty 18 kick and 10 and 13 toms. For a snare drum, I will usually use a wood drum with wood hoops, as it is less abrasive and doesn’t have the tendency to ring. I used to have an electronic kit that worked well for certain situations, but I can be way more expressive on an acoustic drum set at lower volume. In an extreme case of low volume, I have actually seen casinos with an electronic kit behind plexiglass. This is crazy!

Now we have the cymbal selection. This is always a touchy subject for a few reasons. First of all, most of the gigs I do consist of almost all of the players doing vocals, myself included. With that many live mics on stage acting as overheads my cymbals will be heard for city blocks.

My personal cymbal selection is made up of a lot of thinner hand hammered (some medium thins and some medium) and my rides vary from heavy to thin. For the low volume gigs, I will obviously try and stay away from heavier cymbals and usually not even use a crash. I will take out two rides, a hammered medium/heavy and a thin, a pair of 13 hi hats and maybe a 13 crash. I will setup the heavier ride in a standard position and the thin ride where my crash would normally be, above my first tom and hats (a typical jazz setup). I will then setup the 13 crash low and to my far right. This will keep it out of range of the vocal mics. Also when playing the rides I can use them as light crashes, by playing them with the tip of my stick to keep the cymbal sound quick.

As well as being controlled in my playing, I need to control the setup and positioning of my gear for the best results. I will also experiment with different muffling on the drums to cut down projection and try not to sacrifice too much tone. I have gone to extremes, putting towels on the drums, using excessive duct tape on drums and cymbals, and a few other ideas that did and did not work.

One other option that is available is using plexiglass for separation. I am not a fan of this idea, although I have used it in situations where it was absolutely necessary. I am a fan of having a vibe and an atmosphere on stage with all of the musicians, and this separation takes away any connection I have with the other band members.

DON’T BE AFRAID TO BRUSH UP

Our dynamics and gear are in place, but what if we need to go further. I have done gigs where I am sure if I even sat and thought about drums, it would have been too loud for the complaining people. As I said before, I used to take this very personally, but now I view it as a challenge. There are definitely players that can groove and drive the band at a low volume. Check out the two Billys, Billy Hart and Billy Ward, for a great lesson in this approach.

Even though most of the songs I will play call for sticks, I am by no means closed to just one approach. I always carry a wide selection of brushes, rods, Flix sticks/tips and other items to use as they are needed. These are not exclusive to volume needs as much as they are for musical expression in the songs. The first thing I realized years ago when I started to incorporate these other “tools” was the uniqueness they brought to my playing. Not only was it more dynamic, but the actual sound and character of the instrument became very musical.

One of the obstacles that presented itself was having to play a side stick sound on the snare. I found that flipping the brush and playing the rim with the handle worked alright, especially with a wood hoop on the snare. One other item to address was the clarity on the cymbals, but this was resolved with the use of Flix Tip sticks.

If the brushes are still too much, we could take a very primitive approach by using our hands. With our finger tips and using some basic djembe/conga techniques, we can be musical beyond our imagination. For a great example of this, checkout Billy Ward on The Goldbrickers' song “The Last Time I Went to Texas.” It is a piece of brilliance with Billy using his hands, a maraca in his shoe and a hat trick tambourine.

These approaches require some serious creativity, and the ability to hear a song from a different angle, but isn’t this what we are on this journey for?

THE BOTTOM LINE: IT IS ALWAYS ABOUT THE SONG

So here we are at our low volume gig with our open-minded approach, but is this really any different than any other gig? We are still playing songs, interacting with the other musicians and hopefully creating an experience for the listeners. Our playing should always be balanced within our band, no excuses. There is nothing worse than hearing a band without dynamic balance, whether it is the drums or any other instrument (yes, that means you, guitar and bass).

The biggest thing for drummers to remember is to control our emotions while we play. We don’t have a master volume knob that can go from zero to loud in a split second, even if it is not necessary. I always hope as a player I can make more good musical choices than bad ones as I play.

As cliché as it sounds we should always be playing for the song. We are there to support the melody and the lyrics and to move the song throughout the arrangement. This doesn’t matter what volume we are playing at, what kind of gear we are playing on, or what musicians we are working with. Have fun playing, don’t let volume complaints get you down, and most importantly always approach music with an open mind. 




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About the Author
Jayson  Brinkworth

Jayson Brinkworth is an accomplished drummer, percussionist, vocalist, educator and writer based out of Canada. He is co-owner of the Saskatchewan music school Music In The House, as well as the founder of both the Regina Drum Festival and The Stickman Drum Experience.

Jayson proudly endorses Yamaha drums, Sabian cymbals, Vic Firth sticks, Evans heads, Impact cases, Kickport, Flix, Future Sonics and Mountain Rhythm. Visit Jayson online at www.jaysonbrinkworth.com.



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