Installing dynamics

One of the things I learned early on in my pipe band drumming journey was importance of drummers playing dynamics. We’re the ones regulating volume in the pipe band sound. Ultimately (at the extremes), that’s what makes pipe bands interesting to listen to, in my opinion. The obvious quality stamps of a good drum corp, such as tightness, musical accuracy, and clarity of technical embellishments of course lays a foundation, however a drum corp without dynamics is just straight up boring to listen to (the same goes for a solo drummer). Therefore I decided to write this article on how to install dynamics (and ultimately volume control) into your drumming.

Jens Hedegaard was the first teaching LD I had who really introduced me to the importance of expressing dynamics. He would explain to me how you need to pick up, train and reherse volume control in both ends of the scale, from super soft to extremely loud. In our drum corp rehersals he would always have us play volume control rudiments and/or have us play certain bars in the music that he would really like us all to emphasize either in super low volume of very loud volume. This was mid nineties, so it’s hard for me to remember all the specifics, however I do remember Jens’ focus on dynamics in rolls. When you think you’re playing soft and quiet in rolls, then; are you really? Try going lower. Or, as one of my drumming friends Oli Bernhardt always said when we drummed together in Balagan: “How low can you go?”. Also the focus on the big hits, is something I remember. Go for it. Go for the extremes in the dynamics.

When I then practiced at home I would remember these important dynamics that Jens had pointed out at rehersals – mainly because it was a continuous focus at rehersals, and not just something that would be pointed out at a random weekend rehersal. Therefore; to make the change in your own drumming, you have make the focus on dynamics an integrated part of your routine. What do I want to point out in this drum score, and how can I achieve that? Practice with dynamics and go for the extremes here. Remember; the surface of the hard drum, we play on, makes it so important that we pick up dynamics in the low end of the spectre. Think about it; if you lightly tap/touch a pipe band drum, there’s already quite a loud sound.

In Canada, when I played with RMM and Dowco Triumph Street Pipe Band, I remember one of the things Andre Tessier (my LD for 7 years) would often point out to the drum corp: “Keep the background strokes down”. This was of course to make everything else stand out more. And, it’s pure logic: The softer you play the strokes without accents, the more the accents will pop out and make the music more exciting to listen to. Therefore: Figuring out where the background strokes are in your drum score can be a good hint for you to keep in mind when you practice.

Another strong underlying factor for me during all these years has been, the internal desire to contribute to the drum corp I was playing in at the time. This means, I will not accept just being a passenger hiding in the corps. This way of thinking has also made me consider my own limitations (ability vs time vs wants vs needs) when joining or not joining bands. I’ve always aimed for the tightest and most exciting musical challenges that I could come about, without having to sacrifice my idea of being able to contribute. This has also come through in my solo drumming competitions, with some exceptions – for example in the earlier years when I played the Alex Duthart drum score for Clan MacRae Society in competition. The technical challenge was substantial and the training towards the competition surely brought me to a higher technical level. However, the musical level was not where it should be, because I did not have the full technical ability and surplus energy to fully express that drum score with ease. That experience, early on, made me realize that; it doesn’t matter how many beats you can fit into a bar, if you can not express the music. I’ve seen many examples of drummers thinking in other ways – sacrificing music for the option of playing something outside their comfort zone – and perhaps not fully realizing or accepting factors such as; their ability to contribute, their time to practice and what’s important in their drumming life. As a consequence of this believe, I’ve never been afraid to change things in drum scores, that I felt that I couldn’t play 100% correct, or if I was leading a drum corp; if what’s written in the drum scores didn’t come out as intended because it couldn’t be fully expressed by the big majority of the drum corp…, then don’t be afraid to re-write the drum score to something clearer and easier for everyone to express. This of course requires some adaptability from all drummers involved.

To sum it up, my advices for any drummer who wants to implement more dynamics into their drumming are:

  • Start by paying attention to dynamics in drum scores you already know and have played for a long time. By time you’ll probably experience that you’ll feel the needs to express dynamics all the time. Try and record yourself playing on the big drum before and after, to hear if you can tell a difference.
  • Train dynamics all the time. Don’t fool yourself. Test yourself. How quiet can you begin that roll or how hard can you go for that tap – also when you drum with others. YES. Also, and perhaps especially, when you play with others. Train the extremes of dynamics and bear in mind the loudness of a pipe band drum. Don’t worry, you will be heard.
  • Drive the dynamics and don’t just be a silent passenger in the drum corp.
  • Realize your own potential to create dynamics within the range of your own technical ability and understanding of music, and take actions from that. Consider; do I have enough time to practice, are these drum scores within my reach of something I can master and play with ease (including of course expressing the dynamics and the music to the full), should I be competing with this, and/or ultimately; am I in the right band or should I switch to a band/corps of another level?