I've recently been studying how the effects of tension, posture and natural body movement can have a major effect on how a person approaches and plays the drums. I've been reading through "Anatomy of drumming" by John Lamb which is a fascinating book which details the body movements that we should work hard to encourage in order to benefit from much more expressive, natural and pain free playing. It also details movements and habits which can absolutely destroy a drummer's ability to express him/herself on the drums.
In conducting further research into the tension aspect I stumbled upon this wonderful article in a 1987 edition of modern drummer. It's well worth a read and hopefully I'll be able to post the second part of the article in the coming days. No copyright infringement is intended here I must add!
Mental Techniques In Drumming:Part1
by M. Rupert Walden
Have you ever had the experience of being able to play a new pattern easily in practice only to find that, when you tried to apply it in an actual playing situation, it just wouldn't come out, or if it did, it was rigid and didn't flow like it had in practice? I suspect most of us drummers have had a similar experience, and wondered why it happened and what we could do to over- come it. It may be somewhat comforting to know that other performers have the same problem and that there are ways to become more effective. There's a saying in tennis that, "He won the warm-up but lost the match," meaning that a player may look unbeatable during practice but fold under the pressure of competition. What happens to the body and mind during a per- formance? What things inhibit or release potential and creativity? What can we do to increase our chances of playing at our best?
This is an article about dragon slaying— dragons being those mental barriers that stand between you and your optimal per- formance, such as worry, fear, trying too hard, self-judgment, and excessive muscle tension. Our weapons are drawn from other areas concerned with high-level per- formance, human physiology, psychol- ogy, the martial arts, and sports psychol- ogy, and consist of techniques, exercises, knowledge, principles, and perhaps strongest of all, your imagination. All have proven their value and can help us release our own potential as drummers. So choose your weapon, and go forth with a spirit of adventure and an open mind.
Tune into any sports event, be it bowl- ing, boxing, or gymnastics, and you're likely to hear the commentators and par- ticipants talk about the crucial role relaxa- tion plays in their sport. In our discipline of drumming, we sometimes need the deli- cacy of a butterfly, and at other times, we need the power of a runaway Mack truck. The only way to achieve both is through proper balance of relaxation and tension. But it seems that, when we need to relax most, we tense up instead. The results sometimes are broken sticks, heads, or cymbals, or just the general feeling that, "I know I can play better than this." Clini- cian Dom Famularo has said that some of the most asked questions he faces in his travels concern the issue of how to relax while playing. Part of the problem is that we believe the way to be more effective is to try harder—to use more muscle and deter- mination. Another problem is that we haven't learned how to relax.
Relaxation is a skill, and like any skill, takes some time and determination to become good at. But why is relaxation so important, and why should we set a prior- ity on learning how to achieve it? Sports physiology tells us that loose and relaxed muscles contract more effectively, heighten our awareness, open the lines of communi- cation between mind and body, enable us to direct and control effort more effec- tively, and lead to increased speed, power, accuracy, balance, and coordination. Louie Bellson has said that, the faster he plays, the more relaxed he becomes. In an MD interview, John Guerin stated, "I'm convinced that your mental edge is most important. When you get a group and get a magic about a groove, it happens when you're not concentrating on counting. It's better to relax and let it happen."
The basic relaxation training method used in sports psychology in the United States is called "progressive relaxation." It was developed by a Harvard physiolo- gist named Edmund Jacabson, who spent years studying the relationship between mental anxiety and muscle tension. One of his basic findings was that a person can learn to become aware of and control very small decreases and increases in muscle tension. Following is an abbreviated ver- sion of his procedure. You can practice this exercise while sitting in a chair or lying down. Tense your muscles for five to seven seconds and relax for 20-30 seconds. Pay close attention to the difference between the two feelings.
Exercise: Find a place where you can be undisturbed for ten or 15 minutes. Get in a comfortable position with legs and arms uncrossed. Close your eyes and take a cou- ple of deep breaths, and feel yourself let- ting go of all worry and tension. Let the tenseness in your body just melt away. Hold both arms out in front of you, and clench your fists tightly. Gradually increase the tension level until your hands and arms are fully tight, hold, and then let your arms drop naturally to your sides and focus on the difference between tension and relaxation. Repeat this and all follow- ing procedures at least once—more if you find an area that's especially tight. Follow a similar pattern with your forehead, face, neck, shoulders, upper and lower back, chest muscles, stomach, pelvic region, upper legs, lower legs, feet, and toes. Now, scan your entire body, and return to any area that remains tense. Experience this state of total relaxation for two or three minutes. Open your eyes, get up, and stretch.
It's recommended that you practice this exercise at least once a day for seven days. Later, you can shorten the process by com- bining various muscle groups. You'll dis- cover that you have certain "trouble spots" where you tend to carry stress and tension. These are the places to work on.
Exercise: Many of us don't realize that we go through our day with muscles that are chronically tense. We often use more effort and strength than are needed to per- form simple everyday activities. Observe and monitor your tension level as you do such things as eat, watch TV, sit, or drive a car. Do you grab the steering wheel with a death grip? Do you fold your arms and legs tightly when sitting, as if you were in a straight jacket? The goal of this exercise is to extend the range of your awareness and to use only that amount of effort necessary to complete the task at hand.
The Rating Scale: This is a technique intended to get you in touch with your ten- sion while playing drums and to give you a greater degree of control. Think of a one to ten scale with level one being total relaxa- tion and level ten being a state of total ten- sion. Begin playing in a way that feels com- fortable, and assign that state a number, such as a five. Continue playing, and pay close attention to what this level feels like. Now, consciously lower the level to a two or three—so loose that you're about to lose the sticks and look like a rag doll. Experi- ence this level. Now shift upwards to an eight or nine—so tight that you look and feel like a robot. Now go back to an in between level, where you can perform your best with the least amount of effort. Keep playing at this level, and experience it fully.
This is a very individual process, and you're the final judge as to what works. Some people may report that a four works best for them, whereas others may feel they need to be at an eight or nine level to be at their peak. A good way to get feed- back is to practice in front of a mirror, so you can see, as well as feel, what the vari- ous tension levels are like.
A variation of this is to focus on the four limbs and your body separately, assigning a tension level to each. You may find imbalances in that one or two limbs tend to be tighter than the others, or maybe the tension is mainly in the shoulders.
Exercise: Relax, with eyes closed. Imag- ine that your whole body is being projected on a large computer screen. Those body areas that are tense appear as red on the screen, and the relaxed areas are a soothing blue color. Just observe the current state of your body, without attempting to change anything. Note where the red is, and the blue. Tense your muscles, and see the shift of red expand across the screen. Now let go, and see the blue slowly return. Do this several times. Let go more fully, and observe the blue color flowing over the red as the red simply melts away. Feel your sense of relaxation grow and spread throughout your body as the blue color intensifies. Whenever you find yourself feeling anxious and tense, close your eyes, breathe deeply, and recall the soothing blue light.
Exercise: While in a relaxed state, eyes closed, breathing naturally and deeply, scan your memory for images of drum- mers who display a quality of relaxation you would like to emulate. They may or may not play a style of drumming or a type of music that you like. The important thing is their approach—their ability to control tension, even at high energy levels. (Remember that relaxation enhances speed, power, and energy; tension drains and restricts energy and decreases power and speed). Think of these people as your teachers—your friends—your advisers. Mentally review the times you have seen them—on T.V., on tape, or in person. But this time, pay closer attention to how, rather than what, they play. Notice their body movements and their expressions. Imprint that image firmly in your mind and imagine that you are absorbing that qual- ity of relaxation, as a sponge soaks up water.
It is probably good to clarify what we mean by relaxation. It is not the total absence of tension, but the proper balance and control of tension. Without some ten- sion, we would be unable to move. Also, we are not talking about a lax state of mind, but one of focus and concentration. Bruce Lee was a great practitioner of relax- ation but stressed that it meant relaxation of the muscles, "not of the mind or atten- tion."
Relaxation is sometimes an elusive quality. On some days, it will come easily. At other times, it will be much more difficult to achieve. Perhaps the greatest barrier is the idea that we must "try hard" to become relaxed. But it is not achieved by force, willpower, or trying hard. The secret lies in letting go and allowing it to happen. It comes more and more naturally as we learn to heighten our awareness and to trust the inner wisdom of our bodies. The development of these skills can have a significant impact on our ability to express our drumming potential.