The Solo Snare Drum: Bob’s interview with Jonathan Curtis

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In September 2020 I was invited by British percussionist Jonathan Curtis to take part in his snare drum research project. Details about his work can be viewed HERE. Jonathan was particularly interested in some of the ideas in my book Rudimental Arithmetic, as well as more generally about composing music for solo snare drum. His questions and my answers follow.

Interview Questions Part 1

Interview Questions by Jonathan Curtis, for the purpose of the Snare Drum Project, and funded by Arts Council England.

Compositional Concepts

1.

Throughout Rudimental Arithmetic (RA), you outline various technical and compositional elements for rudimental drumming such as roll densities, diddle and roll values, rhythmic groupings, and permutations. In Part VII. Etudes, you present eight etudes which have “ …been composed using the principles discussed throughout this study. All students working with these concepts are encouraged to apply the ideas in compositions of their own. ” ( p.144 ).

To what extent do these and similar theoretical devices inform your composition process generally? Presumably it would be too simplistic to say that all of your compositions arise simply from the combining together of various rhythmic and mathematical devices as those discussed; how do you balance composing using, say, roll and diddle densities, values, and permutations, alongside (or in contrast to) more musical concepts such as theme, evocation of emotion, tension and release, storytelling etc.? Simply put, could you broadly outline the process for composing a piece for the snare drum, with particular reference to the concepts discussed in your book?

BB. First, for a discussion about some of the ideas underlying my general approach to composition I would refer you to my article “Finding a voice” (in The Cambridge Companion to Percussion, ed. Russell Hartenberger, Cambridge University Press, 2016).

I think accomplished drummers will go about writing for the snare drum differently than non-drummer composers, somewhat in the same way that composers who are also proficient cellists will write differently for the cello compared to non-cellist composers. It’s not to say that composers who don’t play snare drum can’t write persuasively for the instrument – they certainly can and do, as we know; however, a rudimental drummer can feel a direct physical connection to the act of playing, say, double ratamacues that may not be accessible to composers without a percussion background.

All of the pieces I have composed for snare, or “prepared” drum were written using the vocabulary of North American rudimental tradition, which is part of my training and experience. Other personal interests that inform my writing are mathematics, North Indian music, and some styles of jazz drumming. I also rely on all of the devices of pattern construction and manipulation that I explore in RA. Each of the eight etudes there were composed from somewhat different conceptual viewpoints, as detailed in the individual notes for each piece. I wanted the solos to illuminate, in a practical way, the abstract ideas investigated in my study.

2.

If you were commissioned to compose a snare drum piece solely for its musical performance (as opposed to something like an etude, which has educational connotations), where would you start, and what broad methodology would you follow? From where would you derive the musical content of the piece, and how much of this process or methodology would be informed by the devices you discuss in RA?

BB. I’ve never composed a piece for any instrument without the intent that it be performed. Although I included many excercises in RA, the book doesn’t propose or describe a particular approach to the mechanics of physically manipulating and controlling sticks or mallets. There are numerous excellent technical approaches to playing the snare drum, and they are well-explained in a variety of instruction books and videos. I’m not a teacher myself.

I have received a number of commissions in the past, but none have been for a snare drum piece. I approach composition from a developmental perspective, in that each new piece is informed by the materials, structure and orchestration of the previous ones, and often directly influenced by the most recent work. I won’t accept a commission if the proposed piece can’t conform to the direction in which my work is going. For nearly 30 years I have been exploring, rather narrowly, a pitch-matrix derived from a specific Hindustani raga. The material first appeared in a latent way in my piece Mudra, and has become increasingly defined in later compositions. In terms of rhythmic structure my approach is eclectic, but I do use principles elaborated throughout RA in various ways in all of my writing.

3.

Can a composition have musical merit (or validity) if it is composed solely using technical formula or compositional devices? For instance, if a solo were composed based on the digits of pi, with each digit being phrased as an accent grouping, roll type, or other such analog, would it have the same musical merit as one composed around musical themes? Do such musical themes actually exist as separate entities to more prescribed compositional devices?

BB. In my opinion the answer to each of these questions is yes.

4.

How much variation is there in the compositional methods, function, and content of snare drum pieces between different snare drum traditions? For example, how far removed is a Delecluse piece from a Wilcoxon, or a Bob Becker from a Scott Johnson, Casey Brohard, or Mitch Markovich?

BB. I think this is rather subjective, but there is clearly a continuum within certain traditions. I was not directly involved with DCI or with American fife and drum corps, but I feel a definite connection with drummer-composers like Pratt, Markovich and Reilly, who were. I’m also influenced by Wilcoxon and Morello, as well as by my own teachers Street, Beck and Schinstine. Delécluse represents a different tradition that is not part of my background; however, I, like many North American percussionists, have become well-acquainted with his work since it’s been embraced by the educational community. Other major drumming traditions, such as Swiss-Basel and Scottish, likewise have not been part of my training, but have been in the air enough to have some influence on my aesthetic sensibility.

5.

In your experience, what mistakes do new composers make when writing snare drum pieces? Are there any common pitfalls or similar which the budding composer should avoid? What advice would you give to new snare drum composers?

BB. My advice to new composers is to search hard for a few original and highly personal ideas, and work on developing a series of pieces based on them. If you like the outcome, then continue on working this way. If the outcome is unsatisfactory, search for other ideas and try again until you find a basis for your own voice. I appreciate craftsmanship – the ability to manipulate form and structure in a coherent way – but not all composition depends on that. I’ve chosen to work with fairly strict principles that I’ve developed for myself, whether I’m composing for snare drum solo or for other orchestrations.

6.

Does any particular composer stand out to you as one of (if not the) all time greats for snare drum composition? Would you likewise be able to identify a best, or at least your favourite, snare drum composition? Please include why you have chosen these particular choices.

BB. I don’t claim to know all of the existing snare drum solo repertoire, but for me the most significant composer of rudimental solos was John S. Pratt. Over a nearly 50-year period beginning in the 1950s he created a large body of work in the medium. His music was championed by one of my own composition teachers, Warren Benson, among others. Pratt approached the rudimental drum solo in significantly new ways. Before him, rudimental solos tended to be relatively short, repetitive, and with mostly straight-forward symmetrical phrasing (the well-known NARD collection is a good example). Traditional “solos” had been created as accompaniment beatings to existing melodies played by fifes in the corps – The Downfall of Paris, for example – and subsequent composers continued in a similar vein. Pratt substantially expanded the solo format, increasing its length and introducing more elaborate formal structures. Although his pieces always are based in traditional rudimental practice, often with each specific rudiment named and identified in accompanying notes, he uses principles of development and motivic construction far more freely than previous composers had attempted. Some of his later works even convey quasi-narrative structures.

It’s difficult to choose a favorite from among Pratt’s hundreds of compositions, but I would place Gingersnap (in 14 Modern Contest Solos) and Moby Dick (in Rudimental Solos for Accomplished Drummers) near the top of my list.

7.

Does the snare drum as a solo instrument have enough to offer to stand on its own? Your piece Mudra, for example, is for a percussion ensemble rather than solo snare – do you feel a snare ultimately belongs as part of an orchestra, ensemble, or drum kit, or can it stand on its own as a true solo instrument?

BB. Mudra is a concert “suite” adapted from a much longer work, UrbhanaMudra, composed to accompany a choreography. The prepared drum is not included in every part of the original piece, which was not conceived as a “drum feature”, even though Mudra is often presented that way now. Two of my drum solo pieces, Lahara and New-thaan, are meant to be performed with accompaniment by a cyclic melody and a drone.

I think the sound of the snare drum, especially the military snare drum, resonates deeply with the general public of North America and Europe. I know the very theatrical style of solo snare drumming that has grown out of DCI competitions and things like Brass Theater is very attractive to a wide audience. Still, the kind of abstract and technically intricate pieces that are presently a standard part of percussion education – things like Delécluse, or even the etudes in RA – are unlikely to be understood or appreciated by the general public.

Technical Concepts

1.

In RA, Part II. Rudiments, Section 3. Drags, you discuss the ambiguity surrounding drag rhythms. I was always taught that drags occur as two very quick strokes immediately before an accent. They do not have a rhythmic value of their own, rather they occur as a sort of accidental immediately before an accent. There is, therefore, no such thing as a slow drag, simply a longer gap between each accent; the two strokes of the drags themselves are always quick and immediately precede the stroke – in effect, a double-flam. This seems to differ from what you describe, especially in relation to the rudimental tradition. Is the drag as I have just described it incorrect in the rudimental tradition, or are these simply competing approaches to the same thing?

BB. There is a lot of ambiguity within the “rudimental tradition” about the term drag. North American rudimental tradition itself encompasses styles such as “ancient”, “swing”, “modern” and various hybrids. Take a look at my blog about this topic (and the links to other articles embedded there): The Drag/Ruff Dilemma.

Concerning the rhythmic values given to the grace notes in various drag rudiments you can refer to the examples in Wilcoxon’s Modern Rudimental Swing Solos for the Advanced Drummer (Ludwig Masters Publications, 1979), pp. 10-11. As pointed out in RA, there is a definite difference in execution for these figures in orchestral playing compared to rudimental styles. The various North American rudimental traditions name a heirarchy of drag rudiments (half drag, single, double and triple drag, drag tap, etc.) that I consider to be analagous to various measured rolls. In practice I place the open single drag (RRL or LLR) as equivalent to a three-stroke roll. Part of the ambiguity is a result of the notational conventions used to indicate these figures in printed snare drum music during the 20th century (i.e., the use of “grace notes” for the doubles). The practice makes sense in that the doubles are executed from flam height – the “double flam” mentioned in your question, and flams of course are always notated with a principal note and an appoggiatura. In most orchestral styles the double stroke in RRL (or LLR) is played quickly, or “closed”, and not necessarily in a rational metric relation to the beat. In the rudimental styles referenced in RA, these double strokes are performed discretely rhythmically. As you know, there is an entire section in RA devoted to an analysis of drag rudiments. The part most applicable to this discussion is pages 42-44.

2.

What was your approach for gaining control over the core technical aspects of snare drumming? You are known for your diligent practising and, as a result, clean, precise, fast, and controlled playing. For instance, do you subscribe to a slow and steady approach, or is speed, power, and control attained in the same way as an athlete, with conditioning, high intensity bursts, and training? For example, some of your roll exercises from RA are to be played as 32nd notes at quarter-note = 120. This is extremely fast. How did you, or how would you instruct a student, to work up to this top speed while retaining complete control and stick articulation?

BB. Doubles at that tempo are very common throughout snare drum literature. Military marches, for example, require rolls at around 120 all the time. The roll exercises in RA are somewhat unusual because of the additive, asymmetrical phrase construction, but the technical challenges in executing them are the same for any rudimental style.

One of my tabla teachers summed up the issue of speed and control: “No slow, no fast.” In tabla tradition, patterns, as well as entire compositions, are practiced and performed at incremental speeds: single, double, triple, etc. (tha, dugun, tigun, chaugun, etc.). In rudimental tradition patterns are practiced slowly to begin, then gradually becoming faster, and finally back to slow (open-closed-open). Both approaches are effective in their ways, and I found that applying the tabla method to snare drum rudiments promoted the development of speed, and reinforced control and articulation. I would encourage students to use a variety of approaches to practicing technique.

3.

What is your practice approach generally? Are you very methodological, with repetition, metronome work, diaries and logs, and clearly attainable goals? Or are you more focused on learning pieces and studies musically, and letting the technique catch up as required? What does a Bob Becker practice session look like? Please be as thorough as you can, as the method of practice is fascinating to me!

BB. When I was a child my teacher assigned mostly composed pieces for both keyboards and snare drum. I credit that approach for my becoming a good sight-reader. I didn’t practice many technical exercises, although I had to learn all of the rudiments (i.e., the “original 26”). Rudiments were always practiced from open to closed and back, which is a good way to gain control as well as speed. Later, when I was a teenager, I became interested in the finger control techniques developed by Stone, Wilcoxon and Morello. Then I began working on more repetitive practice with patterns, and I applied the ideas to keyboard technique as well as snare drum. I didn’t use a metronome very much at that time, and I didn’t try to gauge my progress. I just tried to push myself hard all the time. I did most of this work alone, without any instruction from a teacher. I didn’t begin to appreciate the value of progressive methodical practice, using a metronome, until I began studying tabla. Then I had a real teacher who followed a centuries-old pedagogy. Eventually I returned to snare drum, and tried to apply both the training ideas as well as transcribed repertoire from North Indian drumming. Around 1975 I completed work on an extended drum solo, for snare or tom played with sticks, titled Lahara, which is based on this concept. Practicing and performing this piece regularly for several years had a significant and positive impact on my technique, particularly in relation to strength and endurance.

4.

In the limited footage I have seen of you playing the snare drum, you play traditional grip in your left hand. What is your reason for this? Do you recommend all snare drummers to play this way?

In my career, I switched to traditional grip for around four years, before switching back to matched, which I continue to use to this day. What do you make of the modern attitudes towards traditional grip which hold that it is not geared towards the modern drum set. Drummers like Steve Smith have famously switched to matched grip, having played a drum kit with traditional grip for their entire careers. Dave Weckl famously angles all his drums at nearly 45 degrees to accommodate his traditional grip. Buddy Rich famously derided the use of matched grip, calling it simply wrong. What is your opinion on the place of different grips, at least as far as snare drumming is concerned?

BB. I use both traditional and matched grip for snare drum playing, depending on the demands of the music and sometimes the type of drum I’m using. I was taught to use traditional grip when I began learning snare drum in 1956. I was nine years old at the time, but I had been learning marimba for several years before that, so I really started out with a kind of matched two-mallet grip. Matched grip was rarely used on snare drum in the 1950s, at least in North America. Some jazz drummers used it in special circumstances, but rudimental players did not. Most rudimental drumming at that time was still connected with military-style marching, and the drums were worn with the usual over-the-shoulder straps forcing the drum heads to remain at a fairly sharp angle. Traditional grip was developed to accommodate this geometry, but I believe many drummers still like to use it because the asymmetric hand position tends to create a certain feel and phrasing. I often use matched grip for orchestral playing, but even in the orchestra I will use traditional grip if the part is very loud, or the drum I’m using is large and deep.

5.

What are the differences between the way you play the snare drum, and the American Drum Corps approach? The DCI players seem to use large calibre sticks on pipe drums, with extremely powerful, fast, and strong double strokes, almost exclusively with traditional grip. How is this ability practised and achieved, and is the DCI approach different to any other form of snare drumming, or simply a more focused extension of the same basic principles? Would a student benefit from working on this DCI approach, or is it more likely to be a distraction from other more productive work?

BB. I’ve never been involved with DCI myself, so I can’t speak to the approaches going on there. I do find the technical developments in that world to be impressive, and there’s no doubt what they’re doing influences other fields of percussion training and performance.

6.

What is your approach towards improvisation on the snare drum? Throughout RA, especially in the Exercises section, you encourage the student to improvise with specific pieces of vocabulary. For instance, taking a small selection of diddles and playing them in improvised sequences as 16th notes can create an interesting and organic accent study. Does this technically-minded approach extend to your improvisation generally?

BB. Yes, although what you describe is one of many kinds of “improvisation”. I like to develop motives and themes in my music, whether the music is improvised or composed. It’s a method that has been part of European classical music for centuries, and it’s fundamental to improvisation in North Indian tabla drumming, which I’ve studied and performed for a long time. Some jazz drummers – Steve Gadd, for example – are well-known for using a developmental approach to soloing, and I’m drawn to their playing partly for that reason.

 

In October 2020 Jonathan sent two follow-up questions:

1.

Just a quick question; what sort of snare drum do you think lends itself well to rudimental performance as a solo instrument? I currently own a Pearl marching pipe snare and a drum kit 5.5” deep Gretsch snare. I was looking at purchasing a Pearl Philharmonic 4” deep brass snare for these performances. I wonder what your thoughts are, and whether this drum would be versatile enough for rudimental work.

BB. I like to hear and play the older (i.e., 18th century), more traditional rudimental repertoire using a very deep drum – I have a replica made by the Cooperman company that is 16” X 17”,  rope-tensioned, gut snares and calf heads. Nexus uses similar drums, around 15” X 14”, to play beatings from the fife and drum era. Those drums are also rope-tensioned, but with plastic heads, so they can be tighter. John Pratt himself played his own compositions on this latter size drum. From my repertoire, I would use this kind of drum for Etude #1. Military rudimental groups like the Hellcats at West Point and the Old Guard in Washington, DC also use similar drums, and they play more contemporary rudimental styles as well as traditional fife and drum beatings. 

The drums you describe sound nice. My first snare drum was a Gretsch 14” X 6” (blue sparkle!), which I still have. It had calf heads and wire snares when I got it in 1957. It’s very difficult for me to recommend specific makes and models of snare drums, partly because it’s so subjective and also because there is such a wide variety, both vintage and modern, to choose from. I’m probably unfamiliar with half of the specialty manufacturers out there. The suggestions given in the notes for each of my etudes are intentionally general. When you make decisions about a specific drum, part of the consideration is how you yourself play, what size and weight of sticks you prefer, and how you like to tune your instruments. My personal taste in concert snare drums tends to incline toward wood shells and thin metal shells. I like to use various weights of gut, and also wire-wound silk snares. I like Pearl’s products – in fact the drum I have used for years to play Mudra was custom made for me by Pearl. Nexus owns a set of four (two 14” and two 16”) Pearl concert field drums. One of the more interesting concert snares I’ve seen recently is Tama’s Starphonic Bravura model. It was designed by my friend Bill Platt, and I was able to test a prototype at PASIC two years ago. It has all of the features I would want in a drum.

2.

In your opinion, would a 4″ deep drum, like the Pearl Philharmonic I linked, be too shallow for modern rudimental drumming? I know you said you preferred deeper field drums; I would perhaps be looking for quite a modern sound, powerful yet refined.

BB. Again, it’s rather subjective. Rudimental drumming, to its credit, covers many styles of composition as well as styles of performance. For example, some of Wilcoxon’s swing solos will sound good on a 4” drum, as would my Etude #4 or even #2. Pratt’s solos, as I mentioned, probably would sound less persuasive on a small drum, at least to me. A shallow drum usually can’t be played with heavy sticks without sounding choked, so there’s a limit there too. In a perfect world, all of us could own a large and varied collection of drums, drum sticks, drum heads and snares, and then make creative selections for every piece we play. I realize that’s impossible for most younger drummers, just because top-quality sticks and instruments are very expensive. One solution is to keep an eye out for used instruments that might be customizable. For example, I own a Premier 15” X 15″ field drum with a heavy mahogany shell. I think it was manufactured in the 1960s, and I bought it second-hand for a low price. I put calf heads top and bottom, and gut snares. It’s a beautiful drum and sounds great. My teacher, Bill Street, used a Premier concert snare for most of his career, and some of his students, like Alan Abel, also preferred Premier snares. I’m not familiar with current Premier products, but I would expect there are many older used drums around in the UK that might be purchased at reasonable prices and then reconditioned to sound good. The important thing is how a drum sounds and how it feels to play, not so much how exotic the shell material is, or how fancy the hardware looks.

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