In January 2021 percussionist Antti Ohenoja asked if I would answer a series of questions about drum rudiments from members of the N.A.R.D. in Finland. The original National Association of Rudimental Drummers was organized in the United States in 1933, and was responsible for choosing the “thirteen essential rudiments” still taught and practiced today. I myself became a member of the N.A.R.D. in 1960, and to be accepted I was required to demonstrate proficiency with those rudiments, playing each of them “from open to closed to open”.
Questions from Antti Ohenoja:
AO. Which rudiments do you think are the most versatile to use in different contexts in practice and in warm-ups, and in extreme dynamics and tempos?
BB. Although they are not “standard” rudiments, I would include all of the 192 figures in Stone’s Stick Control listed under “flam beats”. Specific rudiments I often use myself for practice and warm-up are: 1) the four permutations of the 6-stroke roll (R L RRLL; R LLRR L; RRLL R L; RR L R LL); 2) permutations of sticking, accents, and tuplets of paradiddles; 3) variations of accents within the double-stroke “long roll”; 4) permutations of the 3-3-3-3-2-2 figure using Swiss Army triplets (3s) and flam taps (2s). These and many other practice patterns and exercises are included in my book Rudimental Arithmetic.
AO. How do you consider snare drum rudiments in terms of their connection and usability to other percussion instruments? Also, how do you incorporate rudiments to other percussion instruments and to classical snare drumming? I remember Russell Hartenberger telling me in our lesson at U of T, that he has for example explored drum rudiments on cymbals.
BB. One of Russell’s teachers, Fred D. Hinger, recommended practicing cymbals using diddle patterns – paradiddles for example. Crash cymbals can be played with either hand making the primary activating stroke, although the usual orchestral technique involves moving both plates simultaneously in some manner. If you hold the cymbals at an angle with the right hand above the left (as a right-handed player), then the right hand will stroke downward and the left upward. If this is done with circular motions by both hands, you get flams of a sort. However, if you isolate the right-hand downstroke and the left-hand upstroke, and keep the cymbals close to vertical, then you can play “sticking” patterns like LLR or RRL, or even continuous paradiddles. I used to practice these patterns with cymbals when I was a student at Eastman. An example of how this idea can be applied in performance is the famous excerpt from Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain: R RLRLL R R R.
Rudiments, especially diddle patterns, are very useful in classical snare drumming. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that sticking patterns in general are useful for phrasing on the snare drum. I discuss this concept in Rudimental Arithmetic. Practicing rudiments helps to develop facility with double strokes, flams and various types of rolls. These figures are fundamental to classical snare drum repertoire as well as traditional rudimental styles. I have applied sticking patterns such as these to mallet keyboard and timpani technique too, and there’s a discussion about it in my interview on the Nexus website HERE.
AO. How high would you evaluate snare drum rudiments in terms of their importance in learning snare drum technique and other percussion instruments?
BB. I can only speak for myself about this, but the rudiments have been fundamental for my technique on all of the instruments played with sticks or mallets. I was taught the “essential 13” standard rudiments when I was around 10 years old, and they gave me a rhythmic and conceptual vocabulary that remained useful throughout my career.
AO. Do you see a divide between rudimentally oriented and classically oriented snare drummers? If so, what could be the reasons for that?
BB. I think a divide like that may exist more noticeably in Europe than in North America. Certainly for my generation and before, the snare drum and its standard rudiments were the basic starting point in percussion training. My first instrument was the marimba, which I studied for several years before including the snare drum, but I was unusual in that regard, especially for a male. Today it’s not uncommon for the marimba to be the home instrument for young percussion students, and so there has arisen a real distinction between rudimental drummers who are involved with fife and drum corps or DCI (unless they specialize in the pit instruments) and students who have decided to pursue classical areas of percussion performance.
AO. How would you describe the development of the rudiments from the ancient beatings to today’s rudimental scene? I’m not an expert, but there seems to be a plethora of new rudiments that have quite colorful names, and which the drum corps drummers use every day and know by heart.
BB. First, for a discussion about naming rudiments take a look at my blog on the Nexus website HERE. I don’t claim to be a historian, and I haven’t done research into the origins of snare drum rudiments myself. You’re probably aware of the articles Robin Engelman has written about the topic, and there’s an interesting discussion about the history of the paradiddle by John Chapman in the recent December 2020 issue of Percussive Notes (archived on the PAS website).
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The following questions are from other members of the Finnish Chapter of N.A.R.D. Patrik Kiviniemi, Tomi Kauppila, and Ville Koppanen (translated where necessary by Antti Ohenoja).
NARD #1. Have you felt a connection from rudimental drumming to marimba playing along your path as a percussionist?
NARD #2. Have you noticed a benefit from rudimental drumming to marimba playing in terms of stroke velocities or stroke heights?
NARD #3. There are a multitude of different kinds of percussion instruments that are played in many different ways. What do you think about your playing technique when you switch from one instrument to another? Do you aim to combine individual playing techniques from one instrument to another (for example xylophone-marimba or snare drum-tambourine), or do you utilize one basic technique to all your playing on different instruments?
BB. These three questions are related. As mentioned in some of my answers to Antti, rudimental drumming, and many of the sticking patterns associated with it, have been fundamental to my developing a technical basis for using sticks and mallets. In particular, I feel a strong connection between the snare drum and the xylophone on one hand, and between timpani and the marimba on the other. The early xylophone solo music that I found so interesting – styles developed by George Hamilton Green for example – use sticking patterns that are often similar to drum rudiments. Many of Green’s ragtime effects are based on a figure that drummers know as Swiss Army triplets (except the flam is a double-stop). Other rudiments found throughout his repertoire are the single stroke roll, four-stroke ruff, and three-stroke roll (or what I often call a “radiddle” – RLL, or LRR). In addition, striking a xylophone bar with a medium or hard mallet feels somewhat like striking a drum with a stick, at least in terms of rebound and attack sound. Playing a marimba with a yarn-wound mallet, especially in the lower register, feels much like playing a timpano with a felt-tipped mallet. The approaches to “colouring” the sound of timpani by varying grip, mallet angle and playing area, are similar to approaches used on the marimba. There’s an overlap of course, as the same techniques may be applied to the snare drum and xylophone. The results are simply more perceptible on instruments with longer resonance.
I don’t use “one basic technique” across the board in all percussion playing, but the rudimental tradition and repertoire probably inform how I play as much as anything. I’ve been lucky to have opportunities to study and perform a large variety of musical genres, and there’s a kind of synergy that has evolved for me from the interaction among them. For example, my original interest in North Indian tabla drumming was not to apply it in other percussion contexts; however, as I became more accomplished I found the hand and finger techniques could be used very effectively when playing certain orchestral tambourine parts. The vast solo repertoire of the tabla tradition also provided a great inspiration for new compositional forms. Tabla playing, although it does not employ sticks, is truly a “rudimental” style of drumming in that it defines specific strokes by individual fingers and parts of the hand(s). These strokes are organized into patterns in a manner completely analogous to figures like flams, diddles and measured rolls, and the patterns are used to create phrases that must fit into precise metric structures. The same explanation would apply to every solo in the N.A.R.D. book, and this connection lead me to compose rudimental drum pieces like Lahara and New-thaan.
NARD #4. What does rudimentality/rudiments mean in your opinion?
BB. I think the terms “rudiment” and “rudimental” imply something basic, but also something like a seed or embryo from which larger and more complex things can grow. In the rudimental drumming tradition the meaning is much like a language. Individual strokes (R and L) are like letters of an alphabet, which can be combined to make words (rudiments), and those can be ordered into meaningful phrases and sentences. Sentences can convey thoughts, sentiments and feelings. We can have thoughts, sentiments and feelings without language, but in order to express them in a way that communicates to others we need a shared language of some kind. Music in general is not a universal language in my opinion; but in cultures where there is shared experience and knowledge, music can convey meanings and feelings that, although perhaps not objectively measurable, are nevertheless comprehensible. I would consider the community of rudimental drummers to be one such culture.
NARD #5. Practicing musicality and playing technique; together or separately?
BB. When I was a child, my first teacher assigned mostly composed pieces for keyboards as well as for snare drum (including all of the solos in the N.A.R.D. book), and I credit that approach for my becoming a good sight-reader. I didn’t practice many technical exercises while I was growing up, although I had to learn the 26 basic rudiments. My experience later, as a student at the Eastman School of Music was similar. I didn’t spend much time practicing exercises, but rather concentrated on sight-reading as much music as possible. That approach was a wonderful means for exploring ideas about phrasing and also feelings of musical spontaneity. I might not recommend it for all students, but it was effective for me.
Some years later, when I began to study tabla, my teacher followed a centuries-old pedagogy that included many exercises called kaida. These short compositions are basically themes for developing motives within a precise formal structure. Initially, variations (called palta) are given by the teacher, but in time students learn how to create them spontaneously. I found this kind of exercise, combining technical development with a form of improvisation, to be highly effective and invigorating. 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.
NARD #6. What do you feel are the biggest differences between playing percussion ensemble music and playing drumline music? Do you find one of them more challenging than the other? If so, how? Have you got benefits to your playing from drumline playing that you haven’t got from percussion ensemble playing? If so, what kind?
BB. I have not been involved with DCI, nor in other kinds of drumline playing myself. I had some basic experience playing field drum in my high school marching band, and later, playing in certain ceremonial situations while in the U.S. Marine Band in Washington, DC. Although my high school band never participated in competitions, we did march back and forth across the field at (American-style) football games, as well as in seasonal parades. Learning to play cadences and simple drum parts while marching in step and maintaining straight lines was a useful kind of ensemble training. So was responding to signals and executing basic commands from a drum major.
Many of the drummers in my high school marching band could not read music. They were members of the basketball team, and had free time in the fall during football season. It was a funny situation, because they were tall and stylish, while I was short and shy. The basketball drummers had developed their own way of improvising drum accompaniments to any music, based on certain figures and phrasing. They didn’t think in terms of traditional rudiments, yet it was still a kind of rudimental approach. They were able to play in unison without written parts and without rehearsal. Playing with those guys was a new type of ensemble experience for me, and it was very enjoyable to learn a style of performance that did not rely on music notation.
NARD #7. Do you consider yourself applying rudiments in your playing percussion ensemble music?
BB. Yes, although I prefer to use the more general expression “sticking patterns” in relation to ensemble music with keyboard instruments. Of course snare drum solos, or an ensemble piece like Mudra, use specific snare drum rudiments explicitly. At this point in time, “percussion ensemble music” covers a broad spectrum of musical styles and a wide variety of technical demands. Still, I would say that I often rely on sticking patterns as a means to create expression and phrasing, no matter the style of the music or the instruments involved.
NARD #8. What does the word touch mean to you in percussion playing? How about the idea “skill of touch”?
BB. The concept of “touch” is probably the deepest aspect of playing percussion instruments, and I include the piano as a percussion instrument in this regard. I’m not sure what is meant by “skill of touch”, but I expect it is what I would call “controlling the stroke”. Mr. Hinger often said: “You control the drum; don’t let the drum control you.” He was speaking primarily about timpani, but the idea is the same for striking any surface, whether with a stick or mallet, or with a bare hand or finger.
“Touch” is a beautiful word to use to describe what we’re talking about, but at the same time it’s rather vague. A subjective concept like this is probably impossible to convey in writing, especially using ambiguous terms such as “lift”, “stroke”, “grip”, etc. As we all know, the best way to learn about these ideas is to stand right next to someone who can demonstrate the physical actions involved. Seeing and hearing the results (assuming you are watching and listening) makes the issue unequivocal. Then it’s up to you to apply what you’ve observed.
For me, it’s important to keep in mind that resistance is not tension, and relaxation is not limpness. Physical strength and conditioning are important to touch – “He who can do the most, can do the least.” A good touch is firm yet relaxed; strong yet deft; intentional yet effortless. To quote a former member of Nexus, Michael Craden: “Touch anything gently enough and it will come to life.”