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A Question Of Balance
Ahhh! That magical, almost mystical experience of being able to play anything you want on the drum set. It's that indescribable feeling of knowing that whatever you hear, you can play. I'm sure we've all had those wonderful nights when we felt totally comfortable on the drum set and the music just flowed. Naturally, the more you play and practice, the closer you get to achieving that feeling regularly. However, sometimes we can also feel as if the drums are fighting us, not just sound-wise, but physically as well. Sure, it might just be an off night, and you might attribute it to lack of sleep, or your biorhythms being off, but it could also be a question of balance.
Since playing the drum set requires us to use four limbs, the way in which we balance ourselves at the drums is extremely important. Feeling balanced at the kit lets you relax, and thus makes your playing more flowing. This allows your body the freedom of movement to more easily execute your ideas. Finding the point where you feel centered at the drum set can take some time, and staying centered when playing four different rhythms together can take even longer. It's usually easier to feel balanced when playing simpler exercises. Grooves that require complex counterlines and polyrhythms can sometimes make you feel as if you're going to fall over.
One important step in becoming consistent in your playing is finding your center of gravity, and focusing on keeping that stable, no matter what you're trying to play. Practitioners of the martial arts know how critical focusing on your center point can be, since it not only allows you to keep your balance, but can also give you more power. Drummers who play using a heel-down technique usually don't have as many problems balancing, since their heels are resting on the pedals. Their feet act as a stabilizer. This also seems to give them a lower center of gravity. Heel-up players can run into balance problems because of this lack of a stabilizer. If you play this way it's important to really feel your center point as low as possible, usually a few inches below your naval. Doing this, as well as finding a comfortable position and height on your seat, can give you the stability you need to execute difficult rhythms.
There are a couple of other things that can mess up your balance. One of them is when the individual limbs are playing counterlines, and one or more of the limbs gets out of sync with the others, either because a limb can't keep up, or maybe you haven't trained your limbs to quite land together when they're supposed to. This can also happen on silent notes. For example, I've had a few students that had inconsistent hi-hat closings on the 2 and 4. I noticed that whether they rocked their hi-hat foot back and forth, or bounced their heel, their heel came down out of time on the 1 and 3. Usually it was early. When I pointed that out to them and made them play the silent 1 and 3 right on the money, not only did their hi-hat technique improve, but so did their bass drum technique and sound. Now they were no longer playing an unintentional polyrhythm that interfered with the flow of what they were trying to play.
Injuries can also interfere with your balance. Once I injured my right hand doing something totally unrelated to music. When I tried to play the drums, I noticed that my flow wasn't what it should be. It wasn't just that my right hand had less control than usual, but I also noticed my hi-hat foot wasn't responding normally, and my overall sound and power were also diminished. Then I discovered why. Just a baseball players sometimes get in a slump, and then find out the reason was that they had unknowingly changed their batting stance, I had unconsciously started raising my right shoulder, to compensate for my hand injury. This, in turn, created tension in my whole posture, and that affected my control, my speed, and my power. Once I lowered my shoulder back to its normal position, my playing returned to normal.
When we play drums, one thing we're doing is transferring energy from one limb to another. Good time and flow come from the uninterrupted passage of this energy, allowing your limbs to respond instantly to your ideas. Being balanced, breathing normally, and having a comfortable posture are all critical to a good performance. Being aware of these things when you practice should help you in having a lot more of those great nights.
Images and Information from DRUM! September/October 1991, page 36