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Snare Drum Technique

From Snare Drum Basics to Mastery

AuthorJonathan Curtis

Date Published: 01.03.2022

In this article, we will take a look at basic snare drum technique,

how to progress to mastery. We will explore the fundamental aspects of grip, the fulcrum, strokes, and the use of the fingers as a way to what is needed to master the snare drum.

To begin with, we need to understand the main elements that combine to create the grip, and how they work together to form the basic strokes. We can broadly define the three elements.

Jonathan Curtis Playing the Snare Drum

​These elements should be clearly understood individually, and then further understood as part of a combined system in which each elements interacts and supports the other two. The three elements are:

  • The fulcrum

  • The fingers

  • The wrist

The Fulcrum

The role of the fulcrum is the hold the stick. That may sound obvious, but it is the fulcrum, the point of rotation, around which the stick pivots. If we imagine a see-saw on a playground, the main plank of the see-saw sits on top of a point, over which it rocks from one side to the other, depending on where the weight is applied. If the plank is even and no weight is applied to either end, the see-saw would balance over the central fulcrum.

Likewise, a bicycle wheel is held in the middle by the bike's frame, and the wheel rotates around this central axis. Where the drum stick is concerned, the stick, which must rock up and down like a see saw, is held between the thumb and fingers in such as way that allows it to pivot freely.

The fulcrum should remain static, meaning the stick should not move within the fulcrum. We can imagine what would happen to a cyclist if their bike's wheel moved around on the frame.

There is disagreement in the community as to where the fulcrum should be: between the thumb and index finger, or between the thumb and middle finger. Many different opinions exist, and many people claim to be correct at the expense of everybody else. The truth is, it doesn't really matter where the fulcrum is. What matters is that there is a fulcrum, and its role is properly understood. Many of the best drummers in the world use an index finger fulcrum, and many of the best players of the world use a middle finger fulcrum. This shows that either are perfectly fine, and the fundamental role is far more important.

Technique is a topic that it at once contentious and fascinating. Practitioners of all levels have their opinions, preferences, and challenges surrounding technique and its application to playing an instrument. It is fascinating because technique is the direct tool with which we interact with our instrument, and there are many interesting ways to approach this. It is contentious because people seem to constantly disagree on various elements of it.

The following is an excerpt from The Snare Drum Virtuoso:

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The acquisition of good technique is a process fraught with challenges. Misinformation, conflicting statements from dogmatic sources, self-doubt, and unfavourable comparisons with other players can all have a detrimental and demoralising effect on a student seeking to better their own playing.

The student is encouraged to learn as much as they can from all sources with an air of curiosity and exploration, culminating in the betterment of their own understanding. Where two dogmatic sources present conflicting information on how something should be done, the student should learn and explore both approaches to better equip themselves to understand their own.

Technique is ultimately a personal thing. Our hands and bodies are all different; the way we move and the way we think about movement are unique to everyone, and cannot be simplified to a diagram or simple instruction. Increasing one’s own technique is more about understanding than anything else, though we cannot escape the need for countless hours in front of an observant teacher, and a mirror, to develop the physical motions required.

By necessity of individual differences, our technique – the way we hold the stick, the way we move the stick, and the way we perform each stroke – is unique to us, a fact which should be embraced rather than feared. Throughout the course of study and long hours in the practice room, the student will learn what is required of their hands to perform the figures that they are trying to perform, and with this will come an understanding of the fundamental principles that comprise a high level of ability.

We can broadly sum up these fundamental principles as follows. Firstly, there exists, and must exist, a synergy between the fulcrum, fingers, wrists, and arms. The playing of a drum with a stick is an act which utilises all of these elements in exactly this order. The fulcrum is the direct point of contact with the stick, and is the point around which the stick pivots. In the case of a drum stick, the stick itself pivots vertically around a fulcrum which is held on either side. This can be imagined like a bicycle wheel; the wheel itself is held in its centre on either side by the bike’s frame, and the wheel rotates around this central point. This is in contrast to a fulcrum as it exists within the French and Traditional grips, that exists beneath the point of balance, like a see-saw on a playground. Again, the student is encouraged to explore both approaches to further their own understanding.

With the fulcrum in place, the fingers control the stick itself around the fulcrum; the wrist creates momentum and rotation with which the fingers engage on a smaller and more intricate level. It is the engagement of the fingers that is responsible for the finer movements and more exact control of the stick.

The forearm emphasises and expands upon these motions. While it can be used to inject more force, it cannot be relied upon for finer levels of control. Generally speaking, the forearms will be employed more vigorously when bursts of power (and volume) are required.

The arms and shoulders themselves essentially place everything in position. In the case of a drum set, the arms move the whole system to the required drum, before the aforementioned processes perform the desired strokes.

In simple terms, the fulcrum, fingers, wrist, and arms must all work together to produce the stroke, and the ratio of these elements will adjust and change based on the context. Fast, low, and quiet figures will demand more from the fingers, while loud, strong, and generally slower figures will require larger muscle groups.

A high level of technique is invariably characterised as being relaxed, and possessing an air of effortlessness. This is a by-product of control. To play the snare drum at the highest level, with all the rigours relating to rhythmic accuracy, speed, dynamic control, and all other aspects of expressive performance, any techniques and movements employed must be relaxed, and this relaxation is made possible by the control one possesses in manipulating the sticks.

There are many varied opinions about the extent to which the fingers play the strokes. At least insofar as the snare drum as a solo instrument is concerned, which itself requires a level of virtuosity and skill focused on that sole aim, the fastest, most intricate, most difficult, and most complex figures require the fingers to engage with and control the strokes. This engagement itself requires a firm understanding of the fulcrum, and how this affects the stick within the hand. This is not to say that the wrists and arms play no part – far from it in fact – but ultimately, it is the fingers and their engagement with the stick around the fulcrum that produce the highest degree of control.

The above paragraphs broadly sum up my own thoughts on the topic. The following video, though generally focusing on double stroke rolls, also presents a concise discussion on the topic of technique and how it applies to the snare drum:

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