Find Ways To Relax In Your Drum Lesson

shutterstock_2285307727Sometimes when students have a difficult musical passage ahead, they tense up. The drums teacher’s instinct is to say “relax!” I know I’ve been guilty of it myself. Getting my students to relax the correct muscles can be incredible frustrating and challenging, because when they aren’t used to focusing on specific muscles, it can seem like those muscles don’t exist. It’s important to focus on them nonetheless, because tension can obstruct the whole process of physical success.

Where’s the tension?

When a drum stroke is executed, a million other little actions happen. The brain reads the information received from the eye which then communicates that a note needs to be played; the brain then makes the decision to perform a stroke, and finally, the muscle fibers from the back to the shoulder to the arms to the fingers propel the drum stick towards the drum. In a private drum lesson, it’s always a fine balance, getting the right muscles to work while making sure the others stay out of the way. I find it helpful to demonstrate both ways (relaxed playing and tense playing) and ask the student to look for the difference between the two. This can help the student locate the tension and the process alone will naturally encourage them to remember the importance of relaxation and hopefully think of it the next time they play!

Muscle Reaction

Tension can be addressed in multiple ways. The first way is to approach tension from a negative view: your back is too tense, relax it; your shoulder is hiked up, let it down; the veins in your hand are popping up, relax! Teachers are always going to use this method to some degree because there are times when we just need to eliminate specific aspects of a student’s technique. It’s easy to look at the student, see the tension, and simply tell them to stop; unfortunately, this approach is typically only a band aid on the greater problem. From what I’ve seen, and learned from my own improvement, is tension appears when the body can’t perform how the brain wants it to.

Change the Disconnect

Music is not black and white, and it certainly can’t all be explained on paper, and for this reason, when a student is met with a problem, their first instinct is often the opposite of what is required. In one example, a percussion student is in advanced drum lessons, and is trying to perform a complex passage. In an effort to create the rhythms, the student flexes her forearms, and squeezes the drums sticks, which only slows her down. In this case, in an effort to “try harder,” and bear down on the rhythm physically, the student has hurt her ability to perform, because the physical requirement to play this passage is the opposite of what her instincts were.

Replace Tension With Relaxation

To fix this issue of a tense reaction, we have to stop criticizing, and instead provide a solution that replaces the unconscious response of tension. By giving the student something active to work on, they have something both to do and to think about the next time they arrive at that difficult spot.  In a drum lesson, it’s good to take those super easy exercises-maybe the ones from last year, or two years ago-and practice relaxing. When the student actively focuses on being absolutely relaxed, that process becomes the habit. When they focus on being relaxed on something they think is easy, they don’t have the fear of failure which can derail progress.
Of course, just telling a student to actively relax is a little silly; maybe a few details on just how to relax would be helpful as well, but the simple principal is there: instead of attacking the bad physical response, replace it with something good. Once they get the hang of it, it will give them a whole new outlook on playing, because nobody likes the feeling tension pulsing through
their body, and who doesn’t like to relax?
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