From DRUM! Magazine’s February 2018 Issue | By John Lamb

We all do what we think will work, and act according to our beliefs. More accurate beliefs spawn more effective results, which is why it’s important for developing drummers to steer clear of inaccurate information. To help you avoid unnecessary injuries we debunked the ten most common myths about how drummers move and play, and laid out the actual ways our bodies work while playing drums. If you’re looking for answers, this is place to start — and remember, it’s never too late to improve your technique.

Myth #1: No Pain, No Gain

How many times have you heard this? The truth is that pain functions as our warning of damage. True, pain perception can be wonky sometimes. For the most part, though, it’s a reliable advisor, informing us when something is wrong.

Grain Of Truth

There is such a thing as “good” pain, which is the exception that proves the rule. Any time you move, a few of your muscle fibers break. If you work out a lot, then a lot of them break. We feel this damage as pain and soreness. Fortunately, the body responds to it by rebuilding and becoming stronger. This isn’t necessarily true for other types of damage.

“No pain no gain” also serves as a metaphor for what you need to do to be the best. If you want to be better than anyone else, then you need to do things others are unwilling to do. Of course, this saying isn’t literal; you don’t have to hurt yourself to be your best. In fact, it mostly speaks to the emotional sacrifice of all the things you don’t get to do while practicing — but in drumming this doesn’t make very much sense.

Okay, you might miss out on a few dates or some quality World Of Warcraft time, but drumming itself is fun. If you don’t agree, then you’re in the wrong business, and that “pain” is telling you something you should pay attention to.

Why It’s A Problem

Ignoring pain is almost always a bad idea. Disregarding the signs of damage can lead to immediate injury as you push past your limits, or over time, as you ignore the warning signals of unhealthy technique. The truth is that gain is gain. There are much better methods to measure your progress. than how much pain you feel.

FIG 1. The distance the stick travels has a greater effect on how fast you play than the velocity of the stick.

Myth #2: Faster = Faster

The speed at which a drummer moves doesn’t necessarily correlate to the number of notes played. In fact, most of the time, you play fewer strokes per minute when you

try to move faster. Raw speed plays a role, of course, but the distance a stick has to move is actually more important in determining how many strokes per minute it can play (Fig. 1). Stick heights of 2″ are five times shorter than stick heights of 10″, so you’d have to move five times faster to play at the same rate. When the speed of the stick increases, the stroke height typically does, too.

Another example is a baseball pitch. A professional baseball pitch is one of the fastest movements a human can make. A pitcher can throw a ball very fast, but can’t throw very many balls per minute.

Grain Of Truth

“Faster” can be defined more than one way, and the words “quickness” and “frequency” are often tangled in this myth. Quickness is the raw speed of a movement. You can measure it by how far something moves in a finite period of time (i.e., miles per hour). Frequency is how often something happens, and is measured in occurrences per time (i.e., beats per minute). Moving more quickly can yield a higher frequency, but doesn’t always work that way because the words have different meanings.

Why It’s A Problem

Mixing up these meanings can cause you to work much harder than you need to. Beginners are especially prone to developing bad technique because they feel like they have to push harder in order to go faster. However, in order to develop excellent technique, you need to back off and play as slowly as possible — not to reduce the frequency, but to reduce the physical speed at which you play. In other words, if you play at 100 bpm, learn to physically move as slowly as possible. By turning down the power you’ll discover how to play more efficiently, and ultimately faster.

FIG 2. A cutaway view of a muscle.

Myth #3: Small Muscles Are Quicker Than Big Muscles

Big muscles are just larger versions of small muscles. They’re made out of the same materials and work in the same way. If anything, large muscles are faster because they have more muscle power (Fig. 2), but pound for pound they’re identical.

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There are a few reasons why this myth endures. The first is the natural assumption that big means slow. This association seems to be hardwired in us, and many times it’s true — except just not this time!

FIG 3. Larger muscles provide more speed and power than smaller muscles.

Some muscles really are slower than others, but it’s their composition that matters, not their size. The difference has to do with “fast twitch” vs “slow twitch” muscle fibers. Each muscle has its own ration of fast and slow fibers (Fig. 3). Dark meat, in general, has a high proportion of slow twitch, while light meat has more fast-twitch. There’s also a lot of variation from person to person.

Smaller muscles power smaller joints, and those joints have smaller movement ranges. For example, the hand can’t move as far as the shoulder, so its smaller range lets it complete its movement in less time. This is analogous to Myth #2: The reduced movement arc means that the movement is easier to control, which is a practice issue rather than a physical one.

The main reason people fall for this myth is that smaller muscles in the hands and face have a lot more brain power behind them. The hands take up the lion’s share of brain power for both moving and sensing. The extra brain power translates into extra dexterity and awareness. Because of this, the brain gives the hand more credit than it deserves.

Why It’s A Problem

If you think small muscles are your source of power and speed, you’ll overly rely on them to power your movements. This will wear out your smaller muscles and prevent you from reaching your full technical potential. Instead, it’s possible to develop techniques in which you use large muscles to help power small, integrated, fluid movements. That’s the winning combination for technique.

Myth #4: Good Technique Involves Fewer Muscles

The body is designed to work as an integrated whole. In a natural movement, the energy created by the larger muscles flows through the bones, adding to the power of smaller muscles.

Why wouldn’t you want your biggest, most powerful motors to help out? When everything contributes just a little, you can get a lot of output that doesn’t overtax any single component. Furthermore, because of the whip-like way energy flows through the body, a fully integrated effort provides speed boosts that are unavailable without it.

Hop on YouTube and watch a slow-motion pitch of a professional baseball player. In good-quality clips, you can really see how each part of the body contributes to the overall movement, step-by-step, starting from the ground. The same is true in drumming: Every technique can and should have this inclusive quality of movement.

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It’s more efficient to use fewer muscles. I did the math once: The average drummer will hit the hi-hats more than 30,000 times in a four-hour gig. Learning to play more efficiently will enable you to make it through long shows. The amount of energy you have at your disposal remains relatively fixed, so increasing efficiency also increases your top speed. Best of all, the most efficient movements are also the healthiest. However, none of that is a compelling argument for ignoring both your large and small muscles while drumming.

Why It’s A Problem

Good technique requires minimal effort both mentally and physically. Pouring too much energy into any situation only mucks things up. However, if you use fewer muscles, those muscles have to work harder and can become overloaded. The benefit of integrated movement is that you draw from the whole body for support. Even the smallest movements use more muscles, not fewer.

Myth #5: It’s All In The Wrist

This myth is wrapped in several of the others, so if you believe them you probably believe this one, too. It’s important to understand how the joints work and how force flows through the skeleton. The wrist gets credit for a lot of the work done by other structures, especially elbow rotation, but is in fact a relatively weak and limited structure that only really shines as a conduit through which power flows. For more detailed information, see “Anatomy Of Drumming: It’s Not All In The Wrist” from the November 2016 issue of Drum.

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Dexterity is important, and the wrist adds a lot of finesse. While the wrists and fingers perform only the finishing touches on the movement, their contributions are really important. Without finesse, the stroke is unguided and useless.

Why It’s A Problem

The wrist is a delicate structure. All the energy flowing through the arm passes through it. Trying to make it do all the work or forcing it into the wrong position can lead to injury over time.

It’s All In The Wrist

FIG 4. All of these muscles are shoulder muscles. Each connects the spine, hips, and/or head to the collarbone, shoulder blade, and/or upper arm.

Myth #6: The Shoulder Is A Joint

We most commonly refer to shoulders as the area at the top corners of our torso. We might also think there’s only one joint for each shoulder, the glenohumeral joint. In fact, the shoulder involves the most complicated movement mechanics.

Functionally, it includes three separate bones, three or four joints, and muscles that stretch from hip to head (Fig. 4). The movement of each part is inextricably linked to the others.

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Humans are visual creatures that identify objects based on corners and lines. The shoulder is a corner of our body and as such is a useful term. Try playing the hokey pokey or getting a shirt fitted without it. Like the term “waist,” “shoulder” talks more about tailoring than it does about moving. In other words, we define the shoulder according to how it looks, not how it’s used.

The Shoulder Is A Joint

FIG 5. The shoulder has a very large range of movement.

Why It’s A Problem

If you think of the shoulder as an area, you won’t know how to take advantage of all it has to offer (Fig. 5). Furthermore, improper use of the shoulder is a major contributor to many repetitive strain injuries. Look for more in-depth details about this in an upcoming article in Drum Magazine.

how to use fingers in drumming

FIG 6. There are no palm bones. Instead, the palm is webbing around the wrist and first row of finger bones.

Myth #7: The Hand Goes Wrist-Palm-Fingers

Many people assume the fingers start at the large row of knuckles just on the other side of the palm. The reality is that the palm is just webbing around the fingers. The wrist bones form the base of the palm, and the fingers grow directly out of the wrist (Fig. 6).

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From the looks of it, the palm appears to be its own structure. The first row of knuckles makes an easy-to-misunderstand border between the palm and fingers. Contributing to this misunderstanding is that the bones inside the webbing have less movement than the other finger joints. Doctors even call the first row of finger bones metacarpals, as if these bones were somehow an extension of the wrist rather than full members of the fingers.

Why It’s A Problem

Misunderstanding the structure and function of the hand will cause two problems. It will first misinform the way you choose to hold the stick. This is especially true of the thumb, which, like the other fingers, grows out of the wrist directly. However, unlike the other fingers, it has a lot of movement at that joint. If you think your thumb starts at the first knuckle, you won’t understand the wider range of movement it offers. This is one reason drummers argue over the proper size of the gap between the index finger and thumb when holding a stick. Those drummers who aren’t using their thumb fully will find their thumb ends up closer to the index finger, choking the stick.

Also, misunderstanding the structure of the hand can hinder the proper flow of energy through the hand and into the stick. As discussed above, if the energy doesn’t flow fluidly, it will get stuck and start causing damage.

drumming anatomy

 FIG 7. The function of the ankle is such that when the front of the foot rises, the heel drops.

Myth #8: The Ankle Moves Like The Wrist

The wrist is a complex network of eight bones and multiple joints that allow for a wide range of movement, but the ankle is a lot simpler, offering only flexion. Another difference is that the foot also has a heel at the back that works a bit like a kickstand, while the wrist doesn’t.

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The ankle and wrist are evolutionarily analogous. The wrist is to the hand what the ankle is to the foot. The movement available at the ankle is similar to one of the movements available at the wrist.

FIG 8. In heel-down technique, the tibialis anterior and other muscles are over-driven when the foot lifts.

Why It’s A Problem

A misunderstanding of how the foot works can lead to bad technique and physical problems for pedal operation and posture. The heel is of special note — when the front of the foot goes up, the action of the ankle causes the heel to go down, and vice versa (Fig. 7).

This detail is important for anybody who plays heel-down. When your heel is already resting on the heel plate, it can’t move any further downward, which causes the entire leg to lift instead. This overloads the muscles that lift the front of the foot, like the tibialis anterior (Fig. 8), which explains why some drummers get shin splints while playing heel-down.

Myth #9: Drummers Sit On Their Rear End

Here’s another myth that arose because of how it looks externally. Most people assume that you sit on your rear end or the other soft parts of the body. I even had a biology teacher once claim that fat serves as padding.

In reality, you’re supposed to sit on two bones called ischial tuberosities, or the sit bones. These bones are shaped like rocking chair rockers (Figs. 9 and 10) and deliver the weight into the seat. The shape of these bones allows the body to be supported and mobile in a wide range of positions.

Grain Of Truth

The sit bones are in the rear end, so the myth isn’t entirely inaccurate; it’s just incomplete. The weight of the body has to pass through some soft tissue to get to the seat.

Why It’s A Problem

Understanding how the weight of your body transfers into the seat will provide a lot of useful information about the state of your body’s movements. It informs you how to best push off of a seat to produce more effective movements. The contact between the body and the seat is one of the most important relationships to develop good posture. Ignore it at your peril.

Misunderstanding the mechanics of sitting will compromise both the effectiveness of your movement and the quality of your posture. If you believe soft tissue supports the body, you can wind up overloading the soft tissues, depriving them of blood for extended periods.

It’s worth noting that some people have sit bones that are too pointed. This can make it difficult to find a comfortable seat because the shape of the sit bones focuses body weight on an area that is too small and often requires extra comfy seat cushions.

You might also choose a throne to support the soft tissue instead of the internal bones. Many have a curved surface that is form-fitted to the shape of a generic backside. These chairs are difficult to impossible to sit well in and are especially common in schools. A good seat should provide a platform on which the sit bones rest.

There isn’t one chair or throne that fits everyone perfectly because of the variation in the shape of people’s hips. This is why the round seat is still so popular: it fits everyone pretty well. Saddle shapes are more comfortable, but not every saddle throne fits everyone.

how to properly sit when playing drums

 FIG 9. This image shows how the hips contact the seat.

Myth #10: Muscles Act Locally

Muscles don’t move the bone they’re closest to; they move the next bone down the line. For example, forearm muscles move the wrist and fingers rather than the forearms (Fig. 11). Biceps act on the forearm instead of the upper arm. The anterior tibialis moves the foot, not the leg.

how to sit behind the drums

FIG 10. The sit bones are shaped like rocking chair rockers to provide support at a wide range of angles.

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The brain naturally assumes that when something moves, it’s self-powered. This notion works well most of the time, but in this case, it doesn’t.

FIG 11. The muscles in the forearm bend the wrist and fingers.

Why It’s A Problem

This misunderstanding can cause you to misread what your body’s telling you and make inappropriate corrections. It can also misdirect decisions you make while learning the technique.