In the world of drumming we normally associate the word “independence” with the ability to play multiple rhythms between the limbs, overlapped polyrhythms, and left hand/foot jazz ride cymbal/hi-hat. One aspect of independence that may get overlooked is dynamic independence, or the ability to alter how loud or soft each limb can play with one another.

Dynamics give us the ability to add further expression to our playing. What can commonly happen with less-experienced players is too much dynamic connectivity within the limbs. This exercise will help reveal if there are any obvious issues to work on. Common challenges include speeding up when getting louder, slowing down when getting softer, and the inability to bring the dynamic level up on one limb but not the others. I like to think of my limbs as a four-channel mixing board, with the ability to raise and lower my dynamics within each limb (within reason of course—we are still one human person).

Musical dynamic markings:

  • (ppp) Pianissimo, very soft
  • (pp) Mezzo-piano, medium soft
  • (p) Piano, soft
  • (f) Forte, loud
  • (ff) Mezzo-forte, medium loud
  • (fff) Fortissimo, very loud

There are no universal settings for these dynamics. In other words, piano in a jazz setting may very extremely soft whereas piano in heavy metal may not be very soft at all. Context is the key when applying dynamics to a piece of music. That said, in this lesson we are taking a very general approach to these markings.

The following exercises will help you balance and manipulate your limbs on a dynamic level. Start by playing unison eighth-notes between the ride, snare, and bass drum with the hi-hat playing moderate quarter notes with the foot at a slow tempo (Ex. 1).

Ex. 1

Once you are comfortable with this and have locked in where your piano and forte dynamic levels are, maintain a low volume between two voices while raising and lowering the level of one voice (Exs. 2–4). Remember to stay relaxed when playing these exercises and do not get frustrated if it is not “perfect.”

Ex. 2 (ride focus)

Ex. 3 (bass drum focus)

Ex. 4 (snare focus)

The next exercise eliminates the gradual increase and decrease in dynamics but rather has drastic changes in dynamics from bar to bar with one voice (Ex. 5).

Ex. 5

Next, try to alter the dynamics of two unison voices (Ex. 6).

Ex. 6

You will likely get a bunch of your own ideas on how to apply these to your needs after going through these exercises. Experiment with toms, crashes, expanding the dynamic range, and using different tempos (slower!)—it is really endless in regards to the possibilities. Have fun with your dynamic independence endeavors.

Stewart Jean is Program Chair for Drums at Musicians Institute in Hollywood, CA.

Lesson: Eighths-To-Sextuplets Rhythmic Pyramid (Limb Calibration 3)

Lesson: Four-Note Grouping Manipulation (Limb Calibration 2)

Lesson: 8th to 16ths Tune Up (Limb Calibration 1)