This is a very important area of education which I feel is extremely under-taught. This article is a very brief outline of the information which I think every drummer (and musician) should know about.
Are you Drum Fit and Fit To Drum?
by Rich Millin, Proffesional Drummer and Drum Educator.
There was a scientific study recently [see here] which claimed that professional drummers burn more calories than professional football players over the course of 90 minutes playing time. I can quite believe it. As a professional drummer for over 12 years I can assure you that it is hard work. Hard but fun.
I can also tell you that playing drums can be potentially hazardous to your physical well-being. Not that drumming is the most risky profession out there, but if you aren't properly aware of how your body works when performing such physical activity, then there can potentially be dangers...
Muscles vs Stamina
Being physically fit to perform strenuous regular exercise doesn't necessarily mean that you have to be super strong and bulging with muscles. In fact, to play the drums with control, it's all about the small and detailed movements, so having huge muscles could actually be a hindrance. Also, the muscles you use when playing drums are many and varied as it is such an all-round physical exercise. Having massive biceps just isn't enough. Understanding every part of your body and how it moves is the only way to ensure a good technique and help to prevent physical injury.
So, where to begin? Well, good all-round exercise and keeping fit in general is obviously a good idea for all human beings, regardless of their job. Depending upon your personal physical make-up and limitations (seek advice from an expert if you are new to physical exercise – exercise without advice from experts (phys-ed instructors and/or your GP) is dangerous), you should be aiming for a mix of cardiovascular and strength work.
Playing drums for extended periods can be exhausting, so having good stamina and working on cardiovascular exercise is very important. Running, cycling or swimming are very good for this. Also playing other sports like football or racket sports.
Building and maintaining strong muscles is also an important part of any exercise routine when thinking about your job as a drummer. Having strong muscles will help you perform to the best of your potential. It also helps to support each movement and so prevent over-working, over-reaching and over-extension, all of which can cause physical pain and possibly serious injury.
The other very important part of your exercise should be “staying limber”. Or stretching properly. Stretching properly and regularly will ensure you stay supple and don't over-reach or overwork your muscles and also help with muscle stamina, meaning you can perform for longer without getting so physically tired. It will also help combat things like muscle cramps.
I have been a drummer for nearly 30 years and professional (both playing and teaching) for more than 12 years. In that time I have encountered many physical problems myself, as well as being asked for advice from many of my students about problems they have had. Some of the most common complaints are:
- Bad back
- Bad neck
- Muscle cramps
- Muscle aches
- RSI (usually in the hands, wrists or elbows. This can be in the form of joint ache, or, in some more severe cases, joint inflammation.)
- Blisters (usually on the fingers or hands due to poor stick technique – actually from gripping the sticks to tightly and over-working the hand muscles. You will probably also suffer hand muscle cramps from holding the sticks to tightly)
With the exception of Blisters (which is all about stick technique – ask your drum teacher how to overcome this particular problem), all the other physical complaints are all due to lack of knowledge about the drummers own body. For instance: Bad posture. This is such a common problem that I would estimate 100% of all drummers at some point have played drums with poor posture. Usually, drummers will be sat on their drum stool and arch their back forward in a terrible position leading to all sorts of problems with their back or neck or both! Simply sitting up straighter will help with this, although understanding how to maintain good posture and make it feel natural is where the hard work comes in. I will explain some exercises later to help with this particular (and most common) drummer complaint.
Other problems such as muscles cramps, as I said before, can be helped by good stretching.
Understanding Your Body
Playing drums is an extremely physically demanding exercise. Probably every muscle in your body is used and it is a very good idea to get used to playing “relaxed” This doesn't mean you stop using any muscles, but it does mean that you should not be playing “tense”. For example, you could play a super fast set of notes by making your muscles “spasm” by tensing so much your muscles start to shake at high speed. Whilst this might initially sound impressive, it is extremely bad for many reasons; you could only achieve this for a short burst of time. You are effectively over-working your muscles by doing this. You have absolutely no control over how or what you are playing. You are probably going to do some physical damage to yourself. This just isn't “playing” the drums.
So, how do some drummers play so fast and make it look so effortless? Simple: They are relaxed. They are also well practiced, not only at drums, but also at the physical demands required to play “properly”.
As an example, to play the snare drum with your right stick 600 times per minute, evenly, takes a lot of practice, a lot of skill and dedication and also training. What I mean by training is using the right muscles in the right way and practicing the right techniqe so much that it becomes second nature. Relaxed. Easy.
This takes time.
But to understand your body properly you need to understand exactly what muscles are being used to play 600 beats per minute with your right hand and how to control the stick properly to achieve a nice even set of notes.
There is far too much information to go into in such a short essay as this, but, from the example above you can see that there is a huge amount of work to be done to achieve physical drumming perfection!
Breaking it Down
To break things down for the purposes of this blog:
First things first:
- Speak to your drum teacher about this stuff
- Seek professional advice from a physical instructor. These guys should be able to help you achieve all your goals and combat any physical problems to perform your job properly.
- Seek good medical advice before you exercise.
- Mix it up! Cardiovascular, muscular and stretching!
- Work all areas – don't focus on just one thing.
- Make sure to work your supporting muscles as well as the ones you use. For instance, if you are trying to perform a delicate movement with your tricep, then your bicep must also be used to support the movement.
- As point 3 above, you must remember that each movement your perform requires the opposite movement to re-set your body to it's starting point; i.e. when you hit the snare drum, you need to move your arm, hand and stick back to the starting point in order to hit it exactly the same again.
Other benefits of regular exercise include feeling better about yourself, more confident and looking better!
In summary, being generally fitter and healthier by exercising, even just a little more, means that you will be able to perform better, regardless of your job or situation!