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June 1962 The Thinking Drummer, By Louie Bellson

The modern percussionist is called upon to play many instruments and many styles of music. We are concerned here with helping the established concert percussionist make the transition from an already successful band or orchestra performance technique to an adequate dance band technique. Because of the nature of dance band drumming no school percussionist should be allowed to begin study on the dance band drum set until he has proved to be a successful rudimental drummer.

Must Understand Position
The job of handling a full set of drums can be a frustrating experience at first, and the transition is often a serious problem for the band as well as for the drummer. The drummer is in the driver’s seat, so to speak, and he must propel the beat (rhythm) so the rest of the organization can function properly. Through the drummer the band is guided rhythmically. He is part of the backbone of the group. The first, and most important requirement is that the dance band drummer have such a well-developed sense of rhythm that he can keep a rigidly steady tempo without ever having to think about it.
   The basic equipment for the dance band drummer is a small bass drum with a foot pedal, a snare drum, 14 inch hi-hat cymbals, 16, 18, and 20 inch suspended cymbals (commonly called ride cymbals), a small and large tom-tom, sticks, brushes, timpani sticks, and additional accessories as required. All equipment must be good quality and in good working order. Take good care of your drums arid make sure they are tuned properly for the correct sound. The drumheads are of utmost importance and should be matched for best results. The snare drum must be tuned to a very crisp sound, the tom-toms should be tuned to medium tension, and the bass drum should be kept slightly loose for a good thud sound. The batter heads on all drums should be slightly less tight than the other side.
   The bass drum should be muffled by placing a strip of felt inside the batter head. The felt should be three inches wide and run from rim to rim slightly off center. There should be a strip of felt one and one half inches wide inside the
 front of the drum. All cymbals should be medium heavy. Extra sticks, brushes, etc., should be kept within reach at all times.


   After we understand the position of the drummer in the band the next step is to learn a basic beat. Here is where our title The Thinking Drummer comes in. Having to use both hands and both feet simultaneously requires concentration, all the while keeping a rigidly steady tempo. We must concentrate to the extent that we are able to let each hand and each foot work independently of the others.
   In all the examples to follow the student must remember that traditionally the time signature for jazz is alla breve but that it is always played four beats to a measure. 
   The right foot is used to play the bass drum on every beat, except for special accents. The left foot is used to open and close the hi-hat cymbal. The following example shows the basic beat for the bass drum and the hi-hat cymbal. This must be practiced over and over in all tempos until it is mastered and the student can keep a steady beat.

   The basic hi-hat beat is also used in all tempos. The pattern may be played on a suspended cymbal as well as the hi-hat. It is important that the cymbal be struck with the bead of the stick to produce a good sound. The student must remember that the dotted-eighth and sixteenth rhythm seen so often in jazz is played as a triplet figure. The hi-hat beat is written:

Music Example 2

   After the student has mastered the two patterns above he is ready to combine them, now using the right hand and both feet:

Music Example 3

   It is very important at this point to work for independence of the hands and feet, for to concentrate on one rhythm to the exclusion of the others will result in unevenness and lack of coordination. The drummer must both hear and feel the sound he wishes to produce. This rhythm will take much practice in all tempos before it is mastered, especially since the hi-hat is being played with the right hand while being opened and closed with the left foot.

Left Hand Added
   After the above rhythm is mastered the student is ready to add the left hand and to practice variations in the rhythm. The left hand in the following examples is used to play on the snare drum.

Music Example 4

The Brushes
   In many arrangements or sections of arrangements the drummer will use the brushes rather than the sticks on the snare drum. The right hand usually plays the basic beat of Example 1 while the left hand moves in a continuous clockwise motion, never lifting the brush from the head of the drum. The left hand moves in such a manner that the brush passes the 12 o’clock position in the clockwise motion on the second and fourth beats. The following is an example of the brushes used in a fast or medium tempo, with the left hand playing the snare drum and the right hand playing the hi-hat cymbal:

Music Example 5

   In a slow number the left brush would make a complete circle every beat instead of every two beats. For the best clear swish with the brush use the tip; for accents use the lower handle against the rim of the snare drum.

Reading the Drum Part
   The dance band drummer is essentially an ad lib player. The drum part in any arrangement is nothing more than a sketchy guide. Here is where the drummer must use his imagination and his concentration. For example, the part may be written:

Music Example 6

   But this would be very dull indeed, so the drummer would probably play something like the following with added fills at the ends of the phrases:

Music Example 7

   Important accents are written into the part and must be played as written. The good drummer listens carefully to every new arrangement and decides how he will play each section, which instruments he will use, and how he will accent the melody and rhythm of the band. He must be imaginative enough to add interest to the skeleton part and to enhance the parts played by the band. He must guide the band rhythmically and consider his solo work as secondary in importance. He must realize that the simplest beats can be the most effective. He will listen carefully to recorded and live performances to learn. He will practice intelligently with the band and alone. He will concentrate when playing. He will be a thinking drummer.

   Louis Bellson has played with dance bands led by Ted FioRito, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, and Duke Ellington. During World War II he played in a service band. He was a member of the Norman Granz Jazz at the Philharmonic group, and has written many works in both the jazz and serious idioms. Since 1954 he has led both a combo and a large band of his own.