A Conductor’s Guide to Percussion: Snare Drum

2011Symposium_1_2Today I will cover changing the snares and heads on a concert snare drum, some playing techniques. Many of the principles I covered yesterday for timpani will apply equally to snare drum. Once again, you must begin with an instrument that is in good condition. In schools, snare drum heads tend to be abused, so chances are yours needs to be replaced. We’ll start with the batter head, That’s the head that your drummer strikes with drum sticks, the head that is on the top of the drum. Remove the tension lugs with a drum key. Loosen them around the drum, then go around a second time and remove them. Set the lugs aside, and lift off the ring, and then the drumhead. Clean the inside of the shell, removing all dust and debris. Also clean around the rim using steel wool if necessary to restore the rim to a smooth finish. Before closing the drum, adjust any inside parts as needed, including muffling devices. Place the new head over the rim, replace the ring, and then install the lugs. Tighten the first lug just finger tight, then install the lug across the drum, also finger tight. Next install the lug next to the one you just put in, then the one across, then next, then across, until all lugs are in, finger tight. At this point, put the palm of your hand on the center of the drumhead and push down for a second or two. You may here some popping; that is just the head seating itself on the rim. Next, give each lug one turn, in the same order; across, next, across, next, and so on. Repeat until head is nearly fully tightened. Now take a drumstick and tap the drumhead next to each lug. Select the position with the best sound, and then tighten the lug across from it until the two have the same sound. Proceed to the next lug, matching tones, then to the lug across, and so forth. Continue doing this until the drumhead sounds the same next to each lug. At this point the head will be evenly stretched.

To replace the snare, use a drum key and/or a screwdriver to release both ends of the metal snare unit. Pull the strings or straps through to remove the snares. Once the snares are off, loosen the lugs a turn at a time, using the familiar across, next pattern described above. Remove all lugs, the ring and the head as before. Clean and smooth the rim with steel wool, then place the new snare head on the rim. The snare head is thinner than the batter head, and must be handled with more care. Place the ring over the drumhead, lining it up with the tension casing. Secure the lugs over the rim using the across-next pattern, getting each lug finger tight. Press into the center of the head with the palm of your hand to seat the head, and then turn each lug one turn, using the across-next pattern. Do not hit the snare head with a drumstick. Instead, tap it with your fingertip to equalize the sound next to each lug. Tighten firmly.

To reinstall the snares, use strings if you had straps. They are much easier to work with. Place the snare in the center ofsnare drum the head, and thread the strings through. Start with the fixed end. Tighten that end with a drum key or screwdriver. On the other end, put the snare lever in the “off” position, and unscrew the tension adjuster, and then attach the strings. If you cannot keep the snare centered, loosen the fixed end and create more or less slack. Snares should not be overly tightened. Loosen the adjuster so that the snares are just off the snare head, then, while tapping the batter head, slowly tighten the snares until the drum sounds right.

For concert performance or marching carriers that hold the drum flat, I recommend using matched grip on the sticks. This grip is easier to use on a flat surface, and is easily transferrable to mallet instruments, so students only need to learn one grip. The only practical use for traditional grip is if your students are using the old sling-style marching drum carriers. The lower left side of the drum necessitates turning the left hand over and rotating the wrist while holding the stick between the thumb and forefinger. While concert drums can be tilted, what’s the point? Concert snare drums should be adjusted to a height that allows the player’s forearms to incline downward by about 25 degrees. This promotes maximum control and minimum stress.

The stroke itself is done with little or no arm movement. The sticks are raised and lowered entirely with the wrist. The grip itself has the stick held with the index and middle fingers, and the thumb. The ring and pinky fingers stay off the stick, curled over it as a limiting bumper to restrict excessive movement of the stick. This also creates a fulcrum that allows the stick to bounce of the drumhead. The drum is struck with an abrupt, flicking-like motion. In fact, if the tip of the stick were dipped in water and then the student flicked the water onto another student, which would be the exact motion of the drum stroke. Because of the grip, the stick is able to bounce off the drum on contact. The stick is then brought the rest of the way up by raising the hand at the wrist.

For rolls, the speed of the multiple bounce is controlled by pressure placed on the top of the stick by the index finger. Up to a point, more pressure produces a faster bounce; less pressure produces a slower bounce. For single strokes, the stick is removed form the drum before a bounce can occur. As dynamics change, the location of strokes on the drumhead also changes. The softest dynamics are played about one inch from the rim, and the loudest dynamics are played at the center of the drum. Intermediate dynamics are played in the corresponding area in between. For crescendos, the player begins the roll at the edge and moves toward the center while increasing the loudness of the roll. For decrescendos, the player begins at or near the center, and moves toward the edge while decreasing the loudness of the roll. In doing this, the dynamic changes are enhanced by a change in timbre.

Concert rim-shots do not technically involve the rim. The tip of one stick is place in the center of the drum, with the butt end held up. This stick is struck in the middle by the other stick. Jazz style rim shots are done by laying the stick on the drum, with the tip on the head against the inside of the rim and the butt end on top of the rim. With the tip remaining down on the head, the other end of the stick is raised and then used to strike the rim.

Finally, in spite of internal muffling devices, I find snare drums often sound too metallic or even rattling. Often the best solution is to place a wallet or beanbag on the batter head. This more times than not produces a much better tone.

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