Based on my experience as an urban percussionist, I want to share a little about how the lessons of street drumming can strengthen and sharpen the endurance, finesse, and energy of any percussionist.
I spent a few years drumming on the streets of Washington, DC, which taught me a great deal about performance, percussion, and making money as a musician. Honestly, there was something about playing for hours at a time with power and intensity that gave me chops, which enhanced my skill as a drum set player, rudimental drummer, and percussionist. Here are just a few takeaways from my observations, research, and time playing grooves on city streets.
There is no doubt that street drummers have some serious chops. To make money as a street drummer, I had to play vigorously for hours at a time. While playing for a long time is normal for many drummers, speed and volume required to entertain and fill the air with impressive beats required a good deal of stamina. I found that busier dance grooves drew an audience, as people want to be impressed by what they hear and see.
Playing for long periods of time is a great way to improve your drumming endurance. I found that this is very similar to long distance running. As a distance runner, I know my top speed, but I am able to push myself to maintain a solid and strong pace. As a drummer, I know that if I play a single stroke roll there is a limit on how fast I can play it for a sustained period of time. But as I do it more and more, my chops increase and I can play faster and stronger for a longer term.
Below is a video of Gordo that demonstrates the concepts in this post.
To make grooves with minimal percussive gear requires a great deal of finesse. Perhaps, one of the best examples of drummers that play with nuance and flair are jazz drummers. Iconic jazz drummers like Art Blakey, Buddy Rich, and Elvin Jones used very few drums and only a handful of cymbals. Likewise, street drummers commonly use a bucket and cymbal on the ground to create complex and danceable grooves.
As a street drummer, I have to make my grooves melodic without any other musicians. Thinking about drumming in this way undoubtedly improves consciousness of the collective rhythms. Instead of simply thinking about the primary groove generated by the bass and snare, a nuanced approach makes it vital to think about drumming as songlike and dynamic.
When performing on the streets, I realized that any time I was drumming I was performing. In fact, even as I sat down to start a set, I had to be in performance mode because there was always someone, a potential tipper, watching. More importantly, street drumming made me realize that when I played I had to be animated.
This can be applied to the groove and aesthetic of any performance. Every note of the rhythmic pattern should have zeal and be played with passion. Likewise, a drummer’s body movements and demeanor should be charged with avidity. This makes the music and performance come to life; plus, it keeps the audience more engaged.
If you want to improve your playing as a drum kit player, rudimental drummer, or percussionist, I suggest taking a look at the approaches used my skilled street drummers, as you will be surprised at what you will find.
John Owens, Ph.D. (Author, Drummer, Educator) is the author of Street Drumming: The People, History, & Grooves, which will be available February 25, 2022. You can find John’s book at www.johnowensdrums.com