Learning how to use my body in drumming and in life

I had the opportunity of studying the Alexander Technique at ACAT (American Center for the Alexander Technique) for one year. The Alexander Technique, developed by F.M. Alexander, is an educational process that teaches a set of skills for managing one’s mind and body towards the direction of lightness, freedom and ease.

I first learned about the technique while studying at The Drummer’s Collective in 2001. One of The Collective’s administrators (Sandra Reid) was an Alexander Teacher. During my first lesson Sandra guided me through an Alexander lie down called “Constructive rest.” This self-help tool involves lying down on a firm surface with knees elevated, feet flat on the floor, and some books or magazines under the head.  This position promotes natural spinal alignment and creates an opportunity to release tension.  It’s also a good moment to observe and focus on your breath. Suffice it to say my body desperately needed this.

I continued AT lessons once every few months for around ten years, during which time I learned more about what F.M. Alexander termed “my use of self.” In 2016 I got into a car wreck. I was lucky to have escaped without any permanent body damage but I did have eight bone fractures, soft tissue damage, and severe whiplash. I decided to take my AT practice more seriously and enrolled in the health and well-being program at ACAT in New York City.

This intensive style of study gave me an opportunity to practice and study the Alexander Technique with master teachers for up to sixteen hours per week. When you are practicing good use in your body for that many hours per week, it tends to seep into your everyday use.

The program also gave me a new perspective towards my drum teaching. As private teachers we have a ton of influence over our students (especially young beginners.) We tend to teach technique focusing only on the individual parts of the body. For example, most drum instructors teach stick technique from the hands and arms without considering the rest of the body. This specific viewpoint could be limiting for many reasons.  The Alexander approach would take a look at the whole individual and then use the technique to re-educate movements that are needed to play the instrument (without added muscular tension) thus educating the student’s kinesthetic sense. For this reason, I think it’s important for students to have Alexander Technique lessons along with learning their instrument. This combination will go a long way towards avoiding any repetitive muscle injuries further down the road.

I’ve been able to incorporate the Alexander Technique into my music lessons by observing my students and giving verbal suggestions. For example, if a student is engaging muscles that aren’t needed to execute a particular drum pattern I would first make them aware of what they are doing and then ask him or her to see if they could play the pattern a different way that doesn’t require so much tension.  I also utilize “Body mapping,” which is a developed modality that applies anatomy to help understand and improve movement. Many of my drum students improve their use after I explain to them where their hip joints are. This new awareness could influence the way students use their bodies to drum which in time could inspire deeper exploration of their movements and kinesthetic sense.

If you’re interested in the Alexander Technique’s training methods I recommend checking out the ACAT  health and well-being program in NYC.  If you’re interested in learning more about the Alexander Technique I recommend checking out Body Learning by Michael Gelb. This book explains what the Alexander Technique is as well as detailing some of the technique’s basic principals.

Drumstick Grip Palm Placement – German Grip

When using german grip, some of my drum students have asked, “where should their drumsticks be placed in relation to their palms?”

There are a few different schools of thought here. One setup is that the stick should be placed directly down the middle of the palm (fig 1). Using this placement helps the stick feel like an extension of your hands and enables contact with the meaty part of the finger tips on the stick, which is beneficial.

However, one potential problem with this placement is that with most hands the pinky will lose contact with the stick. I have average size hands and fingers; as you can see (fig.1) my pinky is not able to easily connect with the stick.  Another drawback is that due to the alignment of the butt-end of the stick, you can’t easily use this placement for any Moeller-esque strokes.

center palm drum stick placement grip

Fig. 1

Lateral Palm Drum Stick Placement

Fig. 2

Fig.3

Fig.3

In fig. 2 the base of the stick is placed on the lateral aspect of the palm. This placement provides connectivity for all fingers regardless of the size of the hands. This placement creates a solid foundational drumming grip that can easily be utilized for Moeller-type playing.

This is also the placement that Sanford (Gus) Moeller talks about in his seminal Moeller Book. Moeller’s recommended right hand grip (Fig. 3) placed the fulcrum with the fourth finger. This enabled the snare drum players of his time to play downstrokes with more leverage while remaining relaxed. While we don’t see too many players utilizing it today, it could be considered as a training technique to build up strength in the back fingers.

Another popular setup is to place the drum stick on the wrist bone known as the pisiform (fig. 4). This placement is illustrated in “Practical Method of Developing Finger Control” by Roy Burns and Lewis Malin (fig. 5). This placement gives you the best of both worlds as it’s a good choice for Moeller strokes and it also gives you optimal finger control especially with the fourth and fifth  fingers.

Pisiform palm drum stick placement

Fig. 4

Alexander Technique Drumming (Video)

If you play music professionally there are times where you are expected to play on your instrument for hours. Whether you are playing at a wedding gig, a casual, on a cruise ship, a full day rehearsal, they all take a toll on your body. The physical demands of the drums makes these gigs even more challenging for drummers.

One of the tools I like to use to combat that wear and tear is the Alexander Technique (AT). The Alexander Technique is a movement technique that teaches people how to efficiently use their bodies by inhibiting unnecessary muscular tension. Sounds pretty easy right? In fact, quite the opposite when you consider that excessive muscular tension in most people is the result of years of inefficient movement and posture habits. Breaking those habits and forming new habits can take a tremendous amount of mental discipline and time.

I started AT lessons in my late twenties mainly due to upper back and shoulder arthritis. My first teacher pointed out that I was holding tension in my face and especially my jaw. She went on to give me some techniques to inhibit the tension in those areas as well as to calm my entire nervous system. One of those techniques is called “active rest” or “constructive rest” which you can find out more at http://alexandertechnique.com/constructiverest.

Active rest is also beneficial before and/or after a strenuous activity (like a gig) and you only need around ten minutes or so to get the benefits. It’s a low maintenance tool for sure and doing it everyday will increase it’s benefit.

Delving deeper into the art of the Alexander Technique requires working with a certified teacher individually or within a group. Although many people notice diminished pain immediately after their first lesson, it usually takes around ten lessons for your average person to become aware of all their body movement habits and to start inhibiting some of them. If you are serious about getting started I recommend finding a certified teacher. I used this directory http://www.alexandertechnique.com/teacher to find my teacher in Orange County – Doug Shenefield

One of the drum set playing challenges Doug immediately noticed is that since drummers are operating the foot pedals, we can’t properly ground our feet. Another challenge is being able to move to and from different parts of the drum set without stiffening up or delivering unnecessary stress to certain muscle groups. Doug noticed that I wasn’t pivoting when I moved my right arm from the ride cymbal across my body to the hi-hat, which resulted in unwarranted stress on my right shoulder. To help keep freedom in the body, pivoting towards the particular drum or cymbal you are playing is important–seems obvious but sometimes we forget what’s natural for our bodies when focused on our instrument.

Traditional grip was also seen as a unique drumming movement challenge. When I played with traditional grip, Doug noticed I was leaning my upper body slightly toward the left and putting more weight on my left sitz (sitting) bone. This is pretty common for drummers that play traditional grip. What I learned from Doug is that this leaning posture is not needed at all times to play traditionally.

Doug was really digging the Moeller technique movements! Although Doug knew nothing about drum technique, he was able to keen in on some of those movements. He described them as “sinuous” which I think is a great adjective to describe how the Moeller Technique should look and feel. Once Doug pointed that out I seemed to loosen up more and have a bit more fun! The video above captures that well!

If you’re suffering from body pain, or just run down from the wear and tear of playing music professionally, then the Alexander technique should be a good investment for you.


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10 Tips for Drummers with Repetitive Injuries

David O with NewGrip Wrist Supports

Playing drums is a physical challenge. The longer you play the greater the probability of developing a repetitive-strain related condition (RSI) or carpel tunnel syndrome (CTS) symptoms. These types of injuries are also called “overuse injuries” because they are the result of repetitive use and stress to the soft tissues (muscles, nerves, fascia, tendons and ligaments etc.) of the body without allowing proper time for recovery. Sometimes an acute injury (injury related to a single event) can lead to a RSI condition. These conditions are really stressful because they linger on and can wreck havoc on us mentally. Since I’ve been dealing with these conditions for the past decade, I’d like to share some insights on what I’ve learned over the years.

1. Rest and Ice Your Body
RICE is an acronym for Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. It’s the go-to first aid treatment for acute-soft tissue injuries. However, for overuse injuries rest and ice can help the most. If you’re on tour, work towards keeping your days as restful as possible. Engage in low impact activities such as swimming, walking, and stretching. After the performance, ice the overused areas of the body such as the hands, wrists, and shoulders.

2. Play with Good Drumming Technique
If you haven’t yet studied the Moeller method, now would be a good time to get into it. Although the Moeller technique won’t cure an overuse issue on the spot, it’s great for preventing these types of injuries, as well as your overall playing. I recommend Jim Chapin’s DVD entitled Jim Chapin: Speed, Power, Control, Endurance. I also recommend switching to a thicker stick which can make it easier to play utilizing a looser and wider grip. If you’re playing any heavy style of music I recommend a thick stick like Vic Firth’s 5Bs. Also check out the SD10 Swinger drum sticks which have a nice thickness to them but are a lighter weight than the 5B.

3. Coordinate Your Body Movement
I started taking Alexander Technique lessons in 2008. It’s great for any musician but I think it’s especially helpful for drummers. Basically, this movement technique helps you become truly aware of your body habits and can reduce your tension areas. The bulk of the work involves reeducating yourself to move and perform activities with coordination and ease. The Alexander Technique also helps release tension while you are sitting, standing, or lying on the floor.  You can practice this technique along with drumming (it goes very well with Moeller technique) as well as incorporate it into everything you do. Private lessons with a certified teacher are the best way to get started; however, group classes can be more affordable and are popular for beginners.

4. Practice Yoga
I started practicing yoga shortly after I was diagnosed with CTS. After two months, the tingling and numbness in my hands disappeared. If you haven’t done yoga, I recommend finding a beginner level Iyengar class. Iyengar is a form of Hatha yoga that focuses on structural alignment along with the breath. If an Iyengar class isn’t accessible than find a traditional Hatha class that focuses on self-awareness (opposed to physical fitness). If you go to a class while having a CTS flare up, it’s best to modify some of the poses. Make sure to tell the instructor before the class starts what you are dealing with.  Check out this yoga journal article about healing CTS.

5. Get Adequate Sleep
Many of us don’t get enough sleep. Unfortunately, lack of sleep is one of the major causes for repetitive injuries. Sleep helps the body repair tissues and rejuvenates the nervous system. Get to know your body and how much sleep it needs for you to have a full tank of gas before you start your day. The quality of your sleep is just as important. I’d rather get six hours of uninterrupted sleep than nine hours of turbulence. I found that good quality sleep is vital to managing any stress related condition.

6. Build Muscular Support
Once you’ve allowed yourself enough rest and low impact activities, it’s time to bring on the weights. It’s important to build some muscle support surrounding the chronically injured area. This helps circulation in the weakened area. The stronger muscles thus help support the whole area. However, it’s a balance and the trick is not to overdo it. Ease into it. Start with very light weights, low reps, and be attentive to your form and movement.

7. Stretch Before You Play
It’s common sense to always stretch before doing any strenuous activities. However, sometimes we forget–once we see drums our primal instincts take over and we are too excited to do anything except make noise. The good news is we don’t have to stretch immediately before playing to gain the benefits. I like to stretch at least an hour before a gig and then focus on keeping loose and warm right up to show time. I do a combination of yoga and hand stretches–getting into the stretch details would entail a separate post. For now, check out this samba drummer’s stretches if you need a few ideas: http://www.puppetista.org/drums/stretch.html

8. Integrate Supplements
There are many supplements that can help with CTS and RSI. I’ve researched and tried many supplements that are reported to help with either inflammation, neuropathy or both. Here’s what I’m currently taking:

There is a ton of information regarding all these supplements and their potential benefits and side effects. You can also find research papers from the NCBI regarding most of these supplements. In addition to your own research I recommend working with a professional doctor or healthcare professional that is familiar with integrative supplementation.

9. Eat Whole Foods That Can Reduce Inflammation and Avoid Nightshades
Since both CTS and RSI symptoms are caused by inflammation it makes sense to eat foods that can give you anti-inflammatory benefits (and stay away from foods that cause inflammation). Eating whole foods while avoiding anything processed is a great start. If you’re on tour, choose a supermarket over any type of fast food restaurant. If you have concerns about telling your band mates why you can’t eat at McDonald’s, (believe me I’ve been there) simply mention that you need full control over what you put into your body.

It’s taking me a while to change my diet but the results have certainly been worth it. I’ve slowly added more raw foods into my diet while reducing dairy and most forms of gluten. I also like to add whole foods and herbs that are well known to reduce inflammation. Avocado, ginger, basil, and willow bark have worked very well for me.

Dr. Linda Mundorff recommends reducing the consumption of alkaloid-containing fruits, vegetables, and spices (many in the nightshade family of plants) that may trigger inflammatory-related joint problems.

      • Tomatoes
      • White potatoes
      • Eggplant
      • Sweet and hot peppers
      • Pimentos
      • Paprika
      • Cayenne pepper

10. Be Patient 
Although I’m mentioning it last, it’s probably the most important tip in beating any lingering or repetitive injury. These type of injuries can be mentally draining because of the length of time they effect you. We get used to our bodies healing in a certain time frame. I was freaking out after six months of dealing with my right shoulder tendonitis. I started doubting my technique as well as my body’s ability to heal. It wasn’t until I accepted the condition and made a long term commitment to heal that I started making progress.