How Drumline Helped Me Become a Better Cellist
When I was in elementary school, I started playing the cello. This endeavor began 13 years ago and has been a part of my musical journey for over half my life. I struggled through the first 6 years the same way any public-school kid without a private teacher would have. I was normally first chair in my school orchestra but when it came to anything outside of those four walls I was the bottom of the totem pole. During my junior year of high school I started taking private lessons and my world opened up. Allowing me to gain more control over my musical journey and be able to audition and get 1st chair in things like the Florida Honors All-State orchestra. Not all of my growth was because of my newly found private lessons however. This also coincided with me growing in another musical area, percussion.
I started playing percussion in 7th grade, two years after starting the cello. This allowed me to broaden my horizons and learn not only more literature but also different techniques and ways of looking at music. Learning mallet instruments such as the glockenspiel and xylophone allowed me to learn treble clef for the first time. Learning snare drum helped me gain a more solid sense of timing and rhythm. These concepts continued to shape me as a musician until I was introduced to a new branch of percussion in high school: drumline.
Drumline has been an integral part of my life ever since my freshman year of high school now almost a decade ago. Having been involved in percussion and drumline through my high school, undergraduate, and now going into my graduate years of college means that I have experienced many different instructors and methods of teaching. While techniques vary slightly from educator to educator, some common grounds are shared within the world of drumline in regard to practicing. These practice methods are often lost on other student instrumentalists and vocalists.
One of the most important concepts in individual and group practice when learning drumline music is using proper warm up exercises. An interesting facet of drumline is that sometimes (more often than not) we spend just as much time working on our warm ups as our show music. Drumline culture is based around having a strong foundation which begins with something as simple as playing 8 legato strokes in your right hand, then 8 in your left hand. While this may sound like a simple task to non-percussionists, some drum corps (think professional marching bands) will spend hours on this exercise alone. This attention to detail is something I have learned to bring into every other instrument I play and teach. As a cellist I had always been given good warmups to follow, however I usually would just play through them not really knowing what they were for or if I was even doing them right. Drumline gave me the right mentality to start allowing ample time in my cello practice sessions to learn about things such as Feuillard daily exercises or Galamian scale patterns and what each one helped me with. Spending this extra time allowed me to slow them down and identify proper technique as well as the “why” behind each one.
Not only does drumline focus on building strong foundations, but it also focuses on how we build them. Precise timing and rhythmical knowledge are generally something that drummers and percussionists excel at to a higher degree than other instrumentalists in the various levels of student playing. I saw this come to fruition time and time again in my music and aural theory classes in college. Many times, the percussionists in the class (including myself) would have a distinct advantage when discussing things such as rhythm and time signatures. This is partly due to an extensive catalogue of exercises and rudiments which use complex rhythmic structures. However, precise timing doesn’t come from understanding of a rhythm alone. It comes mainly from one important tool: a metronome.
I once had a professor hold up a Dr. Beat and say: “this metronome is like our bible here in the drumline”. This was in reference to the truth that a metronome provides and the honesty it forces you to have for yourself. Drumlines use metronomes religiously (pun intended) and it pays off in spades. Knowing the precise spacing between 4 sixteenth notes and the spacing between one group of notes and another within the larger context of the measure may seem overly extensive to some musicians. But when you’re trying to get 10 snare drummers to hit a note at exactly the same time, it becomes an important concept to work on. It is often the case that student musicians choose to practice without a metronome because it is easier. This was the case with me as well until I started drumline and understood the importance of it. Now I use a metronome with everything, even unaccompanied solo works. I establish a precise timing base for my phrasing choices I make later to stand on.
All in all, drumline allowed me to see a stricter side of music than other forms of performance did. Music isn’t always built on a universal set of rules by any means, but learning a set of rules is always important if you intend to break them from time to time. Taking pieces of how a typical drumline rehearsal is run and applying it to practicing other instruments or voice can make your own practice sessions more effective and efficient. Just as it did mine.