Thoughts on Rudimental Snare Drum Contests

I've witnessed quite a few snare drum competitions during the years, beginning in 1980 continuing up to the present. Snare drum competitions are fun to compete in, especially fun to spectate, and are a microcosm of an excellent drum corps tournament. All the characteristics are there; amazing displays of skill, mounting tensions, and superb showmanship. Drumming is the most physical musical expression, requiring stamina, endurance, and muscular coordination, and it requires the most imagination to convey a musical message or emotion since the note range is limited. You can't get anymore basic examining someone's abilities with a pair of sticks. That's why, in my opinion, a rudimental snare drum contest is the epitome of assessing the percussive skills of an individual.

A competition is only as good as the OBJECTIVE CRITERIA THAT DEFINES IT! The criteria should be detailed to the point that a contestant should, after reading it, understand what it takes to win the contest. If the criteria is subjective, unclear, sparse, indecipherable, then the contest is likely to produce mixed results, and the contestants, as well as the spectators, will lose confidence that the contest offers anything of value.

I know the present generation of any year  likes to believe it is "state of the art" with regards to drumming, that drumming is evolving into a better state every year, and as we move forward skills are passed on, somehow magically through inheritence. It is true that current drummers have an advantage over those in the past for several reasons, the biggest advantage being the opportunity to learn from those that paved the way. Every nice sounding/looking sticking pattern, visual,  or phrase created can be handed down to the next generation, from teacher to student, thus the student has the learning advantage. The advancement of technology increases the advantage also, as information can get distributed more conveniently. Students of today have a multitude of videos and websites from which to learn and swap techniques. Despite all the advantages, skills must still be honed by each individual, and just as true yesterday, THERE ARE NO SHORTCUTS! Watching a video tape may give you ideas, but transference of skill from tv to hands will not happen. The viewer must still practice. And if he/she is to improve upon the past, they must practice HARDER than those that came before. This I do not see. Each generation practices hard, but not necessarily any harder than the previous generations.

Now, while it's nice to borrow nice licks from teachers and other players, sometimes a lick gets overused. Once judges start noticing the same lick played by multiple competitors, they start questioning the originality of the solo, as well as the difficulty of the lick, no matter how demanding the lick appears. For instance I've noticed many performers, in the same contest and across various contests, that play a fast roll near the edge, anywhere from 2 to 8 counts. Another overused lick is the non-alternating left-handed backsticked flam drags. It looks cool, but after seeing three contestants in the same contest use it one has to question the difficulty level.

Competitve solos should be constructed with the following in mind: execution, demand, and general effect. It goes without saying that execution should be top notch, sloppy playing will never win if the judges are worth their salt. The demand should convey the level of difficulty to the judges, and the general effect is how well the performer sold the solo, demonstrating good execution while highlighting the difficulty. General effect can also be thought of as versatility, what one can demonstrate with two sticks while keeping errors to a minimum.

Competitive snare solos should flow and not sound chopped, as if the player strung a bunch of rhythms together. To the listener this sounds as if the player is winging it, making it up as he/she goes along. A solo that flows has well thought out phrases that transition smoothly from phrase to phrase. Some competitors really do write their solo hours, in some cases minutes, before the competition, and these solos can usually be picked out. The competitor's performance should come across as well rehearsed, that is if the competitor wishes to place. The reason some solos don't flow is because the player, in an attempt to demonstrate speed, deliberately fragmented the rudiments, like playing a fast single 7, then a group of 4 flams, then a short roll, and on and on, switching rudiments and rhythms like a random rhythm generator. Thus speed is increased since no phrase contains extended demonstrations of a particular rudiment group. The solo comes out sounding fragmented, the phrasing non existent, making it hard for a judge to key on the elements of the solo the competitor wanted them to key on.

One source of irritation for me is to watch a snare competitor use brushes, concert sticks, bell trees, or other accessories that detracts from the reason for the competition, which is to assess the most skillful player with sticks. Sure, it can be argued that it takes skill to demonstrate proper brush technique, but how many judges would recognize it? And does it make sense to use brushes on a field drum that has a concrete hard, kevlar batter head that's been torqued to the point of negating any resonance that might vibrate the snares? Like using 3S marching sticks on a drumset, it just doesn't fit the idiom, and in my opinion subtracts rather than adds to the demand. Now, as if brushes and bell trees weren't enough, I've seen competitors dance, recite a dramatic script, even bounce balls on their drum head, hoping that a judge will award points for performance art. One such competitor asked Ken Mazur, the judge, why his score was so low, and Ken simply replied that he should learn how to play. If you go to a competition and waste time incorporating a towel into your solo, don't be shocked if a fellow competitor defeats you by displaying his/her skills with sticks, as that is what's being judged. I personally feel only sticks should be allowed, and only one pair at that, since if you can rationalize using brushes and tambourines to demonstrate creativity, then logically one could argue to incorporate any instrument into the solo, even to the point of not even playing a drum. Which is ridiculous and absurd. One could argue that someone who uses accessories, mallets, or different grade sticks need them as crutches to prop up their lack of imagination or lack of skill.  A competition should have parameters that help define what is being judged.

Visuals. I've been asked if it was possible to win a snare drum competition with just playing and little to no visuals. I replied that it has been done, but anyone who wishes to win should keep in mind that fellow competitors may play just as much as you AND incorporate difficult visuals. You have to assume your competitors will pull out all stops so it's best you do the same. Imagine what your competitors are doing and then one up them. Putting visuals in without increasing your solo demand is a waste of time, in my opinion, but some judges may award points for the extra flash.

Of course all of this assumes the judges are competent, which is not always the case. Too often I've witnessed competitions where the judge(s) were judging the solo and not the skills of the performer, and the demand caption was forgotten. Usually judges that do this have a limited, or no, rudimental background. It's unfortunate that this happens, and there's very little you can do if it does because most judges today just scribble a number on the sheet with no indication as to how they arrived at that number. Judges in the early 80's marked up the sheet, pointing out your strengths and  weakness, which was very beneficial to the competitor. A number doesn't tell you what you need to work on, whether your execution was lacking, or the demand insufficient. When this happens talk to the judge(s) and ask why you got the score you got. You might get lucky and get a coherent answer instead of a runaround. You should have someone video your entire competition. You'll learn much more from watching the video, comparing your skills with those of the other entries, than from the judges' sheets. Plus, if you do get a worse placing than you deserve you'll have proof, assuming other non biased third party people agree you got screwed. You might not be able to do much with your proof, but it would be nice to have.

One contest in particular, the PASIC Individuals contest, lets the contestants get away with murder on the rudiment breakdown. For the life of me I don't understand why PAS even bothers requiring a rudiment breakdown if the judges don't enforce proper breakdown. One of the years I witnessed this contest, I was mentally giving many of the contestants a two out of ten on their rudiment. The lowest score given by the judges on the rudiment however was a six. Contestants were asked to open/close a roll, and just about every contestant took about 20 seconds to accelerate, crushed the roll at peak speed, and then spent about 20 seconds to decelerate. The longest time taken was 40 seconds. I clocked one contestant's total time at 27 seconds! His open/close time was badly skewed, 20 seconds up and 7 seconds out! And not a penalty to show for it. In the old days his rudiment score would've killed him in the contest.