Developing Flam Coordination and Flexibility

(Author's Note: This article first appeared in the June, 1993 edition of Percussive Notes Magazine. This edition was completed in January 2002 and contains some significant edits from the original.)

The flam and related compound rudiments are among the most challenging for many drummers to master. I think this is not so much because they are difficult (which they are), but because people don't tend to understand them well. In this article I will explain some of the techniques we use at the Cavaliers Drum and Bugle Corps (from Rosemont, Illinois), to teach flam rudiments.

Before we dive into specifics, let's take a few minutes to review some rudimental basics.

First, when analyzing any musical passage it's a good idea to begin by defining a stick height and a stroke technique for each note in the passage. Only three stick heights will be required for all of the exercises in this article: accent (about nine inches), tap (about three inches), and grace note or rest position (about 1/2 inch).

To keep things simple, we will only use two kinds of stroke techniques, "wrist" and "finger". The wrist stroke involves the larger muscles of the wrist and forarm which are great for power but not so good for speed. It is used for accents and non-consecutive low notes and utilizes minimal rebound. The finger stroke is used for groups of consecutive low notes (taps and grace notes) and attempts to maximize the use of rebound. It takes advantage of the smaller and more nimble muscles in the hands and fingers. Many of the exercises here are marked with "w" for wrist and "f" for finger to help make it clear when each technique is being used.

Now that we have established a common vocabulary, we can get into some specifics. The simplest of the flam rudiments, the basic flam, consists of two stick heights, grace for the embellishment and accent for the primary. When played, both sticks should begin and end in the "rest position," with the beads of the sticks together about 1/2" above the center of the head.

Since the grace note is already at rest height when you begin, it needs no preparatory lift before you play. This is important. "Lifting" for grace notes is one of the more common errors in proper flam execution, because it leads to inconsistencies in the length of time between the grace note and the primary. Whenever playing flams, always wait until the last second to lift for the primary note, and keep the space between the grace note and the primary as short as possible.

Exercise #1: Simple alternating flams

These should be practiced very slowly at first, about QN = 60. Since each hand must follow-up an accent on one beat with a grace note on the next, it is important that the sticks are not allowed to rebound past the 1/2" rest height after playing each primary stroke. This concept is often called a "freeze height". If your freeze heights are to high, or inconsistent, or not controlled well, the quality of your flams will suffer. On the other hand, consistent stick heights lead to a consistent quality of sound.

In order to gain maximum speed and control of alternating flams, each hand needs to become proficient at switching from accents to grace notes quickly and easily. Exercise #2 is a good exercise to help practice this skill. Again, start out slow, about QN = 60. Concentrate on producing a good wrist turn, maximum contrast between loud and soft notes, and consistent stick heights. Take care not to lift early for the accents and make sure the sticks begin and end in the rest position for each flam. Gradually increase to maximum speed.

Exercise #2: Alternating flam breakdown

The next step is putting flams in context with other notes to create new rudiments. The easiest of these for most people to learn is the flam accent. Flam accents consist of a flam followed by two taps and thus lend themselves to a triplet feel. They are played using alternating sticking just as the flams were (see Exercise #3 below). Note that we have now added a third height (the tap).

Exercise #3: The flam accent

Understanding many rudiments can be made easier when each hand's part is isolated and examined individually. To help illustate this point, here is the right hand component of the previous exercise written out separately, with the height of each note beneath it (A = accent, T = tap, G = grace).

Exercise #4: Right hand isolation for the flam accent

The right hand begins by playing two accent-tap-tap groups in the first measure, then an accent, a tap, a grace note, and another tap. The left hand does exactly the same thing, except delayed by one count. Now it becomes easier to see that the difficulty lies in playing the three consecutive low notes (T-G-T) after the accent in time.

Flam rudiments can sometimes be made easier by combining grace notes and taps into a single category, which I call "low notes." With this simplification you only need to worry about two heights while playing, and can concentrate on a more important skill which is getting good contrast and between "high notes" and "low notes" in both sound and technique. Exercise #5 (below) helps isolate wrist and finger stroke technique for flam accents. Note that the finger stroke is used whenever there is a group of multiple consecutive low notes.

Exercise #5: Wrist and finger stroke isolation for flam accents

One of the more difficult rudiments to master is the flamadiddle. These are hard for much the same reason that the flam acents are hard. When the part for each hand is isolated, we see that there are actually four consecutive low notes to contend with now instead of three. Again, the problem simplifies to playing the groups of low notes in time.

Exercise #6: Simple flamadiddle breakdown

Exercise #7: Right hand isolation for exercise #6  

The key to success here is relaxation. As soon as the wrist and finger muscles become tense, the ability to flow smoothly through the rudiment is lost. When you practice, start by isolating the right and left hand parts. Begin slowly and gradually increase speed taking care to stay relaxed as you accelerate. Try to be patient. It takes time to develop speed and control.

I developed Exercise #8 for the Cavaliers to emphasize many of the same concepts discussed here. We call this one "12-13" because each hand plays a pattern of "one - two - one - three." You might not think it at first, but this is really a flam exercise at heart!

Exercise #8: 12-13

So far, so good. Let's try another one. The flam tap is the only rudiment in which an accent is immediately followed by a tap on the same hand. This can be a bit tricky. Notice that each hand plays notes in groups of three; accent, tap, and grace. Again, the grace note and tap can be blended together and considered low notes.

The trick is to eliminate enough rebound after the accent to achieve good contrast between high and low notes. Again, practice each hand separately (Exercise #10, below), working for good definition of stick heights. Then play the pattern with both hands, (Exercise #9, below), and try to preserve the smooth, flowing nature of the rudiment.

Exercise #9: Flam taps

Exercise #10: Right hand isolation for flam taps

For inverted flam taps a very different skill is needed, but the same method is used to break down the rudiment. "Inverteds" are difficult because each hand has to immediately reach from two quick, low notes to an accent. Again, work each hand separately, then put both hands together to work on overall coordination and flow. Keep the taps light and strive for a quick, driving accent.

Exercise #11: Inverted flam taps

Exercise #12: Right hand isolation for inverted flam taps

Compound Flam Rudiments

All the rudiments so far have dealt with only combinations of flams and taps. Many of the most interesting flam rudiments, however, deal with combinations of flams and drags. The good news is that all of the same principles discussed so far apply to the compound rudiments, also. With a little ingenuity and patience all of the following combinations can be conquered in the much same fashion as the basic flam.

I leave you with a series of variations that can be plugged into a 7/8 check pattern to create a variety of flam-drag combinations. Note that all the drags, unless accented, are played from the same height as the taps.

Have fun with it and don't be afraid to experiment. I constantly challenge the Cavaliers drumline to come up with new combinations and they have a great time with these. The formula for analyzing each pattern is always the same; play each exercise slowly and isolate the part played by each hand.

Use this information to play the passage in the most efficient and accurate manner possible. Try to avoid getting tense if you can. When speed or consecutive "same hand" notes create a barrier, use your fingers and rebound to help on the low notes. Always play with confidence and give yourself plenty of time to learn each one. Good luck!

Exercise #13: 7/8 check pattern and associated matrix of "groups of 3" and "groups of 4" plugin variations. This is actually variation 1-a  

Exercise #14: Example using variation 4-b with the check pattern
Brad Halls performed in the Blue Devils and Phantom Regiment Drum and Bugle Corps and the Michigan State University Marching Band during the late Jurassic period. He was on the percussion staff of the Cavaliers Drum and Bugle Corps from 1988 - 1992 and has instructed many high school bands in the state of Michigan. Mr. Halls lives with his wife and two children in Waterford, Michigan and is currently a software development manager with Electonic Data Systems in Southfield, Michigan.