Tenor Techniques

There seems to be several techniques used by tenor players today. After trying various techniques, I have found the styles discussed below to be the most efficient.

When striking the drum, you should always keep the mallet head close to the rim. Hitting the drum directly in the center usually has a muffled, "dead" sound, and it doesn't carry as far. It also helps minimize on movement from drum to drum. However, on some drums hitting right next to the rim creates a "pingy" sound, and the sound doesn't carry very far in this situation either. So playing about 1-2 inches away from the rim is usually best. I should note that as you begin to play exercises of increasing difficulty, sometimes it can be a challenge just to hit the drums without any rim clicks. When initially learning complicated passages, make an effort to focus on the broad target (the actual drum) in order to develop muscle memory.  As you become more familiar with the basic movements, concentrate more on hitting the drum on the previously mentioned 1-2 inch zone.  This will eliminate excessive arm movement, thereby making it easier to execute.
I have found that the majority of tenor (and snare) lines now use the modified Moeller technique. There are variations on this playing style around the country, but they all involve bouncing the stick off of the drums. The five main reasons usually given for this technique are:

1) It's easier.
2) It "gets more tone quality".
3) It gives you greater stick heights with less effort.
4) It gives more visual clarity.
5) You can play more for a longer period of time.

The following sections dismiss all of these reasons, and give the proper technique required to achieve your maximum playing ability.

1. IT'S EASIER. True. It IS easier--but only to a point.  It's also easier to look at picture books, rather than learning how to actually read.  But taking the time to do things right will reap infinitely greater rewards.  When you bounce, you don't really have control of the mallet. And when you don't have control, you will make mistakes. There are exercises on this web site that are impossible to play if you bounce, so if you have been learning to bounce, stop immediately and begin to play by controlling the stick. If you do not, you will not be able to play anything beyond a certain level. Don't sacrifice long term achievement for short term comfort.

2. IT GETS MORE TONE QUALITY. I have seen people hit the drum while controlling the stick and then hit it while bouncing to illustrate that bouncing supposedly lets the drum resonate more than being "stiff" and controlled. Even if this is true, who cares? Tenors are a marching instrument. I am much more impressed with someone who can perform complex flam passages around the drums than someone who plays simpler parts that allow the drums to ring for 1/16th of a second longer. Also, when you have an entire line playing, the difference in sound is so minute that it is virtually undetectable. When playing rudimental drum parts, the after tones are not nearly as important as executing well--which you will be able to do much better by controlling the sticks.  Also, when people illustrate this difference in sound, they almost always exaggerate the rigidity of the controlled technique.  They usually lock every muscle in their wrist and arm, giving a false impression of what a "controlled" technique is.  If someone is truly playing with control--utilizing arm, wrist, and finger muscles--there is still plenty of resonance coming from the drum.  In fact, the sound will be stronger and clearer, since there is more power behind every stroke (even on soft sections).  More on this below...

3. IT GIVES YOU GREATER STICK HEIGHTS WITH LESS EFFORT. Some people think that greater stick heights make it look as if the performer or drum line is performing harder parts. You could dub this the "Ringo Starr mentality". Legend has it that the Beatles hired him not so much for his playing abilities, but because he added a lot of extra motion, making it look like he was doing more even though he was just playing basic rock beats. Instead of trying to "fake the audience out" to appear that you're playing harder parts by having high stick heights, practice while controlling your sticks, and the ability to use high stick heights will automatically come. Not that greater stick heights, in and of themselves, are anything desirable. Well executed, demanding passages at lower stick heights take more talent than easy slop with high stick heights. Not to mention, a decent judge will know the difference between extra motion and actual demand.

4. IT GIVES MORE VISUAL CLARITY.This argument is a bit of a stretch, since it relies on a purely subjective premise. Even if it IS true that the bouncing method somehow looks "smoother" than the controlled method, the controlled method still isn't difficult to decipher. It is just as visually clear as bouncing, and it allows you to play faster and longer. Controlling the stick is the most practical way to play anything, regardless of how it looks, and the focus should be on what you're playing, not how pretty it is to watch.

5. YOU CAN PLAY MORE FOR A LONGER PERIOD OF TIME. I guess that depends on what you're playing. If you haven't taken the time to develop muscle coordination and endurance, it's true that you'll be able to play more bouncing, since this requires less effort. Unfortunately, you won't be able to play as fast or as intricate of passages. Once again, execution is more consistent when controlling the stick, and if you are willing to put in the time and effort to train your muscles, you will be able to play longer, faster, and harder parts.

I would like to clarify that I do not advocate playing "stiff", but merely controlled. Many people think playing controlled means using all arms and nothing else. This is simply not true. With the Moeller technique, you mostly just use the wrist, bringing it up to the full height and throwing it down and letting it rebound (a.k.a. bounce). The controlled technique implements the arm, wrist, and all the fingers. I have had people tell me, "You look like a snare drummer playing quads." Good! The technique should be exactly the same for both instruments. You should play quads just like a snare drum, except just move your arms around the drums as you're playing. The same people who complained that I looked like a snare drummer have said, "Before you try to play on several drums, you should be able to play the part on one drum." I agree, but do they want you to play differently on one tenor drum than you would on one snare drum, or play the same, but differently when you move around?  Obviously, consistency of technique makes more sense. Again, the techniques are--or at least they should be--the same.

Many quad lines now use a grip that is in between a matched grip and a French grip. This gives you very little control over the stick. Nothing is over the top of the stick, neither your palm nor your thumb, just the space between your thumb and forefinger. Obviously, your palm would be better to have over the stick than your thumb, because it is a wider area and would give better control.

I have seen many tenor lines, when moving from the top to the bottom two drums, simply turn their wrist sideways so that their palms are facing up and not moving any arm at all. This will hinder your playing more than almost anything else. Aside from being sloppy and lazy, it is impossible to progress very far if you always play that way. Your wrist should move slightly, but only laterally; your palm should always stay parallel to the ground. Your wrist should always be moving straight up and down, never just sideways. If you keep your arm parallel to the ground, then it only makes sense to keep your wrist parallel to the ground, because your wrist will move more naturally going up and down, than from side to side.

Many people use an arc motion when moving from drum to drum. This is wasted motion; it slows you down immensely. Again, keep your wrist moving straight up and down, and move your arm to the drum you're hitting in a lateral motion. Your arm can move faster sideways than just your wrist alone, and if you only use your wrist, you limit your speed; you will never be able to get any faster than your wrist will take you. If you use your arm and then add wrist whenever you have to, you will increase your speed greatly. Using the arc motion makes you move up and then come back down. To quote Ken Mazur: "I can go down a lot faster than you can go up and down."

In order to make the most of your playing, I would strongly advise you to follow the technique outlined here. I hope this has provided some helpful hints, and I wish you much success.