EARL STURTZE AND I: Reflections on Modern Rudimental Drumming

I have been drumming almost every day since I was 12 years old.
My first drum teacher used the ”Sturtze Drum instructor”, which was first published in 1956. I am on my fourth copy of his book.
I never actually met Earl Sturtze. I wish I had.
Earl passed away in 1981. But the “”Sturtze Drum instructor” is respected widely as a seminal snare drum teaching tool. The “Company of Fifers and Drummers” now holds the publishing rights.
Earl was a winning rudimental drumming champion, judge and teacher of more than a hundred individual and section champions from 1933 through 1976.
Recently at a drum section practice there was some confusion about “metered” versus “unmetered” rolls. I stepped in with my two cents worth and afterward realized I was simply paraphrasing Earl Sturtze.
That’s very easy to do. His method is one of many, of course. I believe it is one of the most organized and well thought out method books.
In the material below I will discuss a number of “Principles” that have developed & guided me for over 60 years and their relation to “The Earl Sturtze Drum Instructor”.
“Rudiments” are a natural outgrowth of the need to teach beginners nearly any skill. The “Drum Rudiments” variously compiled by the “National Association of Rudimental Drummers” (NARD) or the “Percussive Arts Society” (PAS) are a set of sticking, stroke, rhythm & accent patterns that can be combined to produce a rich rhythmic texture in snare drumming.
While many of these are named as “Rudiments” in various listings, there are a nearly infinite number of named or unnamed “variations” which constitute the basis of rudimental drumming.
The following “Principles” are designed to organize and explain my own perspective on rudimental drumming. I use the “The Earl Sturtze Drum Instructor” as a reference to help organize and explain the issues under discussion where relevant.
These “Principles” are my own interpretations. Other methods and techniques may be equally valid in their own ways.
1. Let the Stick Bounce: When you drop a stick on a drumhead it bounces up. Let it. Do not pound the head. Do not allow the stick to dampen the head vibration. You may have to add a little lift to get the stick where you need it next. Add only what is needed. When you bring the stick down, it falls pretty much by itself. Let it. You may have to add a little effort to play louder or softer. Add only what is needed. This is essentially how the “Sturtze” book explains the Single Stroke Roll, the first of his key three basic rudiments.
2. Stay Loose: As for most physical activities, keep the muscles loose. This increases blood flow and permits greater stamina. Grip the stick a bit more firmly at the thumb and forefinger so it forms a pivot point. Do not hold tight. This is true for both traditional and matched grip. The other fingers of the hand guide the stick and keep it stable. The stick should move within controlled finger positions and be allowed some freedom to rebound within a controlled area. If calluses develop, the grip is too tight. As a beginner I had calluses. After I learned to play properly, calluses have been nearly non- existent. Periods of extreme playing may cause exceptions. But generally, calluses are a sign of poor technique. The “Sturtze” book probably uses the term “Loose” or “Loosely” more then any other single descriptive term.
3. Let the Tool Do the Work: When I learned carpentry, I heard that phrase from all the skilled artisans with whom I worked. If you do not heed this you will tire quickly no matter how strong you are. This is true in drumming also. Do not pound. Volume when needed comes best from the speed with which the stick hits the head. Not from pounding. A test for this is that, when playing on a pad, you can hear the vibration of the stick as a distinct pitch. If you can’t hear it you’re killing it. Don’t.
4. Single and Double Beats: The “Sturtze” technique starts with both sticks vertical. The muscles are relaxed but stretched & held outside the shoulders at eye level. Lower the arm. About half way down, “Snap” the elbow out and the forearm over. Strike the drum and immediately lift the stick reversing the movements downward. As you speed up, lower the sticks and continue lowering them as speed picks up. Note that the “Pivot Point” changes from the full arm, to the forearm, to the wrist then to the fingers. When playing a roll, controlled double beats must be developed. If one simply bounces the stick, the second beat will be softer then the first. This means that some energy must be added to the second beat. To rebound evenly, slightly lift the hand but do not lift the stick bead. This will slightly flatten the angle of the stick. As the stick descends the first beat hits slightly “ahead” of the hand and as the stick bounces up the hand comes down and reinforces the second beat to make it even with the first. The “Sturtze” book describes this in less detail. He does however mention methods whereby the last beat of the double is accented. He doesn’t recommend it. To him the idea is get the double beats even. Period. (Triple and multi bounce rolls rely somewhat less on this technique and require a fairly tight drumhead.)
5. The Three Basic Rudiments: In the “Sturtze Drum Instructor” these are the Single Stroke Roll, the Long Roll and the Flam. All other rudiments are derived from these. The techniques for first two are briefly described above. The Flam needs some further discussion. The traditional rudimental Flam consists of a tap preceded by a grace note. The sound is like a “click” as opposed to the “tick” sound of the tap. The grace note height is about two inches. In traditional rudimental drumming these are played alternately from hand to hand and inserted instead of a tap when time permits. Flam variations, while not part of traditional rudimental drumming, also exist. Any variation, from reversing the grace and tap notes, or their timing, to playing “flat” flams can be used effectively.
6. To Play Well, Play Efficiently: “Efficiency” is a hell of a concept for a musical treatise. But think about it. Listen to many of the great players. On brass, reeds, piano, violin, you name it. Top-level performers generally display a high level of efficiency. Otherwise they just could not play so high or so fast! The ”Sturtze” Drum instructor” teaches two things which together promote an efficient style. The first is described above. Let gravity and rebound do most of the work. In addition: Release to your next attack height. Sturtze’s description of the flam paradiddle makes this is quite clear. Start with a right flam position, right stick high and the left at two inches. Play the flam. Return both sticks to a six-inch height immediately. Play the left tap and immediately bring the stick to a high flam position. Play the two left taps and release the last one low for the coming left flam. There is no wasted motion. This takes a half dozen lines to describe. Too long. But to check if an individual is playing it properly just watch the second beat. If it goes quickly up to a high position after the tap he’s got it. If not you got inefficiency. The player will not be able to play as fast or as smoothly as he could otherwise. This principle should be applied wherever possible during normal playing. Example: In the “Crazy Army” solo, play the first seven stroke roll and release to a roll attack left position height. After the second seven stroke roll release to a roll attack right hand position height with a flam height on the left stick. You have a flamacue coming up! Efficiency is the key to the kingdom of speed
7. Develop a Wide Rudimental Perspective:  Often questions are posed. Is it done this way or that way? The answer is mostly “Both”. Matched grip or Traditional? Learn both. I “switched” to matched grip in the 70’s for a few years. Then I switched back because it felt more comfortable. Now I play drum set matched and marching drum traditional. Both are critical to an accomplished drummer. This wide perspective is applicable to rudimental and to other styles of drumming. I use an excellent note reading book that advocates playing hand to hand. It claimed everything could be played that way. So I would ask my students, Yes, nearly everything can be played hand-to-hand, but think about it. What is more artistic, playing everything the same or having available a nearly infinite number of variations? The answer is obvious.
8. Variety is the Spice of Drumming: A good drummer needs to play with a wide range of sticks: heavy, light, long, short, slow rebounding and quick sticks. Also, one needs to play on various types of drums and pads. I have an array of sticks ranging from those designed for tight Kevlar to those designed for rope drums, pipe drums, concert drums and Mylar drum heads. I have drum pads that simulate each of these closely. I keep three drums handy for daily practice, a rope drum, a concert drum, and a tight Kevlar drum. (Well, maybe not as tight as often used today!) In my view this wide-ranging stick and surface practice is critical to a competent drummer.
9. Drumming is Music: Never forget that. It is not a cheap drum machine. My first wife played piano, organ and electric keyboard. She had “drum machines” that kept the beat and she hated them. She said they just went “dum de dum de dum” over and over. She always said she married me to get a drummer. On good days, I like to think she succeeded.
10.             Beware the Evil God of the Metronome: Every drummer needs to be able to keep a steady beat. And metronomes are quite useful. This is especially true when playing with an ensemble where an entire musical and visual show is keyed to specific tempos. The percussion needs to keep in the planned range or flag and rifle tosses (Okay even pirouettes!) become very dangerous. But that said, drummers are still musicians & musical selections are generally subject to minute, often subtle tempo changes. That’s why there are conductors. Sometimes a part may be more effective if it comes in just ahead of or just behind the beat without necessarily changing the overall tempo. Musical effect should take precedence over a cheap drum machine effect. I have found that experienced professionals generally support this approach.
11.              Speed and Control: Many drummers practice to attain speed. I am not all that impressed with speed as such. Control is most important. Earl Sturtze recommends not playing faster than one can play with control. That’s an excellent rule. I attended the 2007 DCI Individual contests in Pasadena. After the solos were done, they announced a contest to find out who could play fastest. Now I’m sure the kids got a big kick out it. But I damn near fell off my chair and had to struggle to keep from laughing. It was just fast garbage - really fast and boring. Absolutely no control. But to each, his or her own. The tight Kevlar heads that promote the cult of speed produce problems of their own. Kevlar heads can be tuned to sound good. But they are often abused so the players can play faster than they are really capable of controlling. I remember in the 90’s watching the Illinois State University Band preparing their drums. A guy started with an automotive ratchet wrench then slid a long pipe over the end for leverage and yanked away. I remember wondering if that was wise. I still wonder. The drums sounded awful. More importantly, over-tight heads produce a phenomena I call “Kevlar Cripples”. Such individuals play fast, but with little control and when they slow down they often cannot play with good rebound control. My advice? “Don’t be a Kevlar cripple.” Listen to Earl Sturtze. Don’t play faster than you can control. If you can’t play it slow, you really can’t play it fast.
12.              Let’s Get Physical: Drumming is a physical activity. You need to get and stay in shape. I believe in light weight workouts and stretching exercises for the shoulders, arms, wrists and hands. This should be done daily if possible. Do not try to build up large muscles. I like weights of about 10 pounds. Overall physical fitness is important especially for those marching in outdoor band and drum corps. The more professional programs, I understand, have special physical fitness instructors on staff.
13.              Play Every Day: Practicing every day is important. Allocate as much time as you can. Much practice time will be on pads, hopefully several with different rebound characteristics. But don’t neglect to play on actual drums whenever possible. They react differently than pads however expensive and “engineered”. Don’t get the reputation of being a super “drum pad” player who can’t play a real drum for love or money. And if you march, practice marching and playing together. Doc Severinson famously used to say: “If I don’t practice for a day I know it. In two days the band knows it. And after three days the audience knows it”.
14.              Your Goal is Excellence: Over the years, rudimental drummers have generally adopted the goal of being as good as they possibly can. Perhaps more overtly than other instruments, drummers like to compete. They like to compete as individuals and as sections. And this emphasis has become even more pronounced with the “off season” WGI events and “Drum Line” contests. It is possible that this got started as rudimental drumming developed in the military where competition was encouraged. Be proud of your heritage! But remember, drumming is an art. Not every performance is a contest. You play to entertain. You play to express yourself. Excellence in every respect must be the goal.
15.              Visuals – The Good the Bad and the ugly: I have always been conflicted by visuals. By visuals I mean stick flipping, back sticking, spins, stick juggling, whatever. I appreciate the skill involved. On the other hand, I ask what the hell it has to do with drumming? When you toss a stick in the air, many things can happen. Only one of them is good. However recognizing the entertainment value involved, I adopted a position early on that any visual that affected or produced a different sound was fine. Now I just watch and enjoy; even the upside down tenor solo the Cavaliers used in 2012. I have learned to live with the inevitable. I have one stipulation. If you do it, DO IT WELL. DO IT SMOOTHLY. AND DO IT IN TIME.
16.              Rudimental Drumming and The World of Music: Rudimental drumming has it’s own proud tradition. It is a valid musical expression and part of a larger musical community. Be open to that community. One day two years ago I was at a St. Patrick’s Day parade in Hermosa Beach, CA. I was faking a drum part to an unfamiliar fife tune played by an excellent fifer. Just playing for fun. A guy with a djembe came by and joined in. It was great. Who would have expected that instrument combination to work? A lot of unexpected combinations can work. Be open to them. Rudimental drummers in my view should also play other percussion instruments where possible. Drum set is a good choice. Band or Concert percussion, where available, is also excellent. One can even take up Keyboard percussion. I actually studied sight singing and intervals once. It turned out to be very useful in teaching high school band percussion. Seek out what you might like to do. Participate in the larger musical community. You will be a better rudimental drummer for it!
17.             Who Is This Guy? Before ending I want to add a few notes from a personal perspective. I believe I am a pretty good drummer. I’m not going to win any DCI/DCA Individual titles. But I’m pretty confident I can play with anyone and not be embarrassed. Link to this author's “Rudimental Biography”.
In Conclusion
Drumming for Life:  The “Principles” I first learned from Earl Sturtze have served me well in playing different styles of drumming.
The “Principles” attempt to provide a good background for a wide range of snare drumming styles. They support a wide range of drumming types and styles.
For example, the stick grip described has allowed me to play marching, concert, drum corps, fife and drum, drum set and even some pipe band material without altering the “basic” grip.
That grip described advocates a firm thumb and forefinger to allow the stick to pivot and finger positions to allow a controlled rebound. Nothing more.
What about the “tucked pinky” version of the traditional left hand grip? The tuck tightens the tendons and provides a firm ring finger to support the stick. The other option is to hold the little finger below the ring finger for support. Both work. I prefer the second, but some of my students use the “Tuck” and it works fine.
But allowing the little finger to drop down reduces the ability to control rebounds. It produces one version of the traditional rudimental error of “Rabbit Ears”. This is a very nasty criticism in traditional rudimental drumming! It’s almost as bad as “Catching Water”. (Cupping the left hand instead of keeping it vertical.) 
Playing in a drum section or ensemble is a bit different than playing as an individual. In a section you play exactly as the instructor indicates. The instructor has to get the best possible performance from the section as a whole. This involves reconciling the effect of different body types so that the section as a whole plays its best. Individuals will be asked to adjust as needed. Do it.
One caveat. If an instructor decides to play with tight muscles or in some other fashion that can threaten a player’s long-term health, think twice about doing it. There are plenty of units out there. Don’t pick one that can hurt you.

Good luck! And happy drumming!