Reader Bill Wullschleger asked me if I would do something on relaxation. This came about when a poster in <the Modern Drummer forum on LinkedIn> asked for help with numbness in the hands. My comment in response to the post was “Relax, relax, relax”. Seemed like good enough advice, and it’s something I try to apply as much as I can in my own playing.
A couple of years ago I had a recurring numbness in my lead hand. My fingers went quite numb and the numbness extended nearly to my elbow. I did a bit of medical research and learned that it was caused by, unfortunately, old age. The problem is similar to carpal tunnel syndrome. That’s when the nerve ‘tunnel’ in the wrist becomes chronically inflamed so the nerve can no longer slide along smoothly. Carpal tunnel is a tough one because it often requires surgery. My problem was less severe, and the recommended treatment was to relax. And so I did.
There’s no trick to relaxing ... you just have to do it. Hmmm, that might be OK in the practice room, but what about when you're out on a gig and are really feeling the music? Well, the solution doesn't change.
Step by Step
If you were to take a relaxation course, they'd teach you progressive relaxation, focusing on one thing at a time. My mantra looks something like this: Relax the fingers; relax the hands; relax the wrists; relax the forearms; relax the upper arms; relax the shoulders; relax the back; etc. Take it step by step and don’t address the next body part until the current one is fully relaxed. The best test is to do this while playing.
A good way to relax is by using contrast. Contract your muscles as much as you can. This time you tense your hands, tense your arms, tense your shoulders, etc. Then let it all go as you exhale. This should quickly put you into a nice relaxed mode.
Revise Your Technique
Here’s something you can work on to help relax your hands and also refine your grip. It’s an ancient rudimental technique called the ‘fourth finger fulcrum’. While it may not be useful on the drum set, it will help you to be aware of your grip and your fingers. And it will help you to relax.
Hold your sticks as you normally do. (If you play matched grip, great because both hands will be the same. For traditional grip, it applies to the lead hand only.) Now shift your grip to the last two fingers -- that’s your ring finger and baby finger, but mainly your pinky finger. Let the other fingers and the thumb go limp. Now make a few strokes on a drum, pad or cymbal. Notice how loose the fingers, thumband hand are. That’s the type of relaxation you're looking for. After working on this for a while, you can begin to shift your fulcrum back toward the first finger. The goal is to control the stick with all four fingers using a very light grip. This should make relaxing easier as the work-load is spread over the entire hand.
I find that when I get into a good relaxed state, I enter a new type of 'zone'. Rather than a physical, adrenaline high, I get to a space where I'm ultra aware, ultra centered ... and it's a great place to be.