Do you have trouble playing the drums quietly? Are you constantly being reminded or scolded even, to play softer? I'm here to help. I have a few ways to make it easier to play the drums softer and I'd like to share them with you.
But I'm playing as loud as I can!!! That's the joke I like to use when I'm told to play softer. It actually helps to diffuse the situation by telling the joke because it shows that you're not taking yourself so seriously. That can go a long way when dealing with bandleaders and/or club & restaurant owners.
Something to remember is that you shouldn't take it personally when you're asked to play at a softer dynamic. It just means that there is probably other stuff happening in that room, (people are eating and they want to talk, or it's a party and people want to talk and mingle, etc.). It's good to remember where you are and what your role is in that particular circumstance. It can be frustrating, I know! But don't get mad. Try to look at the situation like a challenge that needs to be met.
The first suggestion I will make is using gear that helps you achieve a softer volume. This probably means leaving your bell brass snare and your Z Custom cymbals at home. Instead, use a thin shelled, wood snare drum, and some thin and dark cymbals that speak well but aren't bright and shrill. Singly ply heads are your friend here. And don't forget your choice of sticks (and bring brushes!). I use a pair of 7A's for my really quiet gigs. It helps to have a lighter drum stick because you'll get a better articulation from the ride cymbal, and it will be easier to play quietly on the drums because there's less mass hitting the drums and cymbals. I also make sure I have a felt bass drum beater (not a plastic or wood beater), and bring something to dampen the sound of the drums. I usually carry some studio rings with me, which allows me to take them off or on depending on the sound I'm going for.
In addition to bringing the right gear for the job, you should practice playing quietly. The idea here is to play softer WITHOUT losing the intensity of the groove and music. Practice your snare drum rudiments, rolls, flams, drags, etc at a softer level at home and on the drum pad. You mainly want to use wrist and finger motions and avoid using the large muscle groups to play the notes. This can take a long while to master, especially if you're used to playing big rooms or outdoor shows. Just go slowly and add this to your practice routine as often as you can. Here's a hint: try to play with authority while remaining at a softer dynamic. Take all of the BS out of your playing. Literally, just play less notes, less dense. There are times when I'm on a jazz gig and I'll just put the left hand stick or brush down for a chorus. This allows me to focus on the right hand and just make it swing, without any comping interruptions or extraneous left hand notes.
Tuning your drums higher will allow you to play the drums softer and have them still speak. When the drums are tuned low, you have to hit them harder to make the air pass through and get the heads to resonate. When the drums are tuned up, you can hit them lighter and they will still give you a nice tone (maybe even a better tone) at a lesser dynamic. This might include the bass drum!
Work on playing the drums louder than you play the cymbals. Generally, it's the cymbals that really grate on people's ears in these smaller acoustic environments. I allow myself to play the kick and toms louder and I try to back off on the snare and cymbals because those are the higher pitched sounds that really make you sound like you're louder than you are.
Start your performance soft, (I mean REALLY soft!), and then work your way up from there. The human ear adjusts to the dynamic environment over time. If you start playing loud on the first song, you haven't given the audience enough time for their ears to adjust. But if you start playing soft, and gradually work your way up to maybe a mezzo-forte level, they won't hardly even notice.
That's it for now! Let me know if you can think of any other suggestions for playing the