Physical Conditioning and Maintenance for the Gigging Drummer – Part 1

Part 1 – The purpose of these articles is drummer-centric, yet I’m sure may be valued by other performers. I’m writing this part as a first person account based on hands on experience. My background; I’m a musician of 37 years, over 20 of them in professional settings. Though I no longer do live performances, I remain active recording and educating, as well as daily exercise, yoga, etc. I’m also a former massage therapist, have background in a few styles of martial arts, have taken coursework in exercise and movement sciences, anatomy and physiology, and am currently studying towards my occupational therapist degree. I have also had several surgeries, none of which are drumming/guitar related, diagnosed and treated with ADHD (where I now hear my friends in 4 part harmony go “YOU?!?!? Noooooooooooo!”), so rest assured I’ll be pulling experiences, information, sources, and informed opinions from several areas.

Writing this was inspired when I recently starting studying Nihon Goshin Aikido again, which is a style I haven’t studied since 2001 at a time in my where I was spread so thin doing so much yet barely absorbing anything long-term. While my brain remembered basic principles, my body; not so much. What does that have to do with music? Tons. While a guitarist can regain much in a small amount of time (fine motor), a drummer doesn’t have that luxury, since we are dealing with the entire body, and as with drumming, sports, running, martial arts, dancing, etc., if not drilled and maintained, that skill can degenerate. Muscle memory will eventually kick in, but nonetheless will take time and will require hands-on repetition, correction, and best with oversight from an experienced professional who can be second set of eyes and knows what to watch for and how to guide constructively. However, as with anything else, consider your source, especially when physicality is involved. Whoever says what they did 25 years and can pick up where they left off is either incredibly gifted, or most likely, lying. Knowing and doing are miles apart, especially when it comes to physicality, where the phrase ” 3 months to get it; 3 weeks to lose it” applies. I don’t know about you, but I’m not going to take much stock in how to get 6 pack abs from someone who had it 30 years ago but now sports a beer belly…As the Rush song says, “show me, don’t tell me.”

Another example; in 2013 I was asked to fill in for a festival performance. At this point I decided I was no longer interested in live performance anymore for a variety of reasons, but through back and forth I agreed to do it. First rehearsal – felt like I ran a 5K. Studio drumming and live drumming have a different vibe, and shows physically for many. Live drumming can be more exertive, and that is not something to go in cold with. It took me about 3 weeks to redevelop physically to be able to handle this gig, especially since I was also doing backing vocals. It went very well, and thankfully the dressing room had a shower since there was a meet and greet right after!

Here’s the other part that can be a hard pill to swallow for some; age. In my 20’s I could do, and have done, a few 2-3 set shows a week. Why? I was conditioned for it. Now at 42: unless I had at least 2 hours a day to dedicate to physical training and maintenance for about a month, I’d crash and burn. Why? I stopped gigging years ago, deciding to dedicate my career in a different direction = no longer conditioned. I know what to do, but it would take a little longer for my body to respond.

Consider this: look at boxers, MMA cage-fighters, athletes, stunt people – of course they maintain themselves, but when it is their season/event, they actively train that much harder for the purpose of being in optimal condition to actively handle their event. I feel this applies for the gigging drummer as well, as it can be considered by many in the exercise sciences to be par with an athletic event.

Quick note; if you smoke (from a former smoker, STOP NOW!), are poorly hydrated, and had a few, you’re already compromised.

Part 2 will talk about ideas for active training on and off the kit for upcoming gigs/tours/extended sessions, and passive training, where you are in a consistent and corrective mode of activity, as well as discussion on sticking techniques that may be best suited for your choice of music genre.