"Coming out of the roll is the toughest part of a breakdown." Matt Lyons
“You must have much discipline to do breakdown. It's the discipline! If it's not required, then there is no standard." Jay Tuomey
“Discipline is where success is." Bobby Redican
“You know if someone hits the drum perfectly even. It will be smooth and flow and look effortless.” Mitch Markovich
“Make haste slowly” is the only road to make fast technique.” Arthur H. Rackett 1927
“The first two years in any sport, make sure you get the fundamentals, try to be the best at those. Never try to get fancy till you’re perfect as can be at the basics.” Astronaut Buzz Aldrin
The gradual, equal acceleration and ritard of one sticking pattern is an important instruction tool to teach coordination, endurance, speed and how to adjust technique when tired. It quickly informs students of progress or lack of it. The idea of “going faster and faster” while maintaining clean execution existed long before the Revolutionary War, possibly 500 years ago. Breakdowns are mentally excruciating, but teach the limits of speed and execution, consistency of grip and motion; they test mettle – your will - your concentration. Wander for an instant and errors appear. They are harder than solos. The last stop sign a champion sees is the maturity and confidence of concentration. Breakdowns force you to concentrate - to know yourself - especially the confidence of adjustment under pressure. Concert pianists all say lounge players have “no left hand”. Breakdowns force left hand strength and symmetry.
Olympic coaches agree: “Exercises performed in a rhythm superior to that of competition, a high volume of work, and a wise utilization of isometric with dynamic contractions are considered effective.” Tudor O. Bompa, The Theory and Methodology of Training, p.272
Breakdown drummers used the weight of their hands and forearms symmetrically, producing power and balanced dynamic volume, taught to play through the head with a second wrist turn for the second note of a diddle and hold all accents down for the execution of interior notes.
Breakdown practice technically separated rudimental and orchestral/drum set players. They recreate competition stress, exercises that are a musical simulation: “It has been only since the 1970’s that a strong desire to link an athletes’ training process through modeling. A model is an imitation, a simulation of reality made out of specific elements of the sport…. [and] should incorporate only those means of training which are identical to the nature of competition.” Tudor O. Bompa, cit. Cercel, 1974, p.42
A pitcher releases a curveball and follows through by reaching for his left shoe, otherwise the ball ends up head high. With breakdowns, educated drummers were learning to follow their stroke through the head at all speeds and volume levels.
War drummers were taught to practice sticking combinations very slow to later correctly play them In battle. A wrong pattern or something poorly played could send soldiers to the deaths. A breakdown takes one rudiment and slowly accelerates it to the peak of clean execution, holds that peak for a few seconds, then decelerates in the exact same manner and timing as the acceleration. The problem comes with the lactic acid that has built up in the muscles during the ritard out of peak speed. You must maintain your concentration and adjust with the ability to perform cleanly with tired muscles.
The first snare competitions we have records of tell contestants they will break down 5 or 6 rudiments and play a solo. The breakdowns were far more important, which just showed what rudiments you could breakdown. Judges were sometimes placed in a barn so there would be no favoritism. (They could probably tell who you were just by the drum sound.)
It was common for one contestant to pick the rudiments to be performed out of a hat. Most did not want to breakdown the Flam Paradiddle Diddle, 15 Stroke Roll, Double Drag or Triple Ratamacue. The idea was you had to practice all 26 Standard American Rudiments. In drum & bugle competitions before DCI existed, each mistake would be a tenth or more up to a half point. Fife and drum corp judges could award an extra point for "super speed", a difficulty assessment. Another addition was the acceleration and ritard had to match in time up and down, a difficult thing to do when concentrating so hard on all the technique necessary for a clean breakdown: each note could be compared to the next for spacing and volume. Great breakdown drummers like Charlie Poole stated he would get more than the allotted points because of "super speed". Breakdowns were the specialty of drummers before speed became the item of choice in the early 1970s. One must mention the breakdown skill of Franlk Arsenault, Bobby Reduican, Hugh Quigley, Jay Tuomey, Rita Macy (1956 VFW National Champion), and Mitch Markovich. We modern players are very very good at breakdowns. What came before us were masters at this art.
Like the "figures" at Olympic competitions, breakdowns were eliminated from drum competitions. The excuse was they took too long. In reality no one can perform them anymore. The last time the Percussive Arts Society used breakdowns in a snare contest, they were performed so poorly that most of us in the audience were embarrassed for the players (and their instructors.) No one except a fife and drum corps contestant could come out of the peak properly. It was pathetic. PAS then eliminated them. DCI did the same. Breakdowns cannot win you a contest but they can lose it for you. As top 5 DCI finisher Tom Brown (Santa Clara Vanguard & Blessed Sacrament Golden Knights), "I was more worried about the breakdown than the solo." DCI used a two minute breakdown (one minute up and one down), whereas fife and drum used three minutes at 1 1/2 up and down.
Breakdowns were a major part of individual competition scoring from 1885 through the 1960's, sometimes receiving 75 points of 100 compared to 15 points in DCI's 1970's snare drum competitions and mostly non-inclusion today. The discipline is similar to the skaters "figures" which vanished from Olympic competition in the early 1990's, yet still was taught to students. Judges would go on ice and observe "edges" (etchings) in the ice to compare smoothness of foot changes, balance and speed/weight control, similar to a drummers’ consistency of volume, note spacing and gradual tempo change, a two or three minute test with endurance. All breakdown applications in the Sturtze Drum Instructor start and end at 40 beats per minute (spaced 1 1/3 seconds apart) with a three minute duration; 1 1/2 minutes acceleration to peak; 1 1/2 minutes ritarding to close. Two minutes was an average breakdown time using a small terrace for peak speed after the mid 1960’s.
Paul Mosley: “Rudiments are the compulsory figures of drumming. The rudiment is a root that gives you a solid grounding. All other variations come off of it.”
John Neurohr (Skyliners Alumni, 2004 DCA Snare Champion): “The main thing that separates amateurs from professionals is consistency. When you can play the same on a subway platform or a boardwalk that you do in competition, then you have made a HUGE leap in your percussive life.”
The breakdown drummer learns the physics of form, the physical feel of “perfect positioning” – muscle memory. Judges don't catch everything. A "window" exists between audience perception, judges’ perception and your perception.
Regardless of grip, large bone masses of the arms must move the same or the sound of a breakdown will pulsate, usually sounding heavy handed on the favorite lead side. (Most people are right handed and most music is written off a right hand lead). Forearm bone masses are far larger than the wrist to produce sound. The master’s worked bone weight of the hands and arms behind the stick just as master piano players lean into loud notes using weight to control sound and speed. With practice, the execution “window” expands, similar to baseball players who “see a bigger ball” during hitting streaks. Breaking down the “original 26” requires superior coordination and endurance, especially as fine adjustments are made in acceleration and ritard between rudiments having duple and triplet figures, those with grace notes and those having triplets such as a Ratamacue. The Standard 26 NARD American Rudiments were written to teach Camp Duty, but they are still a difficult test of skill. The drummers who learned to do it were the precursor of the marketing for Drum Corps International. It was their knowledge of breakdowns that propelled the marketing of military "tick system" objective judging.
The point at which the mind must switch from "one wrist turn per note to two" – when the mind can't think of the second note - is the breakdowns toughest coordination and concentration area in acceleration or ritard. The first note is a post that sets future measurement. The second note is more important as it creates “time”. Wrist turns should be the same fo a diddle. Both get slightly smaller to get the bead to the head in time during an acceleration. This taxes the players thought process and coordination as control switches from forearm to more a percentage of wrist, then back to forearm for extremely fast rolls that almost lock the wrist as the forearm “pumps speed.” The “conversion” should be so smooth, observers never notice. As fatigue sets in, the player must knowingly adjust and think through small coordination lapses - a major accomplishment under the duress of competition. This muscle and movement “memorization” establishes confidence and the ability to think through fatigue. Guessing or not training enough usually results in unit penalties.
The third major difficulty is coming out of peak speed as lactic acid saturates muscle tissue. Without physical conditioning, intensity and note spacing waver. Unpracticed drummers panic their way out of a breakdown, rushing back to comfortable speed because of muscle fatigue, poor coordination and fear. Master drummers hold their peak cleanly, then maintain stick pressure through the head as note spacing slows, achieved through style consistency. Deviations in form are amplified during a ritard. This is why the masters taught you to play perfectly – slow. Speed is muscle memory of your basic form when you are tired.
The bead of a stick amplifies what the wrist does - point and aim. The fulcrum grip must be firm – immoveable - to hold “aim” constant. Gripping improves your aim. It is the wrist or forearm that changes amplitude. The grip does not have to be tight, but remain consistent under physical duress. Baseball batters point and aim with a strong grip, adjusting the weight of their bats by choking up “one ounce per inch”. (Batting averages most always differ from right to left side, an argument against match grip symmetry.) They grip a bat higher to swing quicker with less weight and more speed with control.
Master teachers taught rudiment breakdowns with prepatory upward arm motions before the attack on both hands to have the engine revving before the notes to increase speed and control. Since rudimental drumming is based upon accent articulation, the prep motions moved the stick higher for the attack to produce amplitude. Many modern players do not use arm motion and break down a roll without a cold engine, playing a few inches off the head trying to avoid the traps inherent in slow acceleration and ritard. Coordination is best learned with large motions.
Double Stroke Roll Breakdown
Flam Paradiddle Breakdown
From Military Drum Beats (1931) by Stone: “The average time consumed in opening and closing a rudiment in exhibition playing varies from 3 to 6 minutes.” Sturtze (1954) uses a 1 1/2 minute acceleration and a 1 1/2 minute ritard. The Connecticut fife and drum circuit changed to two minutes in 1960. McCormick (1965) describes a two-minute procedure carried forward to the beginning of DCI Individuals in 1973. DCI eliminated breakdowns in 1984. Percussive Arts Society competitions had a breakdown of one minute, almost useless – an inferior test where players rush through or eliminate the difficult coordination change from two wrist turns to one and destroy the ritard completely. The discipline demanded of a two-minute breakdown is far superior to one of 60 seconds which offers no test of mental concentration or physical endurance.
Former Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra principal percussionist Bill Schiederman made some amazing comments at dinner with the author in 1995: "Breakdowns are useless. I saw Frank Arsenault do a half hour breakdown once. What did it prove? What was the purpose? It was a waste of time!" Never a major part of orchestral education, breakdowns display great mental control, stamina, and the ability to adjust, the main reason corps drummers opened up a twenty year performance gap over public school drummers. Rudimental drummers don't have the time to sit at the back of rehearsals, read newspapers and take naps. There are very few rudimental parts for orchestra, the Geigy Concerto – a Swiss Basel piece – being one rare example.
Physiologists Matthews and Fox (1976) developed specificity training for sports, the equivalent of a rudiment breakdown. “The selected exercises ought to simulate the plane, direction and specific angle in which the skill is performed.” Tudor O. Bompa, p291
“Specific training is the best method of improving anaerobic capacity. Anaerobic training has to be alternated with aerobic training. For sports which endure more than 60 seconds, aerobic training should dominate.” Tudor O. Bompa, p298
This video explains "lead hand tension" , where the mind tenses the side of the body where it is thinking off of, The normal right hand lead must be compensated for. My method is to switch from a 4/4 thinking pattern to 6/8, switching the lead to the left hand to go back and forth making the lead hand usage equal.
Dan Guernsey (1977 DCI Tenor Champion - Madison Scouts): "When I was preparing for individuals, I spent about 60 percent of my time on the single-roll break down, 40 percent on the solo. That roll breakdown was the hardest damn thing to get right. It was hard as hell - far more difficult and challenging than the three-minute solo itself. In fact, someone told me that in ‘77 at DCI, I timed it exactly at one minute up and down and evenly done. I'm still proud of that. I trained Scott Pearson who went on to win two DCI multi-tenor individuals in 82' and 83'. I remember the rivalry in the early 80s between him and the Phantom tenor, Dan Bohan who won in ‘80 and ‘81. I emphatically reminded my tenor students in the late 70s and early 80s to spend more time on the roll breakdown. It will help you even more in the solo."
The great breakdown drummers made thinking through grace notes and holding accents down a point of contention.
Bobby Redican: "To run to the top at 1 1/2 minutes developed the ability to play at all possible speeds. Grace notes are not grace notes at slow speeds. They have time value. They have a mathematical value. One beat has four 16th notes and 32nd notes. You have to hold the grace notes closer to the drum to get faster.
"I used to watch Frankie [Arsenault] to get ideas to run down rudiments. If a judge wasn't too sharp Frankie would go into super speed and fool him. Extra fast meant extra credit.
"I would begin getting ready two weeks before a contest increasing from an hour a day to 2 1/2 hours a day then taper before the contest. I was practicing all 26 rudiments because you didn't know which ones they'd pick. I was ready with all twenty-six. The Flam Paradiddle Diddle was very hard to play fast. It was the hardest rudiment. Many contestants won by that rudiment being picked. They didn't combine rudiments yet to form new ones. Swiss Army's were not in yet.”
Eric Perrilloux: "Frank was a little uneven in the roll at faster speeds."
Sturtze agrees with Redican on grace notes: "The two grace-notes are played in the same time value of one principal note. Therefore, they are always played just twice as fast as the principal beats... the value of the principal note must be taken up by a pause. At slow speed this pause is indicated by a quarter rest." Sturtze, p.87 “It seems irrefutable that all rudiments should retain the same rhythm with which they are applicable within the drum beats (pieces), regardless of how slow they may be played. Sturtze, p.131
Eric Perrilloux: "Grace notes must be given their proper time value." Excerpts from Eric’s hand written mid 1980’s thesis “About Running Down Grace Note Rudiments” show judges were honing in on small note placement.
Olympic coaches teach the use of time in similar manner. “….the time sense is derived from rhythmical impulses coming from the proprioceptors of the muscles and tendons, which are repeated at different time intervals. Consequently, experienced athletes (i.e. boxers, runners, swimmers) do develop, based on the muscle’s sensors, a sense of time remaining in a round, split times or the time performed in a race. All these senses, together with the sense of fatigue, represent information for the athlete regarding his/her state...” Tudor O. Bompa, p.82
Mitch Markovich: “With no breakdown of the Double Stroke Roll or Flam Paradiddle what do you expect? There should be three-minute breakdowns! I spent gazillions of hours on the double stroke roll! That’s why I could play like I did. I practiced for individuals with breakdowns and never compromised anything slow to fast, never got softer, never got lower, never got weaker. No one else was playing what I was in solos and it came from breaking down rudiments. I would practice something like the Paradiddle and slowly increase speed for a long time and get just a little faster. I figured if I played it slow that when I got faster it would be virtually flawless. I wanted to see how fast I could go but still execute.”
Bobby Redican: "Breakdowns should be mandatory! You learn to control your sticks at all tempos with rudiment breakdowns. Go back and correct mistakes so it’ becomes uniform. I had different groups for practicing rudiment breakdowns. There is a not so strenuous group, the easiest being the Single Roll, Long Roll, Flam and the Ruff. The second most strenuous is the Flam, Paradiddle Diddle and the Single Drag. The tough ones were the Triple Paradiddle, Flam Paradiddle Diddle and Double or Triple Ratamacue. Grace notes were the hardest to do - a different evaluation. Every note must be in time. It was key to keep the grace notes in time. Perrilloux had the correct method to play them.”
Breakdowns display the performers level of achievement. It gives a judge a good indication of strength and coordination. However, Janet Lynn, one of the all-time great female free skaters, never won Olympic gold being too far down in the standings after "figures". The skating scoring system has since been changed to use points, not placement (ordinals). Breakdowns can lose you a contest but not win it. Jay Tuomey: "Bobby Thompson and Les Parks wanted just the solos judged. They didn't want the breakdowns judged.” Sturtze stated that even in the 1960’s. Sometimes as much as 60 percent of the contest could be based on breakdowns, especially the double stroke roll.
Jay Tuomey and Charley Poole describe similar requirements: "You had to breakdown the Double Stroke Roll. Two other rudiments were picked out of a hat. You had to play one selection at either 110 or 120 beats per minute. You could play anything you wanted as long as it was in tempo. One judge looked for errors, the other kept track of how close you were to the designated tempo and would penalize inconsistency."
Warren Lee: "I did one individual contest at a field day in Mt. Vernon New York around 1946. I was 15 or 16 and went into the senior division. I was the first contestant so I was the one who had to pick the rudiments out of the hat. I think it was the Single Drag and Flam Paradiddle and, of course, we did the Long Roll. My selection was Connecticut Halftime."
They didn't speak to the poor lad who picked the Flam Paradiddle Diddle out of the hat.
The transition from military technique and march music to show tunes and other genre in bugle corps was due to technically proficient breakdown drummers from fife and drum executing the “26” in new combinations having longer phrases. The pride-of-the-Ancients 7 and 15 stroke rolls were whittled to 5’s and 9’s because drummers enjoyed marching to faster tempos of popular music. The threads that would sew code drumming to different music genre were pleasing accent patterns found in Flam coordination, Ruff-Rat-Drag combinations and mastery of continuous accented rolls, items of technical superiority. How could this happen breaking down only 26 variations?
• A drummers greatest responsibility is to control time. Breakdowns require each note be mentally then physically placed in time - no "guessing." They teach how to bend time and master note separation, the ability to make minute adjustments. This helps the student master the art of concentration, the most important aspect of professionalism.
• Breakdowns establish a strong coordination template with hand to hand playing. Left hand lead practice improves the normal right hand lead by about twenty percent for solo work
• A rudiment breakdown requires a "thought per note" thinking process at slow speeds which helps the individual learn to "think through the style" or use "thought points" for grip where the fingers touch the stick creating style consistency.
• There were two wrist turns for a diddle which produced more physical control of each note; the second note became stronger and more accurate to time. Breakdowns force a player to learn the difficult point at which the brain must switch from two thoughts to one per diddle when speed increases or decreases, an important maturation of mental concentration and coordination. Bouncing the stick causes the rebound to be weaker than the attack, the weight of the bone not behind the second note.
• Endurance. There is no “rest period” or “timeout”. Mental lapses place the discipline of many simultaneous factors in jeopardy: volume, position, accent power, timing, coordination, fatigue and how to adjust to fatigue after peak speed during ritard. Changing grip due to fatigue is a risk. They played strong through the head and were in excellent physical condition.
• They learned perfect form at slow tempos, therefore able to drive while speeding.
• They learned large motions, allowing instructors a better view of style errors. Large motions develop power and coordination.
• They developed the ability to listen to themselves and be critical.
• Breakdowns are more of a physical and mental chore than solos. They practiced breakdowns more than solos.
• There was an established criteria for adjudicating contests. Comparisons were objective.
TRAINING THE YOUNG
Rudiments are technical elements - precise and measurable – utilized by master fife and drum instructors during a long prepatory training phase to hone coordination with breakdowns and short music pieces. They are excellent for training inexperienced players offering maximum returns for time spent. J. Burns Moore, Sturtze and Redican stretched all 26 rudiments to develop form through two or three years of lessons. Tuomey’s introduction phase was four lessons of grip and arm motion without sticks (placed in his briefcase). In the Revolutionary War, only six rudiments allowed you to learn your first functional piece. Later, technical elements (rudiments) were strung together as a functional base to form short pieces like Downfall of Paris and Connecticut Halftime. “By the end of the prepatory phase, an athlete would have a least a skeleton of the routine prepared. “ Tudor O. Bompa, p.191
With breakdowns, it's technique before speed. Training requires testing then a recovery phase. Body and mind adjust to movement between the two. Olympic coaches agree. “Impulses coming from the muscles during intense exercise are very strong and this irradiation in the CNS burdens the perception and reaction to a stimulus, leading to the performance of imprecise, uncontrolled skills. A less intensive or lower rate of performing an exercise allows the CNS to be more selective in the type or reply to a stimulus, thus enabling the athlete to have better control over his/her skills.” Tudor O. Bompa, p.191
Students need an experienced eye to help fit natural potential into style templates. Learning characteristics, physiology and adaptability to stress vary widely. Jay Tuomey asked this author’s father about temperment and school grades before individual competition, aware everyone has a different work capacity. (The work and pain tolerance of seven time gold medallist Mark Spitz was bested by John Kinsella who pushed himself harder in training). Students have different levels of coordination skill, strength, speed and endurance, a different bone structure, joint flexibility and nervous system type. Muscular and nervous system recovery vary. Golfer Tiger Woods teaches the same golfing mechanics to people with similar bone structure and muscular builds.
Efficient style physics involving a fraction of an inch, require input by several systems simultaneously. For the young, form is more valuable than speed. Reaction to breakdown stresses helps children adapt. Tennis stars Serena and Venessa Williams display more powerful serves and returns because of a slightly larger bone mass in their arms, a reaction to physical training stresses as children. Low intensity training at an early age may stimulate bone length and girth.
Acquisition of a skill occurs in phases (Krestovnikov, 1951) needing thousands of repetitions, which Thordike (1935) calls the law of exercise to gain muscle memory so movements become automatic and technically stable at all amplitudes and speeds; what Siclovan (1977) calls “competitional technique,” to maintain technique through fatigue and execution under stress.
Olympic coaches divide “muscle memory” into different levels:
1. Beginners have unrefined neuro-muscular co-ordination and perform unnecessary movements, dispersing impulses beyond normal nerve conduits, stimulating muscles not needed for execution (nervous irradiation). Nervous mistakes are small but cannot be controlled. Beginners allow this to affect technique consistency, especially the smallest movements that create grace notes.
2. A student moves in the required manner but strains to stay consistent attempting greater coordination or speed. Not enough muscle strength exists yet, creating unnecessary muscle contractions that produce technical aberrations. Longer passages create execution and amplitude inconsistency with imperfections in the cyclical motions drummers rely on. There is recovery from errors, but the student cannot think through the style if fatigued.
3. The style becomes consistent with less physical effort. The individual can perform faster with more accent power and lower grace notes with the same level of execution.
4. The mastery phase allows minute control with high efficiency and the ability to adapt style and execution when fatigued. There is quick recovery. Experienced players adapt to competitive changes without much rehearsal. Russian Oksona Baiul changed her program on the spot to add difficulty, defeating a skilled Nancy Kerrigan at the Olympic skating finals. Drum corps learned to “water” the music, eliminating difficult parts hours before important competitions.
The term “technique” concerns both technical element (what) and procedure (how). Elements are the skill (a rudiment) while procedures refer to various ways of doing a skill (traditional or matched grip – index finger or thumb). Rolling a bowling ball is a technical element. After picking the right weight, one can change technical procedure throwing with one hand or two; using a full, semi, or finger-tip grip; moving the wrist to throw a straight, hook, curve or back-up ball. In the early 1950’s, Perry O’Brien revolutionized shot put technique facing backwards in the throwing circle. Olympian Bill Fosbury went backwards over high jump bars. Corps changed the 45-degree American Legion tilt to better their procedure and leveled them completely with angle bars for stability in the 1970’s. Efficient musical or physical procedures usually become stereotypical in less than one year. Those that aren’t efficient split training methodology apart like Moeller did in the 1930’s, downstroking did in the 1970’s and the use of Kevlar in the 1990’s.
The young tend to “rush ahead” and mimic the latest champion or worse, the latest fad. Today that means using the Moeller or Grueber bounce technique as an excuse for poor execution and "dirty speed". They might be popular but they don't help you improve and are not rational.
“In order to obtain a good result in sport, an athlete needs to have a perfect technique, namely the most efficient and rational performance of an exercise.” Tudor O. Bompa
Today’s youth wants stick tricks never having learned proper basics, xeroxing others mistakes. The slow, methodical improvement of style over years is superior to any quick-fix, rebuilt at great expense later on.
“The quicker an athlete can correct a mistake, the faster the improvement… Incorrect handling or grasping of an implement, object or apparatus can destroy execution and have a detrimental affect on learning.” Tudor O. Bompa, p.73
“Biomechanics [style] should be viewed as the science with the highest implications in both technical comprehension of a skill as well as in skill analysis.” Tudor O. Bompa
Jeff Queen: “I cannot emphasize this more, it is important that you spend as much time as possible in the basics. Learn to play it SLOW.””
The mold of the master breakdown drummers came from the "can do" attitude of the Great Depression, accepting uncomfortable tests that matched their uncomfortable times. They joined corps as a means to get away and travel, having the natural talent to later become artists, the best at their craft using powerful styles and physical positioning to produce music at any dynamic level. Conditioning was needed for individual contests having up to 15 minutes of performance: (three) three minute breakdowns, a 2/4 piece and a 6/8 selection.
Today, the individual contests do not even exist, sacrificed for "visual designers".