This Idea of "Gesture" - 2

This is a companion piece to last week's blog on concept. Percussion/drums are very visual instruments, so gesture is a natural part of performance. There is a lot of movement, both from the arms and, from the whole body itself. Not to mention the movement of the mallets/sticks we play with. Unless you are playing a particular theatrical piece of music, that might have gestures written out, gesture itself is usually given little thought.


  1. 1.
    a movement of part of the body, especially a hand or the head, to express an idea or meaning.
    "Alex made a gesture of apology"

Think of the rock or metal drummer behind their kit, with arms raised and flying away. Or watch a marching band/drum corps, with each movement heavily choreographed for visual effect. This is what most people notice, what most drummers think about, the visual aspect. But what part does gesture play on the sound?

On my first solo percussion album, Stars Show The Way, I recorded a number of tracks that I called, Small Gestures. These were short interludes between the longer pieces, and they featured small percussion instruments (mostly hand percussion) that could be played in small ways. The idea was for the sound to not be imposing, like percussion normally is, but to perhaps make the listener have to reach for the sound themselves.

In these small gestures I played them with just that, small gestures. No grand and dramatic waving of my arms or shaking things above my head (besides, in the recording studio, who would see that anyway?). So I I made small gestures moving things in small ways, looking for the small, unobtrusive sounds. 

In live performance, I still play pieces that use small gestures, to make the sounds intimate, personal. But I also use other gestures, with both my mallets and my instruments. Big sounds require big gestures. So I'm often moving my arms around in big arcs, up over my head, around in circles. But this is more than just show.

If you play any sport with a racket/bat/stick, you are taught the importance of following through with your swing. You don't just hit the ball and stop your movement. You hit the ball and continue on, your momentum moving through the arc of motion. And so it's the same with percussion. You don't just hit something and stop dead. You hit it and there is a natural rebound, or glancing stroke, that continues the energy and motion you have started. And this type of motion/gesture can affect the sound. Small/short motions will yield small/short sounds. While large, sweeping motions will yield large, sweeping sounds.

Small gestures, medium gestures, fluid gestures

Take a look at yourself playing. Use a mirror if you have one. How is your motion? How does it change from instrument to instrument, sound to sound? How do different motions change your sounds? These are important questions to ask yourself. 

Another good way is to video record yourself. This gives you the chance to sit down and analyze what you are doing. I record most of my performances and watch them specifically to see how I am playing, how my motions are, and if there's something I can do to improve my technique/performance. I check out my posture, my movement, how I sit or stand. Because I have such a large set up, I'm always looking to see if my motion is fluid in moving from one instrument to another. Athletes do this all the time, so why not musicians?

~ MB

Deconstruct Yourself™


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