Dealing Safely With The Wear And Tear of Drumming

It was on the morning of a beautiful sunny day at the beach that I definitely found out that there were bad problems with my lower back, as I lowered the upper part of my body all the way down to grab my boats anchor cord and could not get myself back to the upright position without experiencing an excruciating pain that spread from exactly that point.

After I got better, due to much rest (spinal nerve blocks can take care of the pain too, but morphine is a no no to me, so), I had already taken notice of the fact that such movements were to be avoided from then on. I took good care of that until some three years later, when I took my crying two years old daughter from the ground from a position a bit away from me, somewhat off-center and ouch – there it was again. The pain was almost too much to resist and I almost let her fall down from my lap; so, this time, after another weekly period of rest (lying flat on my back, in bed, legs up – bent at the knees -, very quiet), I decided to consult a physician.

After hearing me, the doctor told me I probably had disc hernia, what was later confirmed with X-ray (caused by calcification of part of my lower spinal column). During his examination, in order to exemplify how much stress is imposed on the lower back (especially the spine) whenever the upper body is bent down, he encouraged me to do the very simple exercise that I now urge you all to perform.

Stop reading this now and go grab a broom. Got it? OK, so now turn it upside down and hold it perpendicular to the ground by the handle. With just one hand, grab it at somewhere around the middle, bring it down until it becomes parallel to he floor then back up. Now slide the hand down and do the same procedure a few times, until the hand has almost no more of the handle to take hold.

See? You must have noticed that the lower the hand gets to hold the handle, the harder it gets to bring the broom back up.

Well, the use of the same sort of strength has to be made by the group of muscles, bones and other bodily structures located at and around the lower back, all involved in the movement of lowering your upper body and bringing it back up again. The repetition of such stressing movements – with or without proper preparation – imposes a great deal of sacrifice to the system, making serious candidates for most eligible disc-hernia holders all of those who perform them on a regular basis – and we, drummers, do it all the time.

Any guess about how and when we do that? Bingo, for those who wondered about our setting up routine. Unless we are blessed with roadies and cartage services to take care of that, there is no escape from performing a few operations that just have to take place anytime we play: From our “base” to venues, the instrument must be: disassembled; packed; carried inside and then outside whatever available means of transportation; unpacked and assembled – after the playing is done, of course, the same routine takes place once more, now the other way around, from venues to “base”. These obligations have sometimes made me wish I had made piccolo flute or harmonica my instruments of choice instead of drums. I get tired just to write about that, and it always remembers me of the lyrics to the Jethro Tull song “Fat Man”, where it says: “… too much to carry around with you”.

But how can we avoid suffering from those lesions? I have spoken to the doctor about that, and we agreed that the very first measures must be preventive, very much in respect to the medical guidelines of prophylaxis (“measures to prevent health [as of the body or society] and prevent the spread of disease”*), since that is a condition that generally can only by acquired once “wrong” practices are routinely performed, it’s not like any disease that one can catch from contamination.

So, if “rule number one” should be “acquiring consciousness”, its logical following has to be “acting accordingly”. In practical terms: Bending down and up again is not good for the spinal system, so it must be avoided.

To make things worst, many people (myself included) in their younger years perform(ed) ridiculous feats of sheer savage strength such as picking heavy loads from the floor from a standing position – I’m sure that many drummers are doing that right now, as we speak. Maybe they won’t feel anything at all on the following day, but if they continue to do those tricks they’ll probably pay their dues as they get older.

In order to help my fellow drummers out, I’ve decided to put up a few very simple guidelines that can avoid a condition be bad enough to make you have to stop playing. Following them is not difficult, and while some extra attention may be required right in the beginning you’ll get them into your system soon, making you take good care of yourself automatically, without any thinking.

· Do not bend down from a sitting or standing position. For example: If you have to check your bass drum pedal while you’re sitting, you’d better sit on the floor than on the the throne.

· Avoid lifting weights from the ground at all costs. If you have to, lower yourself down by bending your knees, get the volume as close to your body as you possibly can, preferably held with both arms in front of you and against your chest, and then, always erect, get up. So, it’s better to carry small volumes.

· If you can attach wheels to your drum cases, do so. Otherwise you can get one of those small two-wheel cartage carriers (like the ones they use in hotels and airports) and take the stuff by loads – I use my hardware case, which is big enough to accommodate all items over it in not more than two trips.

· While setting up, try to develop an organized assembling routine that will be performed in reverse when you disassemble.

· The first part of gear that should be taken out of any case is your throne, and all the stuff should be placed close around it, so you only have to turn around in order to take anything from its case to be attached to the set (but don’t turn yourself around before you got the item held and balanced, always held close to your body).

· What I do, after placing the rug wherever the drums ought to stand on, is this:

1. Assemble all the cases around the throne: 1.1. bass drum in front of me; 1.2. a pile of all three toms – still inside the cases – atop the floor tom case; 1.3. hardware case to my left; 1.4. cymbals case behind me, resting on the throne’s legs (always attached to it with a cord or by the handle, just in case of avoiding “stage pickpockets”); 1.5. snare case behind me, next to the cymbals.

2. Take the toms holders and all other hardware from the hardware case and put them all into their places (previously marked on the rug by silver tape attached it, with milimetrical precision); 2.1. to assemble the stands, which are always well lubricated, I take them out of the case one by one, and turn them upside down to spread their legs while they’re held between mine, so I never have to go down to reach anything (remember to always turn the throne around to face the case from which any item is being pulled out from).

3. Always sitting on the throne, I take the bass drum out of its case, by opening the case, taking away the lid, turning the opened case over from the head-down position until it rests on the angular area and twisting it sideways (so the front faces right and the back faces left), then I place my right foot forward to hold the case at its only angular part, which is facing the floor, and with a few gentle tilts just pull the drum out from the case while pushing/holding the case backward (the empty case goes behind me). 3.1. Then I get off the throne and bend at the knees to go down and attach the bass drum pedal.

4. The next item is the snare drum, which is taken from the case after it is put above the now closed hardware case, and then inside it once it’s emptied.

5. The other items are the hi hat cymbals, and then I give it a go with the basic set to check out for the acoustics of stage and room.

6. Now is the time for the toms, still inside their cases atop the floor tom case (if you can pull them from the pile with no effort it’s OK, but it’s even better to just get up and get each one at a time); the two emptied smaller cases go inside the hardware case.

7. To deal with the floor tom, I get up from the throne, stand right in front of the case, bend at the knees, open the case and take the drum out while getting myself back up. Then I sit, place it on my lap, extend the legs to their markings, turn it around, get up and place the drum into position by letting it slide between my hands; the emptied case goes inside the bass drum case, which is closed and placed behind me, to my left, as a base for the small console I use for click monitoring and “table” for assorted stuff.

8. With the cymbals, all I do is take them out from the case, one by one, and just walk around the set to put each one on its respective stand (fine positioning is done later, with as minimum dislocation of the upper body as possible); the case also goes inside the hardware one, which is then placed beside me as a base for the monitor speaker.

When I am done playing, I just perform all the operations in reverse. In the end of the day, not only have I moved around the stage within an area of no more than a few square meters, thus saving lots of energy, as I have also always had perfect “location control” of all my stuff.

Once you can perform this routine, two tasks will be taken care of at the same time: prophylaxis and practical organization.

Of course another good way to keep the efforts down to a minimum is to build the design of your whole setup in a way that all the parts can be easily reached and difficult angles are avoided, which is the theme for our next meeting. See you next month, with: “Part III – Ergonomics and drumming – playing in comfort”