I’d like to use the blog as a platform to explore the intersections of two things in my life that I spend plenty of time on: film history and drums. My basic argument is that the strategies used to increase efficiency, which emerged in the late 19th and early 20th century in the United States, similarly affected drumming. And these strategies, moreover, are tied to the medium of film. Drummers, in fact, to this day employ methods to streamline their physical movements in ways that would have made Ford and Taylor proud.
The emergence of drum kits as such was tied to economical reasoning. Drummers built so-called ‘contraptions’ to be able to play multiple percussive instruments simultaneously, oftentimes in order to provide live soundtracks for silent films in the 1910s and 1920s. The idea was to replace multiple musicians in an orchestra with one single player. Bass drum, snare drum, and cymbals were collapsed into one instrument in order to save money, that is, to pay one player instead of a whole section, and to make the set transportable, that is, to be able to fit as many percussive instruments as possible into a small orchestra pit (Brennan 250). Two mechanical inventions were crucial to contraptions: the bass drum pedal, the first one produced for a mass market appeared in 1909 and was patented to William F. Ludwig in Chicago (Brennan 251, see an image of it here), and a little later, in the 1920s, the emergence of the ‘low boy’, which by the late 1920s was known as the hi-hat (Shannon). Even today, the production of drum kits bears witness to the fact that a drum kit contains a whole number of instruments, as the companies producing the actual drums are not the same ones you’ll buy your cymbals from. Having one player make up for a whole drum section obviously demands high degrees of efficiency of that one player. As Shannon explains:
“The feet were now commonly used to keep time as the hands could now efficiently be used (efficiency was improved/economy of motion was improved) due to the right foot playing bass drum and the left playing hi hat. By the start of the 1930’s many drummers began to fully grasp the multi limbed orchestrations that were possible in the drum kit, courtesy of the technological developments that happened a decade earlier” (Shannon).
That, however, is only one way the histories of drums and movies interrelate. Today as much as back then, attempts to improve your drumming usually involve studying your movements, both in order to increase accuracy of play as well as speed. In doing that, we’re in a sense doing exactly what Ford and other promoters of industrial efficiency did in the early 20th century. In the wake of Taylor’s book on The Principles of Scientific Management, researchers used film and photography to study motion, among them Frank and Lillian Gilbreth. They studied for instance the motion of workers in the 1910s, aiming to essentially increase efficiency in the work place. They did so by filming a worker performing a specific, repetitive task and analyzing their action in slow-motion, or compiling them into photographs.
In the following decade, rudiment drummer Sanford A. Moeller did something similar: He filmed the motions of snare drumming and used the individual film strips to teach students the exact motion and method. He published those strips in his 1925 manual, today sold as The Moeller Book: The Art of Snare Drumming. In a kind of foreword, Moeller writes:
“Here we have for the first time in any publication a print from a moving picture taken of the action of drumming. Enough is given to convey a correct idea of the style. […] The moving picture is a most wonderful help in showing form. We can copy from it the form of our great athletes and dancers. The slow moving pictures we see in the theatre are invaluable to students of motion. Therefore we adopt this modern scientific way of showing the movements in drumming” (Moeller, 2).
Moeller essentially picked up on the methods of the efficiency movement and he applied them to art – to drumming as a practice in which efficiency is less directly related to economic benefits. Let’s keep in mind that Moeller is writing about rudiment drumming – the motion pictures he took were of drummers using only a snare drum, most likely in army duty. They weren’t playing contraptions. However, both contraptions as well as Moeller’s study date back to a time in which scientists and economists sought to place a worker’s body under the imperatives of efficiency.
Practically every drummer today has heard of the ‘Moeller wipe’ (a term Moeller himself never used, he wasn’t thinking of himself as coining a style, he rather thought he was compiling information skilled rudiment drummers had known of all along). Instruction DVDs, websites, magazines and so on employ film to show movement in close-ups and in slow-motion, or they use series photography to pinpoint specific techniques of drumming (we also see that a lot with explanations of double bass techniques that specify the movements of the feet). These instruction publications oftentimes unconsciously recreate imagery that is reminiscent of the Gilbreth’s films and of photography dating back to Muybridge in the late 1870s.
I couldn’t possibly end this blog post without a personal note on Whiplash (2014). Plenty has been said and written, maybe most profoundly by Peter Erskine, but maybe the connection of efficiency and drumming can add something to the discussion. Also, I wouldn’t pass up any occasion to bitch about the movie (which, nevertheless, is a great film in terms of dramaturgy and other, not drum-related things). The problem with the film’s depiction of drumming is that it reduces drumming to striving for speed (yes, we all do want to be able to play faster), and in the process it ignores efficiency. We watch Andrew (Miles Teller) try to play faster by relentlessly trying and wishing to play faster, but he never stops to look at this technique and check his movements. He seems tense, his muscles are tight, and he looks somewhat out of place in trying to master the drums instead of becoming a part of them. He pushes his own body to the limits instead of trying to exceed those limits in search of efficiency, and thus in a sense ignores how the drum kit is more than just historically embedded within a context of American modernity.
Thanks for reading this.