Webster's defines 'dynamics' to mean, in the musical sense of the word, "variation and contrast in force or intensity." In the freelance drummer-for-hire world, the ability to play with dynamics opens up a lot of gigging opportunities, perhaps even more so than killer chops.
Classical percussionists and show drummers usually rely on a written musical score for dynamic markings, and there may also be a conductor present to help direct changes in volume. But rock or jazz drummers who don't follow a score (which, if it exists, is often little more than a chord chart) must develop the ability to respond intuitively to the volume level that the music demands.
The ability to play with dynamics is helped by understanding the way a piece of music is structured. Most pop tunes alternate between verse and chorus. The verse section has lyrics that change as they accompany the music while the chorus usually uses the same words over and over in a repeating cadence or 'refrain'. Sometimes a bridge section connects the verse and chorus. The dynamic approach is generally to play quieter during the verse and then build the volume on the chorus.
Common techniques for changing the dynamics and between the verse and chorus include: striking the head harder; switching from hi-hat to ride cymbal; changing from sidestick to snare; or switching from brushes or rods to sticks.
Some tunes may be quiet for much of the song and then suddenly explode in intensity, as in Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight," with its massive gated tom fills.
Of course, there are some instances in today's aggressive punk and metal styles where dynamics get kicked in like Pete Townshend's guitar amp. This relentless wall-of-sound approach has been around since '60s rockers such as Blue Cheer turned their amps up to 11, and persists now in many offshoots of metal and punk.
This article is aimed more at the working club gig drummer who needs to adapt to a variety of musical styles - rock, blues, jazz, folk, reggae, Latin and more. These highly-varied genres demand a drummer who's capable of dipping into a vast trove of musical traditions and rhythmic feels as well as the ability to radically change volume at the drop of a guitar pick.
If you're a drum set player hoping to work with many artists, it makes sense to learn hand percussion, congas, timbales, cajon etc. A box of percussion toys and the skill to play them authentically can grant you access to venues too small or too quiet for a full drum set. Gaining significant skill on instruments like congas, djembe, dumbek, pandeiro, cajon, etc., can only make you more employable - there are a lot of singer/songwriters, ensembles, and recording projects in need of a versatile percussionist.
For the drum set player it's vital to be able to modulate volume and energy. Work on single- and double-stroke rolls until you can play evenly and smoothly at any volume. The jazz great Elvin Jones was known for having a press roll so tight that it sounded like rushing water. Old school jazz drummers such as Roy Haynes and Joe Morello could play with intensity at a relatively low volume. To build more dynamic chops practice sticking rolls and rudiments across the full volume spectrum from ultra-quiet to FREAKING LOUD (don't forget your ear protection).
The subject of drumheads is vast, but for now we'll focus on how drumhead choice affects the volume and overall sound. Clear heads produce more volume and sustain than coated heads. Single-ply heads (the most common type) tend to have a boomy, ringing sound with lots of overtones, but shorter sustain. Single-plies are also more sensitive and respond well to a lighter touch. However single-ply heads usually won't last long under the assault of a hard rock drummer, and have a sound that is less controllable.
Double-ply heads have a deeper tone with more sustain and stronger attack while offering a more controllable sound. Many drumheads incorporate some kind of dampening into the head design. For heads lacking any muffling, it may be added on later with products such as muffling sound rings or Moongels™, an improvement over the old-school technique of using duct tape.
A kick drum's considerable volume and boom can be modified by sticking a pillow or foam against the head. There are also a multiplicity of choices in kick drum heads with built-in muffling.
To summarize, rock, funk, and fusion players often prefer the durability and fat low end of double-ply heads, while players with a less aggressive attack tend to use single-plies. It's wise to try out different heads to find a sound that suits your playing style, and using either built-in or add-on muffling is an effective way to gain control of your volume.
Also, the size of your drums and cymbals obviously effects the volume. Using a 26" kick drum and 20" crashes doesn't make sense in a small venue. Many players will have a second be-bop or compact kit with downsized shells and cymbals for more intimate gigs.
Developing a set of 'big ears' is something that happens by playing with a live band night after night. While the gear and accessories you use can be a big help in playing dynamically, the most important thing is to listen closely to your fellow musicians and learn how to shape and react to the shifting volume of your band's musical expression. Those scowls from your singer will morph into smiles and the horn players will buy you drinks.
Mike Fitch has been a professional drummer and percussionist in the Pacific Northwest for over 40 years, and also worked as a copywriter and graphic designer for Musician's Friend.