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I'm playing a pretty simple drum part over some light rock and pop music in an small theater, for a piece in which the vocalists play an extremely prominent role and need to be heard very clearly; I'm trying to figure out ways I can play the drums with minimum sacrifices in terms of sound source choices.

Although I'm aware that low volume sticks exist (as do mutes and screens and tonnes of other volume-checking systems), I'm reluctant to make the investment. I presently have access to two kinds of brushes: Vic Firth Live Wires (which have small metal balls at the ends) and Standard WB Vic Firths. My plan is to partially reveal the brushes, i.e. pull back the outer shield to expose about 2-3 inches of the metal brushes, rather than splaying the wires out fully, and then play with them in a fashion similar to what I would do with normal sticks, although I end up holding them unusually close to the tip, which is conducive with my desire to play soft and chill.

I've tried doing this and it's rather effective: I need to make a few small adjustments to my playing style, but I think I generally have good technique which I've developed over quite a few years, so I'm not scared about the possibility of damaging my technique. It sometimes sounds bad when the wires strike the head at an angle, but it's otherwise a great strategy for lowering the volume.

My question is will this damage the brushes or my drumheads? I'm interested in using them (the brushes and the coated heads) for actual jazz later. My playing style does not involve heavy hitting and the songs themselves are not aggressive. I'm worried that if I play like this for a fair amount of time, the brushes somehow getting 'stretched' such that they're kind of floppy, which would make them a mess when I pull back the sheath completely to do actual brush techniques. Also, I wonder if this will somehow chip away the coating on my head; I haven't done it long enough to see if there're any long-term effects and I'd like a green signal before I go ahead and adopt the technique.

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Hi and welcome to the Music Stack Exchange. To answer your question:

will this damage the brushes or my drumheads?

Yes - at very least in the sense that any and all contact between sticks (or mallets, brushes, multi-rods) and heads contributes to wear on both, respectively. However, since you are playing softly, you are not likely to significantly damage either the heads or the brushes - you would be doing much more damage to your heads playing at full-volume with a pair of sticks, for example.

If you were playing with the brushes as you described with any heavy striking, then you might have a problem with bending the wires at the point where the sheath has been retracted. If you were to hit the rim over and over, perhaps... But again considering that you are playing softly with light strokes, that shouldn't be a problem for you (except after 5 to 10 years maybe.)

That said, I'd also suggest that you play with multi-rods, instead - or "rutes", as Tim suggests (had to look the term up myself haha). The Promark Cool Rods have some of the thinnest dowels which would give you a very light strike, arguably comparable to the strike you are getting from the brushes in the way you are currently using them.

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  • Maybe with brushes, OP wouldn't be playing that lightly. – Tim Dec 4 '19 at 10:01
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    Thanks! I'm accepting this answer since it addresses the issue of damage to the brushes and heads; as I mentioned in the question, I've heard of hot rods and the similar products, but I already have two kinds of brushes about so I'd rather not have to make another purchase if I don't have to. And yes, I do intend to take it easy while playing: hitting light with brushes doesn't get much tone out of the drums but it's hardly necessary here. They sound decent on the snare and hats and that's what's important. – Rishi Dec 4 '19 at 16:26
  • @Rishi - if you're going to be drumming with all sorts of bands, a bit of investment (like £5) should hardly break the bank, and one needs to be tooled up for all eventualities! – Tim Dec 4 '19 at 16:50
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    @Tim Hmm, I'm in the US and it looks like GuitarCenter sells multi-rods starting at $20; the store in my area only has the pairs which cost $30. I'll probably make the investment only if I find I'll be doing more theater. – Rishi Dec 4 '19 at 17:03
  • @Rishi - there's always ebay... and Made in China. They're o.k. – Tim Dec 4 '19 at 17:24
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Rutes. OK, I learned a word today! Hardly a bank-breaking investment.

Or you could just play quieter. For several years I had the privilege of playing with Bobby Cook, a highly experienced theatre drummer. The first time I wrote 'brushes' on his part he asked 'Do you WANT brushes, or do you just want it soft? I can do soft with sticks". And he could, while still driving or swinging very effectively.

Bobby would tell of variety shows in the days when there might be ONE microphone, on a riser, centre-front. The musical arrangements left room for the vocals. The drummer's particular trick was to lay off the cymbals until the dance section.

My first theatre work as a MD - not THAT long ago - was completely without microphones. Sometimes with a 17-piece orchestra. It worked.

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    In theater what is an MD? – Michael Curtis Dec 4 '19 at 14:34
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    Musical Director. I think the Americans say Music Director. – Laurence Payne Dec 4 '19 at 14:51
  • While this is a good answer in an ideal world, it may not be very useful for the OP. Yes, good drummers can play quietly, but it's difficult. Even many of really good drummers don't sound very good when playing quiet. Only top drummers can play quiet and still get a good powerful feel. Most amateurs will struggle to get even basic timing right when they have to concentrate on being quiet. – leftaroundabout Dec 5 '19 at 10:59
  • It's really not impossibly idealistic. Not very long ago, ALL theatre drummers had to play this way. There was no alternative. It's not an impossible skill, more a mindset. – Laurence Payne Dec 5 '19 at 11:17
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You're probably better off getting some rutes, which at least will allow you some bouncability. Not as much as sticks, but more than brushes, extended or not. Which may, as you fear, spoil the drum head eventually - somewhat more expensive.

Rutes don't need to cost a lot, and really should be part of any drummer's armoury. The last pair I bought was around a fiver, and a little like timp sticks, only come out occasionally, but do that job better than anything else.

EDIT: you could also consider, if you don't already use them, putting 'i-rings' onto the drums in question.

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    "Rutes"… now that's a new one on me. I've been using these for 20 years & never heard them called rutes. They've always just been 'rods' to me:) For a well-known usage reference - Oasis - Wonderwall – Tetsujin Dec 4 '19 at 9:29
  • @Tetsujin - multirods, bundlesticks. – Tim Dec 4 '19 at 9:59
  • yup, heard those, never heard of 'rutes' is all. – Tetsujin Dec 4 '19 at 10:00
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    @Tetsujin - so, you can never go back to your rutes! Going back to your rods just isn't the same... – Tim Dec 4 '19 at 12:32

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