photo credit: Dr. Nadia Azar
“Drummers should be training their bodies for the demands of their profession, to be able to perform at their peak and to avoid getting injured.” – Dr. Nadia Azar, Associate Professor, University of Windsor
The academic exploration of drummers and the drum set is kind of like Oklahoma at the near turn of the 20th century; vastly wide open and mostly unclaimed. It was the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889 that sent settlers blazing across the unassigned lands, as they were called, all seeking a spot to stake out and build upon.
In the world of human movement studies, Dr. Nadia Azar has hitched her horses to a unique research wagon of her own design and is pioneering the exploration of exercise analysis and pain research as applied to the drum set. With the help of Mike Mangini (Dream Theater) and Jeff Burrows (The Tea Party), Dr. Azar is opening the doors for future academic exploration of the drum set and the players who up until now have not likely seen themselves as athletes who can benefit from a sports training perspective.
I discovered Dr. Azar’s work on a Twitter feed and contacted her requesting an interview. Regular readers of this blog know that I usually just write about someone and leave it to you to explore further. The Clem Burke Drumming Project is such an example:
I wrote a fairly short post about it 2009, briefly describing the project and the research being conducted with respect to drumming and exercise. However, in this case. I felt it was important to get the story directly from Dr. Azar about her work and its potential application. If you click on the following link, you can view her university website and background.
What follows is a Q & A conducted via e-mail to allow Dr. Azar to expound on her project. Hopefully, it will inspire drummers to participate in her future research and perhaps even nudge some of you into the realm of academia to help push the research envelope further. It also serves to lay groundwork for the next evolution of this blog, into a second one that will be focusing specifically on Drum Set Research (the new blog name).
We’ll be interviewing Dr. Azar again when her current study on drumming and pain is complete. I encourage drummers to check out her studies in this area especially and to please help her complete a survey that could eventually help drummers down the line with respect to pain research, management and avoidance. You’ll find the link at the end of this interview.
That said, let’s get to know a bit about Dr. Azar and her work…
What first prompted you to study drummers?
“In the fall of 2016, I was at a Dream Theater concert watching Mike Mangini playing, and I thought to myself how great it would be if I could hook him up to my research equipment and see what his back muscles were doing while he was playing. About a week later, Mike tweeted something about his drumming technique, so I took a chance and responded that I’d like to study his technique, not really expecting that he’d respond. Well… he did, and we began corresponding about possible research projects! As I started digging into the research literature, I realized that there is very little research on the biomechanics of playing the drums, and on drumming-related pain and injuries. So, I decided to design some research studies to start investigating these things myself.”
Do you play drums? Other instruments? If so, please share some background, favorite groups and musicians, influences, etc.
“I can play a 4/4 beat, maybe even add in a basic fill – but I wouldn’t call myself a drummer. The summer before I started high school, my friend’s cousin set up his drum kit in her basement, and he taught us how to play. We spent the summer playing Metallica’s ‘Enter Sandman’ on a loop. I did take piano lessons for about eight years though, and I also played the flute for three years.
“[As for] favorite groups & musicians – there are so many! Dream Theater, Disturbed, Walk Off the Earth, Walk the Moon, The Tea Party, Imagine Dragons, 311, Phish, and many more.”
How did you become interested in kinesiology/biomechanics?
“I’ve always been interested in sports, health, and how the human body works. When I was deciding on potential career paths, my high-school guidance counsellor introduced me to the field of ergonomics. The Kinesiology program at the University of Windsor allowed me to pursue my combined interests, and our graduate program also has a strong biomechanics/ergonomics stream.”
What made you want to pursue your Ph.D, and what was the focus of your thesis?
“My father is a (now retired) University professor. I knew I wanted to pursue research as a career, but in an entirely different subject area (he was in Education). When I finished my Master’s degree at the University of Windsor, I was working as a research technician for one of my former professors. I loved it, but it was a temporary position, so I started looking for PhD programs and came across the Biomedical Engineering program at Wayne State University in Detroit, MI. It was one of the top programs in the country, and it appealed to me because it would allow me to learn more about biomechanics from an engineering perspective. My thesis project studied the neck muscles’ responses to stretching of one of the ligaments in the spine. It was part of a larger project whose goal was to investigate potential mechanisms for how whiplash-related neck pain develops.”
How does your work differ from the Clem Burke drumming project in England?
“With respect to the calorie counting case studies I’ve done: they are similar to the Clem Burke Project in that we both documented drummers’ energy expenditure (i.e., calories burned) during live performances. I am using different equipment than they did, and my approach is also different – whereas theirs was a formal research study, I am using this as an exercise in knowledge translation and raising awareness. It’s an interesting and accessible way to demonstrate to the public that playing the drums is a vigorous physical activity that can be used as an alternative to traditional forms of exercise, like going to the gym or playing organized sports.
“The Clem Burke Project was the first to put his idea forward, and they took some important steps in getting this message out to the public. I’m now trying to take it a step further by documenting song-by-song energy expenditures in high-profile drummers. If information on rates of energy expenditure (i.e., calories per kilogram body weight per minute) were available on a song-by-song basis, people who want to play the drums for exercise could customize exercise ‘playlists’ to their preferred intensity levels as well as their favorite songs. This is my long-term objective with this branch of my research – to get enough drummers to do this so I can create a database of calorie burn rates per song.
“The flip side of this work is to make the point, especially to full-time, professional drummers, that they need to start looking at themselves as athletes, and start training as such. The Clem Burke Project showed that drummers’ HR [heart rate] profiles similar to those of professional soccer players. Professional athletes don’t just get on a field or a court and play games/matches – they engage is a significant amount of training, including both skill-specific drills and general strength/conditioning, in order to handle the physical demands of their sport and to deliver their peak performance. Based on what we know about the physical demands of drumming, it’s no different – but I don’t believe many drummers view it this way. Drummers should be training their bodies for the demands of their profession, to be able to perform at their peak and to avoid getting injured.
“My other research on drummers is completely different from the Clem Burke Project. I mentioned earlier that when I started looking into research on the biomechanics of drumming, there was next to nothing on drumming-related pain and injuries. So, I designed a survey that will allow me to document the prevalence and patterns of playing-related musculoskeletal disorders in drummers, and identify some of the playing-related and lifestyle characteristics and/or habits that might either help drummers avoid these injuries/problems, or put them at risk of developing them. The survey results won’t be able to tell me whether these characteristics or habits CAUSE injuries – but it will tell me which characteristics/habits are related to an increased or decreased likelihood of reporting injuries. From there, I can design more studies to study the different risk factors or protective factors in more depth. The survey is available at the following website:”
Do you have research autonomy, or did you have to convince supervisors about the validity of your present research to make it happen?
“I do have research autonomy, so I didn’t have to convince my dean or department head that the work was valid. My challenge will be to convince the research funding agencies.”
When you first began the project, did you find others in your field exploring this subject matter? If not, what did this suggest to you?
“Not at all – there are very few people studying drumming biomechanics, and no one studying playing-related injuries specifically in drummers. Most of the studies I’ve read only include a handful of percussionists, and it’s often not clear whether drummers were included in the study. Most of them also focus on classically-trained percussionists, and don’t consider the differences in the physical demands of playing different music genres. However, we’ve all heard of high-profile drummers who have battled career-threatening injuries – we know it’s a problem, but it hasn’t been systematically studied and documented. I saw a real need for research in this area, so I took it as an opportunity.”
How did you choose your first subject, and how did you get introduced to Mike Mangini?
“The calorie counting study wasn’t actually part of my original research plan. It sort of evolved organically – one day, Mike tweeted a guess at how many calories he burns during his shows. We had already been in touch for a few months at that point, so I told him that if he wanted to find out, I had a way to do that. I told Jeff Burrows (The Tea Party) about it, too, and they both thought it would be fun to find out.
“If you mean, how did I make his acquaintance, see the answer to #1 – it was entirely serendipitous. He tweeted about his technique, I took a chance and responded, he wrote back, and the rest is history. If you mean, how was I introduced to him as an artist? I’ve been a fan of Dream Theater since my husband introduced me to them about 19 years ago, so I was ‘introduced’ to him when he joined the band in 2010.
“I’ve also been a fan of The Tea Party for almost 25 years, so I was thrilled when Jeff Burrows offered to get involved. We kept in touch, and an opportunity to collect data on him came up during The Tea Party’s residency at The Horseshoe Tavern (Toronto, ON).”
Dr. Nadia Azar and Mike Mangini – photo credit: Melissa King
How did they react to the project? Did they contribute to its structure with any suggestions regarding approach?
“Neither of them really ‘reacted’, so to speak – this entire line of work evolved based on my Twitter interactions with Mike and our first conversation, and Jeff came on board shortly afterwards. So, they have both been involved since the projects’ inception, and their interest and contributions have evolved with the projects as they developed. Aside from being participants in the calorie counting study, both Jeff and Mike were active collaborators in working out the logistics and facilitating collecting the data during live shows. Along the way, they have both provided informal suggestions for this and other studies I am planning, basically being sounding boards for my ideas. Jeff also contributed to the development of the drummer injury survey as a member of the expert review panel, and has been actively promoting my work through social media.”
Please describe in layman’s terms the calorie measuring device and technology you use.
“The device I use is the BodyMedia® FIT armband. It is a small device (about 1.5” square) that is secured to the back of your upper arm using a Velcro strap. The device contains four sensors:
- A triaxial accelerometer, which measures motion in 3 planes (up-down, side-side, front-back)
- A temperature sensor, to monitor your skin temperature
- A heat flux sensor, to monitor the rate at which you are dissipating body heat
- A galvanic skin response sensor, which monitors the conductivity of your skin (a value that increases with sweating)
The sensor data are recorded once per minute and stored on the device. After the drumming session, I remove the armbands and download the data to my computer. The software that comes with the armbands contains algorithms that use the sensor data, along with basic participant information (height, weight, age, sex, handedness, and smoking status) to predict energy expenditure (i.e., calories burned).”
Jeff Burrows – photo credit: David Torbett
Please describe in layman’s terms the basic elements of your research approach to calorie burning.
“I chose to collect data during live performances because it is the most convenient way for professional drummers to participate – they don’t have to make a special trip to my my lab, which is located in Windsor, Ontario. Windsor is right across the Canada-USA border from Detroit, Michigan, and Toronto, Ontario is also only a few hours away. So, between those three cities, which are typically stops on most bands’ tours, I can easily travel to wherever the drummer will be.
“Sometime before the start of the show ([which] can be minutes or hours, depending on the drummers’ preferences), I meet with the drummer to put on the armbands and synchronize them. The drummer then goes and plays the show. During the show, I also wear an armband that has been synchronized to theirs, and I use the timestamping feature to record the start and ending of every song. I meet up with them again after the show to remove the bands, then I take them back to my computer to download and analyze the data.
What were your goals with this project beyond simply measuring calorie burn? Were you able to correlate separate calorie burn isolation for the individual limbs, or is it only measure collectively?”
“Re: goals beyond measuring calories, please see my answer to #5.
“The drummers wear an armband on each arm, and I take an average of the readouts of the two armbands. Normally, you would have a participant wear only one armband on their non-dominant arm, but since playing the drums has a lot of upper limb movement and both limbs are active nearly equally, I wanted to take measurements using both arms. Interestingly, both Jeff and Mike were pretty symmetrical – the estimates were pretty similar for both arms. However, the numbers don’t represent the calorie burn of each individual arm – they are estimates of whole-body energy expenditure.
What were your overall thoughts and observations concerning your results? What does calorie burning data tell you about drumming in general, and why is this of value?
“I was really pleased to see the variation between the songs of different intensities. For Mike, because Dream Theater played the same set list on both data collection nights, I was able to look at the reliability of the estimates for each song, and I was happy (and amazed) to see how consistent he was from night to night. I was also very happy to see that the numbers I was getting were in the same ballpark as those that have been reported in the research literature so far (e.g., the Clem Burke project, and two other studies I’m aware of). Those studies used different methods than I did, so I can’t directly compare my numbers to theirs, but it was good to see that my equipment wasn’t wildly off from the published data.
“As far as what this data tells me about drumming in general and why it’s of value, I think I answered that in #5 already. But to reiterate – it demonstrates that playing the drums is a vigorous physical activity, which is important to know for two reasons:
- Playing the drums can be used as an alternative to traditional forms of exercise like going to the gym or playing organized sports. This is good news for people who don’t like these kinds of activities – they can still get in a good workout doing something fun.
- Drummers need to be aware of the demands they are placing on their bodies, and engage in strength and endurance training to prepare their bodies to meet these demands.
It’s this final though that serves as a vital stepping off point for the future of drumming physiology research. We are indeed engaging in not only a cerebral and a musical activity, but also a decidedly physical one. Perfecting your technique will not turn you into an automaton, but rather, will hopefully extend your ability to play for many years.
To this end, once again, please check out Dr. Azar’s link to her survey on drum-related pain and problems:
And lastly, it’s worth repeating that one of Dr. Azar’s very interesting research goals is being able to design an exercise program based on the calorie-burn rate of songs in your playlist. It would be very interesting to see how double bass songs, for example, differ in terms of calorie burn from more straight ahead single kick drum beats. These are just the tip of the iceberg of research doors waiting to be opened.
I’d like to thank Dr. Azar for taking the time to answer my questions and help make this particular blog possible. She’s headed into unknown territory with great interest and curiosity, and that’s exactly what our drumming world needs to further our knowledge of how performance on our amazing instrument can be improved upon. And you can be sure that as a pioneer of drum set research, Dr. Azar is looking waaaaaay past Oklahoma …
– David R. Aldridge