Dynamics add tension
Today's post is going to focus on moving between dynamics to build tension.  In the video above (featuring Bill Heid on keys and Kris Funn on bass), check out how the transitions from loud to soft at 1:07 and again at 2:13 build tension by upsetting the expectation of a loud climax.  This upset expectation, and the tension that comes from it are one of the fundamental elements of almost any kind of music.  The longer you can delay resolving this tension, the more intense the emotional response from your audience will be.  In the video, the dynamic tension in the song doesn't really resolve until the very end. 

Will they get together or not?
It's just like a sitcom
Tension and release works in almost any art form.  One example of this that may help explain the importance of tension and release is the sitcom.  In order for a sitcom to work there has to be some kind of central tension that never gets fully resolved.  The reason people continue to watch and enjoy these shows is that they want to find out if and how this tension will finally be resolved.  As soon as the central tension is resolved, the story is over. In music the same principle applies, so waiting to resolve dynamic tension until the climax of a piece is crucial. 

As a drummer, your job is to set the dynamic range of the music.  If you play loud, everyone else kind of has to.  With that in mind, if you can exercise the restraint necessary to hold back the bashing impulse, you will find that when you do finally release that impulse, the effect will be dramatically heightened.  

How to develop good dynamic transitions
In addition to just restraining yourself dynamically, you can further build tension if you can move smoothly between loud and soft playing.  The reason this transition is important is it  tricks the listener into expecting a climax like in the two examples mentioned at the top.  The following are some ways to develop this in your own playing.

1.  Listen
These dynamic transitions don't work if only one person in the group is doing them, so you have to listen very carefully to try to anticipate what direction the dynamics are going.  

2.  Give clear cues
If you try to do something dramatic with no warning, you can often lose your group, so always try to broadcast your intentions.  This doesn't necessarily mean that you have to play an obvious cue, it can be as simple as a quick verbal exchange or even just eye contact.  

3.  Practice playing dynamic transitions with a metronome
Playing soft and playing loud do not feel the same, and this can result in the time getting really wonky when you are making this transition.  It is worth practicing just  playing time with the metronome and switching rapidly between loud and soft (maybe four bars of each) to overcome this tendency.  

4.  Listen to the greats
All of my favorite musicians use dynamic transitions in their music to great effect.  One example that springs to mind is Art Blakey in the song "One By One":

These historical examples are useful not only as inspiration, but as a way to learn what other people expect.  If you study the greats, you will insure that your vocabulary is in sync with other musicians so you can communicate more easily.   

I will also try to post a good exercise that I developed for dynamic transitions some time in the near future.