“At the end of every music lesson, my teacher tells me to practice. What does that mean?”
What is NOT effective practice?
Playing your instrument in between your lessons is the only way to make real progress. You can’t expect to develop any kind of understanding by just playing in your weekly session. Music isn’t something we can intellectualise and drumming in particular is something that can only be understood by actually doing it. This is because your body and muscles are learning and perfecting certain movements, which translate to certain sounds or phrases. Thinking about playing is definitely not practice. Nor is reordering your notes or watching YouTube videos! Although these things are useful for organisation and inspiration, respectively.
Sitting at your drum kit, playing any random ideas that come into your head, is also not effective practice. We need to cultivate focus, discipline and awareness in order to get better. This is why I always recommend students do a 5-10 minute warmup before playing grooves and songs. This warmup is both physical and mental; we are preparing our muscles for streamlined action and also calming our minds from our standard state of awareness. A little experimentation with your own routines will soon reveal how indispensable a warmup can be for fruitful practice.
After these 5-10 minutes, you will be in a clearer headspace to approach your main areas of practice with diligence and patience.
At the end of your practice session by all means go wild and play whatever comes into your head. This process is invaluable to cultivating your own style and blowing off some steam. I guarantee you will be more satisfied with the results of this ‘free time’ if you put it at the end of your session rather than the beginning.
Our attitude towards our studies influences our focus and diligence when practicing. If we are convinced we know it all already, then we will be unable to make even the smallest amount of progress. Before we learn anything new, we must accept that we actually know nothing about the subject, or at least, that our understanding of the area is limited. Without this humbleness, we are unable to absorb and respect new information and ideas.
There are no shortcuts in drums, you’ve either done the practice and made improvement or you haven’t, it’s as simple as that! If you play without thought, then you will not expand your knowledge and abilities. If you treat each new exercise you are shown with respect and reverence and work on it frequently until it becomes automatic, then there will be no limit to your level of mastery.
Listening, Not Assuming
Listening is something you will often hear talked about in your music lessons, and again it is something that can be hard to understand at first.
The majority of the population is unaware of all the different elements and instruments that make up their favourite songs. They may have listened to a certain piece of music over a thousand times, but have very little idea what instruments were used or what each one is playing. It is also fair to assume that many people focus mainly on the lyrics and melody and have very little understanding of the backing instruments; drums, bass guitar, rhythm guitar etc. And yet, when asked, they will say they love ‘listening’ to music and love everything about their favourite songs.
We can assume then that standard ‘listening’ will not suddenly make us brilliant musicians. The type of listening we need to cultivate is a deep focus on our chosen instrument within the track, and as we train our ears, an understanding of how to translate what we hear into the correct movements to achieve the same result.
Our brain is very good at ‘filling in the gaps’ and making auditory assumptions by falling back on previous knowledge. When we learn a new pattern, it’s kind of like an audio ‘spot the difference’; what is different about this new pattern compared to the last pattern I learnt? Have I ‘spotted’ all the differences correctly? Too many times a student will exclaim with great glee that they have mastered this new pattern within minutes of being shown it for the first time, only to play back when prompted, the pattern learnt the previous week!
We must remember to keep checking our reference material when learning something new, be it a written pattern, an audio track or a video. If we are aware that our brain is always ready to ‘fill in the gaps’, then we can be prepared with a suitable attention to the details. This simple practice both improves your listening ability and sharpens your focus when learning new ideas.
When To Celebrate
Many times, when I demonstrate a new idea, a student will hobble through the exercise once and then celebrate immediately. Being able to play it once is of no use whatsoever! Moreover it will likely be forgotten very quickly. Anyone who has persevered with any skill knows that the only way to improve is to keep doing it! To actually crystalise a pattern in body and mind, it has to be played tens, if not hundreds of times. So once you can get through the pattern once, keep doing it, over and over, until you no longer have to think about the individual movements.
This is especially relevant to drums, as we are called upon to repeat patterns over and over more than any other instrument. To achieve our primary goals of ‘danceability’ and transcendence, these patterns need to sound, look and feel effortless and relaxed.
A good example for drummers is the paradiddle. If you know the paradiddle, then it is quite likely that you have also been playing the single stroke roll for at least a few weeks. I imagine that you no longer have to think about the single stroke roll, you can probably even talk whilst playing it without missing a beat. We need to practice the paradiddle until it gets to this same level of what can be called ‘unconscious competence’.
This is the desired state for all of our patterns; to be able to play them cleanly and efficiently, with the minimum amount of conscious thought. When we are capable of this, then we can celebrate.
Four stages that can be applied to learning any new pattern, or skill in general, are:
1. Unconscious Incompetence – We don’t know we can’t do it yet!
2. Conscious Incompetence – We’re now aware we can’t do it and are ready to learn.
3. Conscious Competence – We can do it, but it takes all of our focus not to mess it up.
4. Unconscious Competence – Our goal. We can do it without thinking, allowing our conscious awareness to focus on the bigger picture and our place in the music.
Once we can play a pattern as a whole, we can start to think about how the individual parts of what we are playing are relevant to the music as a whole. To understand this, we need to view the drum kit as a collection of instruments, rather than just one. When we play a standard groove, we have a hi hat pattern, a snare pattern and a bass drum pattern, all happening simultaneously. Try playing a groove and then focussing your ear on the rhythms produced by each of these parts of the kit individually.
To develop our musicality on the drum kit, we need to make the transition from just playing the collection of grooves and fills we have learnt, to understanding what we are actually ‘saying’ on the drum kit when we play them. This awareness and musicality is perhaps the most elusive and personal of the skills we must learn and can take a lifetime to perfect. Listening carefully to recordings, recording ourselves and always paying attention to the sound we are creating, are ways to help us develop this most coveted of talents. Often playing simply and slowly are a good first step to help make us more aware of what we are doing.
Effective Practice, In Practice
—> A new pattern, exercise or song is demonstrated in class.
1. Practice the pattern/song as much as possible in class. Make a note of it, or mark it in your book. Ask your teacher if you are not sure about what you are doing.
2. Play the pattern as soon as you can after the lesson, preferably as soon as you get home. If you do it on the same day, you are much more likely to remember and understand it.
3. Come back to the pattern at least 3 or 4 times before your next lesson. Short bursts of regular practice are the way to succeed. If you feel yourself getting angry, either move on to something else or take a short break.
4. When you are able, play the pattern(s) in context, i.e. with a backing track or along to a song.
1. Remember to revisit patterns/songs from previous weeks regularly and incorporate them into your practice routine.
2. Always start your sessions with a warmup, to maximise productivity. End with a song playalong or a ‘free time’ session, where you can play whatever you want.
3. Stay focussed throughout your sessions. Take short breaks or move onto other exercises if you get stuck.