Practicing – Finding Your Own Path
“What should I be practicing?”
This is a question I get asked fairly regularly by my students, and unless I know the individual very well I’m usually at a loss to give them a definitive answer. The reason for this is that the study of your instrument is a very personal thing; the goals, aspirations and interests of each person will vary immensely.
The overall skill-set expected of a professional working drummer is huge and therefore knowing where to focus your time and energy in the practice room can sometimes be difficult. Therefore, a practice routine should be developed that takes into account the needs of the individual based on their goals, priorities, time and resources.
The following areas are the ones I suggest every serious drummer should consider when forming a well-structured practice routine. By default, some of these areas will overlap. However, it’s important that each area is monitored periodically and receives attention as needed:
1. Technique – The development of technique requires an ergonomically correct playing style in both hands and feet with a view to increasing speed, power and endurance in these areas. This includes grip, general movements (Moeller technique), positioning, posture, heel up/heel down.
2. Timing (internal clock) – developing the ability to keep good time at a variety of different tempos and dynamics. Additionally, the style being played (and its basic subdivision) should be considered in the developing timing.
3. Styles/Genres – This will include knowledge of the typical patterns, sounds (e.g. ancillary percussion for latin styles or a second snare drum in drum ‘n’ bass) and the fundamental characteristics (e.g. song form, instrumentation) of a typical song/composition, as well as being able to improvise in the genre authentically as appropriate.
4. Reading – This includes learning ‘note-specific’ notation and the interpretative/geographical aspects of a drum chart.
5. Four-Way Independence – Learning four-way independence can often overlap with learning technique, reading and styles. Exercises and patterns utilized for this purpose should be done in duple and triplet subdivision, and the downbeat should be ‘sung’.
6. Repertoire – Learning songs can have excellent benefits for several reasons. In addition to increasing your knowledge of styles (depending what songs you are learning) your chances of being able to play with a band at short notice increases dramatically, particularly when they are the ‘classics’ or standards for a particular genre.
7. Soloing – This can be done in a variety of ways: groove soloing, soloing over a song form, trading fours or eights; over an ostinato or free soloing.
8. Sound quality – the ability to create a professional sound from the instrument at a wide range of dynamics, including overall balance of the various instruments of the kit.
9. Phrasing – the ability to hear ‘rhythmic cycles’ in 3, 5, etc. for the purpose of fills, soloing and creating new patterns
10. Listening/Transcription – listening to music with focus and intent and making the attempt to notate the content.
Other Important Areas To Consider!
1. Play with other musicians – ultimately, this is the end goal as the drums are usually an accompanying instrument. Playing with others brings many variances to the music that you must continually compensate for, and it involves you having to know your own role on a deeper level.
2. Practice concentrating – ‘Think, don’t stink’ – a powerful pithy maxim that commands us (Zen-like) to focus on the one thing you are doing at that moment. We make errors when our mind wanders; what is the quality of our attention and doing at any given moment? Yoga, martial arts and meditation can be excellent ways to develop this.
3. Keep a journal – Make a note of what you have practiced and when. Set goals for yourself that are ambitious but realistic, and are measurable when possible. Be reflective and make notes of your progress and any feedback that you may be receiving from a colleague or tutor.
4. Practicing away from the instrument – ‘mental’ practicing or visualization can have tremendous benefit; you may not have the luxury to sit behind the kit, but there is much you can do to mentally work through an area of study or an upcoming performance.
Record yourself – the recording doesn’t lie; you will hear things in your playing that you weren’t aware of previously. Do this in your practice sessions and when you play gigs.