Deciding What to Practice on the Drum Set
One of the tricky things about being a drummer today is the abundance of educational materials available. With so many options for my practice sessions, I'm always overwhelmed. Sometimes I feel like I want to rail the kick drum. Other days I just want to pound on my practice pad. Here's a breakdown of the process I go through to make the most of my practice time.
Maintenance VS Development
Musicians, athletes, scientists, engineers - really any high ability individual - is going to face the challenge of maintaining a skill set. If you've ever jumped into a math class after some time out of school, then you know what I'm talking about. All of the details of algebra are going to be gone, and you'll need to spend some time refreshing your memory before you can expect to learn new concepts.
The same stands true for drummers. We can't expect to just be able to sit down and play whenever we damned well please. On the contrary, we need a systematic and regular practice routine to be able to play our best. For me, this is a minimum of 10 hours a week. I don't start making any progress on new material unless I'm at least two weeks into a 15/hr per week routine.
This is because the brain is an instrument which adapts to changing circumstances. It responds to whatever you feed it. Feed it drums, and it will play drums. Feed it weightlifting, and it will lift. Neglect any skill and your brain will replace those connections with whatever you choose to feed it instead.
If you are taking the time to maintain your foundation, then building atop it should be no problem, right?
The question remains: What should I work on?
Who Do You Want to Sound Like?
When you choose to spend time with another drummer's drills, you're going to adapt certain aspects of their playing. The creative step is to take bits and pieces from your favorite players and blend them together to create your own vocabulary.
Phrasing Dictates Everything
I'm going to mention a lot of books and DVDs that I like to work with. These represent the styles and players who I choose to study. Certainly, there are other systems that will accomplish the same tasks from a different angle. By all means, practice the stuff that you find inspiring.
It's important to keep in mind that the way I approach these problems is dictated by the kind of phrasing I'm aiming for. You should choose different books and DVDs based on the way you want to sound.
The Four Areas of Practice
I divide my drum practice time into four areas of focus.
Although all musicians deal with technique and performance, drummers have to pay special attention to timing and coordination. A guitarist spends a lot of time thinking about things like music theory and composition. Drummers don't have to get caught up in those things, but instead we have an increased burden in the timing and coordination areas.
Most drum books and DVDs will specialize in one of these issues. Although there is always some overlap between these topics, I find that some exercises lend themselves very well to development in one area.
Establishing strong technique is prerequisite to any other aspect of drumming. Sure, you can play with bad technique, but you'll end up in pain and run into limitations very quickly - it will affect your ability to focus on the other issues in your playing. Technique has to be so solid that it isn't something you have to actively think about while you play.
All of this applies to both hands and feet. Most exercises will work well for both, but try to find at least one separate system for foot technique, as things are a bit different down there.
Systems I have used to work on technique include:
Johnny Rabb's 30 Days to Better Hands
The Jojo Mayer DVD (need I say more?)
Thomas Lang's Creative Coordination and Control DVD/Book
This is an endless topic. There are so many ways to fling sticks around it's crazy. But, it is important to remember that your coordination system must be compatible with your technique. For example, my teacher introduced me to Moeller technique early on. Now, it's a very strong and natural way for me to play. I decided to take advantage of that by studying the playing of Jojo Mayer and Claus Hessler, who are Moeller maniacs!
Eventually, I had to learn to use my fingers in my playing so that I could execute some of the movements I see from Johnny Rabb, Antonio Sanchez, and John Riley.
Now, if you have spent the time mastering a lot of different techniques, then you have the ability to explore a lot of musical space. That's why having a firm technical foundation pays off as time passes.
Personally, I have spent a fair amount of time with materials published by the following artists:
Timing is a separate issue from other aspects of your playing. I have benefited from spending time focused on timing exclusively during my practice sessions. Although there is overlap between timing and other problems, timing needs to be honed and practiced separately if you REALLY want to groove.
For example, I can certainly turn a simple coordination drill into a timing exercise. Once a coordination problem is resolved, I always spend additional time locking down the timing. But, I find that focusing on timing as a separate issue is what pushed me onto a new level of drum beastliness. The subtlety of a solid groove is FAR more important than literally any other aspect of your playing: You can play fast, have awesome phrasing, be a technical beast, and have dynamic control over the drum set and still have problems playing convincingly. No amount of knowledge or expertise on the drums will mean anything if you EVER leave the pocket when it counts.
Just turn on the radio and tell me how many times you hear somebody drop a backbeat after a fill, or slide ahead and behind the groove with the hi hat. For professional drummers, this doesn't happen. That's not an accident.
Thankfully, this is a very simple issue to tackle:
If there is any one set of exercises I could share with you, it's those. Donny Gruendler really changed my playing with those drills.
Working on timing is rewarding because it makes every other aspect of your playing better. Your technique will be applied precisely. Your coordination will solidify. Your phrasing will be more deliberate. You. Will. Rock.
I like to spend time playing music or working on solos at least a few times a week. This lets me apply and integrate everything I learn into something I can evaluate and feel. Performance should feel smooth and effortless. I never try to play anything I am not 100% confident about when I'm with other people. I focus on time and feel and keep my phrasing simple until I've really mastered a new piece.
If you have the opportunity to record yourself, do it as often as possible. This will open up new insight into the things you need to work on.
Avoid Paralysis by Analysis
One of the things I'm guilty of is paralysis by analysis. I sometimes sit in my studio and find myself just staring at the pile of books. That's not an effective way to practice.
I've written elsewhere about the difficulty of achieving mastery. Sometimes my desire to be an excellent drummer makes me anxious about whether I'm working on the right things. At some point, you have to decide on something to work on and focus on it until you master it. All of it is going to make you better, whether it's the "best" choice or not is impossible to know.
One System VS Multiple Systems
I like to choose one system in each category I outlined above and work it until I feel that I have a very deep understanding of that player's approach and phrasing. I like to see bits and pieces of my practice routines come out in my performance. Very rarely do I find that I actually play an exact drill or groove from a book or DVD once the music starts.
Choosing systems is tricky. There is no easy answer other than to follow what feels right. Follow examples from a drummer you find to be inspiring, and motivation to continue when things get tough will be no problem.
What are you working on? Leave a comment below!