Dealing with Genetic Restrictions

  • Posted on: 4 June 2014
  • By: sheldonkreger

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about genetic restrictions and the impact that has my practice routines.

I know Thomas Lang explains "Creative Coordination" that he doesn't believe in "talent" . . . but that hard work will pay off for just about anybody. That's why he's reached such a level - through focused practice for many years.

However, people do have (at least) physical restrictions which prevent them from doing certain things. Or, it makes it a lot harder to master something, because progress is much slower than it can be for other people.

An excellent example of this is in strength sports like powerlifting. Every competitive powerlifter I've met put on the majority of their strength within the first three years of training. After that, they face diminishing returns on strength gains.

The problem is that the opposite case is also true - people don't get fast results after three or four years of training, EVEN IF they weren't strong in the first place. They too face the problem of diminishing returns, but their strength levels after the first three years can much, much lower.

What I'm curious about is how this relates to drumming.

If you've read back far enough in my blog (or on my site, then you know that I hit a tough plateau with my single stroke roll earlier this year. I could not get above 175bpm at 16th notes, no matter how much I practiced. After about 4 months of work, I was able to play 180bpm. But, it was A LOT of work!

During this time, I asked Johnny Rabb (who once held the world record for the single stroke) about my problem. He explained that there are diminishing returns, and that what is important is being able to play consistent strokes, rather than push for crazy speed. He also mentioned that all players face a genetic limit, too.

So, with something physical like singles, it's clear that certain people have an advantage, but more importantly . . . certain people have a DISADVANTAGE.

I'm not trying to underplay the value of practice. I'm just wondering how players can identify their restrictions and find ways to become a player, keeping them in mind. I mean, if a person is bad at something, maybe they can work on the things they are GOOD at and be better off.

In fact, everybody has both disadvantages and advantages. My argument is that we need to take a step back and evaluate what our problems are, and IF it's worth the amount of effort taken to focus on those problems. In some cases, IT'S NOT practical to hone in on weaknesses, because we can excel when we develop our strengths.

The problem with drumming is that it is an artform, and therefore subject to interpretation. Unlike powerlifting - which is absolutely objective - drumming doesn't have a scoreboard to track results.

How do you keep track of progress? Leave a comment below and let me know if you think it's a good idea to focus on your weaknesses.


Hey Sheldon, Weeeeelllll, I think back to when I first started playing and how badly I wanted to play well. That motivation and plenty of free time(13 years old in a Texas Town)were key factors that helped me get to where I wanted to be, for the most part. I remember hitting my first plateau when I was trying to play a 3 note trill with pull offs. I spent a few months and then had the break through. I knew at that point that I might be able to work past other plateaus. What I didn't know was that when other influences, such as my first time to play with a keyboard player, came along it swept away what I had learned and forced me to relearn again. This happened three time within the first 8 year of playing guitar.
But we adapt and we find ways to make it work or we drop it. I think the genetic/hand you're dealt factor plays a larger role that you might think. Part of the hand your dealt factor is your experiences growing up and the problem solving skill you learn along the way. I have dyslexia and used to write my name backwards from right to left but my brain adapted and I learned to write from left to right.
WE DO THE BEST WE CAN WITH WHAT WE HAVE Is the bottom line for me.
As I get older I spend less time on those things that deeply challenge me but that might just be lazyness. I think you can over work something and oddly enough, for musicians, 3 months seems to be the limit. Play what you know and push those boundaries in settings you feel safe in and know when and where to cut loose.
I played with another guitarist for 5 years in a pure improv group in NM. He had broken his middle finger and could not pick very fast but man could choose some amazing notes and create an amazing sound.

I'm wondering if there's just too many variables to actually pin the "lack of progress" on genetics. What if it's ergonomics that's actually "holding you back" as it were? Perhaps a different stick or drumhead or set up of the snare could be the issue. Or maybe just a lack of fluidity and relaxation or breathing. It's like what Freddy Gruber teaches...
On the other hand...some people are just obviously way more talented!

In every aspect of my life, I've always believed in primarily focusing on trying to perfect my strengths, while still working on my weaknesses as a secondary focus. And when I've recognized those diminishing returns, I've been able to let go of whatever high-water mark I was aiming for and shift my focus to something where progress was more possible and visible. The best way to compensate for our weaknesses is to be really strong in those areas where we have natural ability. I believe the reason we're here is to change, to learn, and to grow. The specifics of where and how that change occurs are not the point, only the change and growth itself. In drumming, I feel like my goal is to become the best, most creative drummer I can be, not the best drummer ever. Someone else will have to bear that burden. Someone like Vinnie Colaiuta. Imagine the expectations he faces every time he walks into a room to play. When people think of you as a god, they expect you to do something transcendent every time you sit down? It's too much pressure. You can't help but but disappoint once in awhile. Thankfully, Vinnie doesn't disappoint often :)

I totally believe in genetic predisposition to certain skills and weakness in other areas. It even goes as far as what kind of muscles you have, not just coordination or mental capacity. Slow twitch vs fast twitch muscles behave differently. I am prone to developing fast twitch and thus I will never be good at marathon running. Even so, my "fast" twitch is pretty slow compared to guys like Kollias, Mangini, or Roddy. At some level you can build the kinds of muscles you want, but if you body is bad at it, it will be hard.

On the other hand, I believe in working on your weaknesses. In college, in order to graduate, I had to play the classic drum part to Wipeout while leading with my weak hand at a specific bpm. All of the accents fall on the leading hand, so it was very challenging at first. Of course, I am predisposed to being right handed and therefore at an inherent disadvantage, but I did manage to get my left hand to cooperate well enough to pass the test. Compared to most drummers I meet, I am not very "handed" anymore because I worked on my left side.

In all honesty, you can never be good at every aspect of drumming either. I have seen some amazingly talented drummers (most drummers older than 50 of any fame level) who cannot play a lick of double bass, and many blazing double bass drummers (typically under 50) who have a very limited repertoire of other skills. While we all ought to try to broaden the scope of our playing, it is a very rare sort of musician who can excel in any style, with any technique, at any time. You must specialize at some point and in this specialization you will develop your own unique sound. I don't have a jazz "sound" because it is far from comfortable for me to play jazz but I have a pretty distinctive rock and metal sound.

Specialization and focus on your strengths is great, working on your weaknesses is also important, but knowing your personal limitations can also save you from frustration. If I had to sum it up, I would say push the boundaries of your playing in the context of the music you are currently playing. I have rarely learned anything really well if I was not actively using it in a performance context, but I have often learned new things by necessity of an impending performance.

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