Practice is the single most important focus for any drummer seriously seeking to develop competence at their instrument. This might seem obvious to some of you reading this. If so, good. A small part of the battle is just understanding this. Based on my experience both as a drummer devoted to practicing, and as a teacher, I can assure you that this is not obvious to many.
Focus is one key here. And time. How you spend your practice time should be dictated by your drumming goals. And yes….you need to have goals for this time to be effective.
First of all, let’s get our definitions straight. Practicing is about working on skills that you need to get better at. Practicing is about things you want to be able to do that you can’t do yet.
If you sit down behind the drums, smoke some pot, and start messing around by playing along with songs you know really well, and playing beats you can already play, You’re kind of, sort of practicing. But not really. Mostly….you’re just having fun.
Practicing is not always fun. It can get boring and it can get tedious. It can get very frustrating when you spend time working on something and don’t feel like you are making enough progress. But toughen up. If you are willing to work hard, and you get some good guidance (find a good teacher who is also a good player to help you), you can get as good as you want to get. You just have to be willing to spend a great deal of time working at it (ie…practicing). I don’t believe in talent. I do believe in hard work. In fact, that IS the talent: the ability to focus on the task at hand and spend a lot of time practicing is all the talent you need. If you have the proper guidance and do the work, I can promise you that you will get better! I am not sure that I am particularly talented, but I work harder than most, and I’m convinced that is why I’ve achieved some success and will continue to achieve more.
We’ve talked about having to spend a lot of time on practice. How much time, you ask? Well, some studies discuss a magical number of 10,000 hours to become an expert at something (read Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” for more discussion on this).
I have been using this benchmark to guide my practice regimen for many years now. Even before I knew about the 10,000 hours notion, my work ethic was guided by what I researched about my drumming heroes. I just wanted to get as good as my drumming idols (I still do), so I read about their practice routines. What I discovered was that the greats always seemed to have significant time periods in their lives where they devoted the majority of their time to practicing. We’re talking about 7 hours per day kind of practicing. I don’t mean to scare you or discourage you, but what I’m talking about here is what kind of work it takes to get to the highest level of musicianship.
I am certainly not suggesting that all beginners need this kind of discipline. But I am trying to give you a picture of what it takes to achieve true greatness. If you want to become a competent drummer and you have never played before, I would suggest spending as much time as you can. Can you spend an hour and a half five times a week? Can you spend an hour a day? In either case, at about seven hours a week, you can at least get somewhere. If your practice time is focused.
So, what about goals? You need them to develop a practice plan and then you can use that plan to stay focused, spending as much time as you can on practicing towards these goals. The more specific, focused time you spend in this manner, the faster you will get better.
Let’s look at a few examples to help clarify all this.
First, let’s say you are a complete beginner at the drums and you want to be a rock drummer. You used to play piano, which is a plus, because you already know how to read music. You will need to develop some independence within the prevalent grooves of rock drumming. You will need technique. Initially, I would suggest dividing your time between these two endeavors.
We already know you can read music. Your independence work can begin with a book like “the Funky Primer,” by Charles Dowd, which focuses on independence versus the prevalent ostinato of eighth notes on a cymbal and two and four (the backbeats) on the snare drum. Your technique work should definitely include some lessons with a qualified instructor. Technique is the back door to creativity, so don’t short change yourself by ignoring this.
Let’s say you are a complete beginner, you don’t know how to read to music, and you want to become a jazz drummer. In this case, focus on reading first, technique second, and jazz independence third. Again, instruction will save you some time. Your drum instructor should be showing you how to read with the help of a good beginning book on the topic, possibly “Syncopation,” by Ted Reed, or “Modern Reading Text in 4/4” by Louie Bellson. Technique doesn’t necessarily require a book….many good drum teachers will have their own materials to help you with this. The most important part of learning technique is to find someone who already has stellar technique and understands what it is about. Finally, independence in jazz can be worked on by studying a book like Jim Chapin’s “Advanced Techniques for The Modern Drummer,” which definitely a classic work on the topic.
As you work on your lessons, make sure that you master each exercise you are working on before jumping to the next one. A common practice problem is that students will look at a page of exercises in one of these books and get overwhelmed by the amount of material in the book or even on the page they are working on. This can create stress that causes the student to jump to the next exercise too quickly. After all, there is so much material to master…..you’ve got to get through it quickly! Don’t fall victim to this kind of thinking. I often tell students working in books like these that I don’t care how many of the exercises on the page they can do. I would prefer that a student knows just a single exercise really well rather than “sort of” knowing twenty exercises.
I hope this introduction to practicing is helpful. More to come on this topic….there is certainly more to it than this, but this should get you started. The key with practicing is focus and time! Focus comes from having goals and a plan, and time comes from your desire and ability to work hard. You can never practice too much.