By Brian Macleod:
Preparation for Practice:
There are some well-known “formulas” of how to practice drums, some of which are helpful, whilst, unfortunately, some are not. In preparation for my practice sessions, in my personal experience, I try not to go into anything complex, but do things that get the mind working. Usually I’ll first stretch my arms a bit so I don’t end up hurting myself later on, then I’ll start practicing by working on a pad, doing basic Rudiments such as Singles, Doubles, Flams and Paradiddles, which gets you into a familiar routine. Of course, you don’t have to limit yourself to these particular rudiments, but know your limits and your capabilities in accordance to your rudimental knowledge. I find that it’s useful to not get into too much depth here, but to do this for roughly 10-15mins. Another useful technique is to look at yourself in the mirror, so you can see how your hand technique is, and, if needed, any adjustments can be made. One rule to be made here is that it’s not a speed contest; I suggest playing slow and fast, loud and quiet, as you’ll be working on your dynamics, feel and technique at the same time. If you have a metronome, it can be useful to use that on occasion too.
Listening to Music:
This is an important method of practice not to be taken too seriously. Music is obviously great to listen to, but it also helps the musician hear develop their own listening skills when they take to the drumset, depending on what style you’re listening to, and how they approach their instrument. Of course, from a drumming perspective, it is good we listen to a large variety of styles, drummers, musicians and enjoy doing so. It fills our mind with ideas of how to first imitate that musician, and then incorporate our own ideas around the drumset and in a musical situation. Listening to music also helps us as drummers learn how to play in a rhythm section, and highlights importance of the rhythm section. I highly recommend studying from other drummers and musicians. It enables you to learn from them, their genre, influences, sound, licks, and grooves in order to improve as a musician. Once you learn from then, you can develop your own methods and make it your own.
Time Well Spent:
Styx drummer Todd Sucherman states: “its better having an hour’s disciplined practice than 4 hour’s messing around.” A very true statement, that while it is good to mess about on the kit, I find that for me, in an hour a lot more can be accomplished in an hour than when I spend a day messing about. Disciplined practice gets you into a good routine and you find yourself making daily progress. Also on the subject of time, the metronome plays a vital part of practicing drums, and, contrary to some belief, does not make the drummer sound “robotic,” but rather the opposite. It allows time to be spent putting in order and developing the aspect of time and feel in relation to music, something that should never be played down.
Steve Jordan once quoted that “simplicity is not stupidity. Just because something sounds good in your mind doesn’t mean that it’s dumb.” I think, personally that he has hit the nail right on the head. People may think that just playing the same beat over and over again puts constraints on musical creativity, whereas I’m of the belief it does the exact opposite. In doing this, it enables you to listen closer to each individual instrument, and to more experimentation of how you approach the drums, how you play them, and how to get more sounds out of it. It of course also helps your time and how to play with other musicians.
Improvisation occurs on many different levels. It can occur when you “push the boat out” in a song, and it turns out to be the perfect time to do so, sounding just like you hoped (or better). Improvisation also can happen by accident, most commonly in jazz, when soloing and in other occasions, as you think of new ideas, and create some by chance. The topic of improvisation can be expanded in so many ways, so I’ll just say this: Improvise freely and often, with other musicians and on your own, and make it an enjoyable, mind-bending and soul satisfying experience.
I find that when I’ve finished playing drums, writing down my experience, good or bad, with honesty and explanations of what I have I have learnt being very useful. It only takes 15-30 mins to do so, but in the long run so valuable to your development, as it helps you remember where you are and where you want to go with your playing. Using a portable recorder like the Zoom H2 is also very good when you want to hear a recording of yourself. Remember, what came out of your head and onto the drums doesn’t always sound as good as you think it does. There have been times where I’ve listened back and thought things such as: “when did I hit the kick so hard in that jazz tune?” This is an area of my personal practice where I really need to improve on, and to listen to myself more after practice. Although time consuming, this is definitely good to do so.
Themes and Technical Exercises:
It can be useful to practice themes, such as phrasing rhythmically and treating your drums as a melodic instrument. Useful references here are Max Roach, Ari Hoenig, Brian Blade, Benny Greb, but there are of course many others. Working from a book can be very useful in a drummer’s development, with timeless methods such as Jim Chapin’s ‘Advanced Techniques for the Modern Drummer’, George Lawrence Stone’s ‘Stick Control’ and Gary Chester’s ‘The New Breed’ being three great examples of practice books for drums which are of so much use in practical situations. There are of course so many books and DVDs out there, so find out what works best for you.
There has to be a level of messing about on the drums. This helps things come spontaneously, and while playing along to backing tracks or your favourite song can be really good fun and useful at the same time in practicing your time and feel. I do this every time I play drums, and it keeps me in check not to get too serious about drums in a technical, snobby way.
Trial and Error:
Drummers must realise that not every day is a good day. Sometimes drummers watch Buddy Rich videos and his technique, feel and sound are seen as near perfection, like he never had an off day. The lie here is that sometimes when you practice you do have an off day. The best thing to do is to make the most of it by learning what you can, whilst not practicing for too long because you can easily get frustrated. Take heart of what you have learnt, rest and come back refreshed the next time you approach the drum kit.
Take a break:
When I’m practicing for 3 hours or so, I tend to take a 10-15 min break every 45 mins in order to recharge the batteries and relax for a bit. I usually have water by my side which refreshes me and fruit or chocolate which is also good. I feel I must also contribute sleep patterns in this section, because if you are practicing and gigging regularly, it is important to get plenty of rest, have a healthy diet, get regular exercise and get plenty sleep in order to progress as a musician. Also, an important part of this is ear protection, as it is vital to protect your ears as a musician. Many have tinnitus now because they haven’t used ear plugs in the past, so invest now to enjoy good hearing in later life.
Step by Step:
Not all of these concepts are to be used at every practice, but sparsely and musically. Technical exercises taken step by step are useful, whilst improvisation is best used off the cuff, rudiments are useful almost all the time, whilst dedication and a love of music at all times must be the key ingredient to practicing your instrument. Most of all, have fun with practicing and make the most of your experience!