Updated: Jan 17, 2019
Many world-class drummers have travelled to our corner of the world to present captivating drum clinics. Here are some of the highlights I recall: Thomas Lang gave an electrifying performance. Mike Mangini showed his skills at playing insanely fast drum rolls - with one hand! Gospel drummer Chris Coleman played with jaw-dropping power and precision. Jojo Meyer gave a thrilling show and spoke of his upcoming DVD on hand-technique. Dave Weckl’s performance with the Rodger Fox Big Band was humorous and entertaining. It was at the first-ever drum clinic I went to, where the great Gregg Bissonette shared the advice “Never play when you practise, and never practise when you play”, a phrase that I have remembered to this day.
I think that was very good and timely advice for me back in 1999. My drumming had plateaued for a while, and I had been wondering how to lift my playing to the next level. Very inspired by Gregg Bissonette’s brilliant one-liner I was re-energized to pick up my sticks again, only to then learn that it takes 10,000 hours of committed practise to go from a beginner to a professional musician. Hardly motivating!
Practise has developed a bad reputation. Practise is normally not a problem at the start because beginners usually love it. Like a new toy, the drum kit is new, shiny, and exciting at first. After the first few lessons, the novelty wears off as students realize what they have signed up to. Many beginner students expect to progress a lot faster than they actually do, then want to give up when it becomes frustrating and difficult. Students find they are busy during the week and the 30 minutes a day they set aside to practise is reduced to 10 minutes, then a quick 5 minutes to eventually nothing at all. Next comes the boredom, or laziness, where running around outside on a sunny day or catching up with friends at the mall is so much more fun than 10 minutes of double stroke roll practise.
From a drum kit tutor’s point of view, I only spend 30 minutes a week with my students in regular lessons. It is the time they spend working between lessons that is really going to make the difference to their progress. My main objective (with respect to practise) is to inspire students to go home and do regular practise, because they want to. Once students start enjoying practise, they become hooked.
Here are some practise ideas for my drum kit students.
During your lesson:
1. Before leaving the lesson, make sure that you really understand what to work on during the week. Ask me if you are not clear on your practise goals for the week.
2. Tell me what you want to work on. Remember you have a say in what you want to work on during the week.
Before you practise:
3. Decide on the best time of the day to practise the drum kit. It is a noisy instrument, so agree on a time with your family. Practise when you are refreshed, not when you are tired.
4. Ask yourself what the aims for this practise session are. How will I use my time effectively?
5. Start with physical warm ups, like finger, hand, or feet stretches to dissolve tension in the body.
6. Before even sitting at the drum kit, you might like to try some musical warm ups, like listening to music to awaken the ear and musical mind.
During your practise:
7. Remember Gregg Bissonette’s advice “Never play when you practise, and never practise when you play”
8. Move between high-energy practise (on new pieces or technique), to low energy practise (on favourite pieces you can already play well).
9. Do not over-practise – it is counterproductive.
10. Be realistic on the progress to expect during the week.
11. If you are a beginner, practise only what you learnt in the lesson. If you are a developing player, practise what you learnt in the lesson and you might be able to work out the rest for yourself.
12. Examination students need to practise an hour a day, sometimes two or more depending on the skill level of the student, the complexity of the pieces, and the time remaining before the exam. This practise time does not need to be continuous, but can be spread over different parts of the day.
13. Wear hearing protection, and keep the volume to a comfortable level for you and for those around you. Use a decibel meter app as an aid to help you control your dynamics.
When not practising:
14. Listen to music that is relevant. Listen to the pieces that you are practising, on Youtube, iTunes, Spotify or on supplied examination demo CDs. The more you listen and internalize the piece, the easier it is to learn the piece.
So do teachers and professional musicians practise?
The beauty of learning an instrument is that it can be a lifelong and rewarding journey. Most teachers will practise, in some way, either to attain their own personal musical goals or to learn how a piece of music feels physically, so they understand what problems their students will encounter. Professional drummers will carry their practise pads and sticks with them on their travels on tour, to tap away during monotonous hours at the airport or on the tour bus.
How long should I practise for?
In his fantastic book “Nurtured By Love”, Shinichi Suzuki (creator of the Suzuki method of learning an instrument) describes an occasion where he noticed a six-year-old playing the Vivaldi violin concerto with fine style and tone. He asked the mother how long the child had been playing.
“One and a half years.”
“How well she plays” Suzuki replied. “How long does she practice every day?”
“About 3 hours.”
Suzuki observed that a child who practices well shows it in his or her playing. Practicing according to the correct method and practicing as much as possible is the way to acquire ability. If you compare a person who practices five minutes a day with one who practices three hours a day, the difference in results will be enormous. There is no shortcut. If the five-minute-a-day person wants to accomplish what the three-hour-a-day person does, it will take nine years. For someone to complain, “But I studied for five years” means nothing, as it all depends on how much he or she did each day. “I spent five years on it,” someone says. But five minutes a day for five years is only 150 hours. What that person should have said is, “I did it for 150 hours and I’m still no better”.
In summary, daily, regular practise is important. You only get out of your instrument what you invest in practise time. As you become more proficient, you will realize the importance of spending time behind the drum kit and/or practise pad.
Acknowledgement: This article references ideas discussed in the pedagogical book "The Virtuoso Teacher" by Paul Harris, and the teaching philosophies from "Nurtured By Love" by Dr. Shinichi Suzuki.