Building Super Chops
In the May ’03 issue of MD, our “Building Super Chops” feature presented the responses of several of today’s greatest drummers on various technique topics. One topic that was not presented in that piece was the artists’ opinions on practice. Here are their thoughts on the topic.
Goal setting and organization of things to practice will help. Make sure you allow time to work on things you can’t do. It’s the only way to progress. If there’s not much time to practice on certain days, it’s better to spend most of that time on one specific thing of difficulty or discomfort, rather than many things for too short of a time.
What to practice? Everything. How much practice? As much as possible. It is that simple. But it’s just as important to have a life. Don’t take it all too seriously. If it’s not fun, do something that’s more fun. My motto is always, Everything in moderation – including moderation!
Try incorporating two or three ideas at once; two or three areas that need work can be combined into one single rhythmic exercise, so you get more bang for the buck. For example, suppose you need to improve at playing four beats to the bar steadily on the bass drum at varying tempi (difficult). You could just set the metronome, and slog away, which will be eventually boring and could become unmusical. I personally make faster progress if I set up another rhythm somewhere else, and concentrate on that, sort of as a diversionary tactic.
So let’s add right-hand swing. Now I’m listening to the right hand swing, and possibly its relation to the bass drum, but I’m not just staring at the bass drum itself (which is now happily playing very steadily). Perhaps turn your attention to varying the right-hand patterns against the bass drum, which remains constant, and is, as it were, being practiced, in a disembodied, disinterested sort of way, almost despite you, because you are focused on the hand, not the foot.
Suppose you need to improve your left-hand ride. Move the right-hand-swing time to the left hand. This is harder, but you now have a musical context where you are exercising and practicing two crucial areas (bass drum steadiness; left-hand ride) at the same time.
Set up another diversionary tactic (dotted 8ths on the snare with right hand), and focus hard on that. The principle is that the things that need practicing, two or three of them, are embodied in one exercise, and you listen to the whole, rather than stare at the one particular muscular function you set out to practice in the first place. Still with me?
There are things that I would like to improve in my technique but nowadays I rarely get the time to practice. When I get to practice, I’ll just play until I come across something that sounds interesting and stop and figure it out. Sometimes I’ll page through Modern Drummer and check out the exercises to see if there’s anything interesting that looks challenging and work on them. Also, I’ll get inspired by other drummers. When I was engineering the drum tracks for the Planet X Moon Babies release, I found a couple of grooves that Virgil played that were astounding. So every now and then I’ll sit down and try and play them. That’s when I realize he’s madder than I thought. [laughs]
Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez
I practice everyday as much as I can. I took my first drum lesson at eight years old, and never went back. But I recommend to everyone that wants to be a musician to go to school. Once you go to school and learn about the instrument’the technique, the music’then you can practice on your own and develop your own style.
If I’m not on tour, I practice about four or five times a week. These are split into forty-five minute periods, because I don’t like to play more than forty-five minutes at a time. There’s an awful lot of discipline needed in drumming, because it’s such a physical thing. You need to keep healthy, be fairly agile, and stay as current, musically, as possible.
What is the hardest task in the world? Practicing! Why? Because you have to think and sweat. As drummers, we have to labor with our brains, as well as our brawn. Here again, my instinctive action never ceases. We have to be honest with ourselves, and locate our weaknesses, and take the steps to nourish and strengthen those aspects of our playing.
We have two hands and two feet to drill. You need to work on the mechanics of each individually, and then think about combining them to create music, with good time, with taste, and good feel. Sometimes we struggle and nothing seems to take form and clearness. Then, in a moment, and unannounced, it takes shape. So you must make a huge effort, and have patience, and see what the great soul will show.