Why is it so difficult to break a bad habit? Why is it so difficult to learn a new skill after some years of playing? Why do players get “stuck” on certain patterns, and play them over and over again even when they would like to play something new? The answer is something I call “automatic learning,” which simply means that any physical action that is performed over and over will become “automatic” or an ingrained “reflex.”

The best example is probably driving a car. When you begin to learn to drive a car, there are many skills to acquire: First, there is the problem of coordinating your hands and feet in order to effectively operate the steering wheel, brakes, accelerator, and possibly, a clutch and gearshift. You may step on the brakes too hard in order to stop the car, or oversteer when turning. You may have trouble judging distance when in traffic, or overreact when another vehicle comes too close to you. You may simply “freeze” when faced with a potential crisis, forgetting what you are supposed to do.

However, one year later you are zipping down the highway, thinking about the upcoming job or rehearsal, getting something to eat, or picking up your clothes at the cleaners. Suddenly, something happens in traffic ahead of you. Your body reacts reflexively; you step on the brakes and/or steer yourself out of trouble. You may then realize that, if you had stopped to think about what to do, you might have also been a part of the accident. In other words, your body knew how to react “automatically” without waiting for you to consciously think about it. What a difference one year can make. A year earlier, you might have become totally confused while driving at 20 miles an hour. Now, you are reacting automatically at highway speeds with little or no problem. This is a result of “automatic learning.”

Here is how it works in drumming. The first time you attempt to play a paradiddle, you will most likely struggle with the sticking pattern. However, with practice and repetition, the pattern becomes somewhat easier to perform. After a longer period of time, the paradiddle becomes automatic. You think paradiddle and your hands perform it automatically without strain. Your body and your subconscious have learned it. The paradiddle is now at the reflex level.

All rhythms, sticking patterns and polyrhythms are learned in this way. However, this can be positive or negative, since they can be learned in an accidental or hit-and-miss manner. By this I mean that your body reacts to repetition whether you want it to or not, which is how so-called bad habits are created. If you perform a certain act over and over again, even without thinking much about it, it will still become automatic. It’s much like the saying about computers, “garbage in—garbage out.” Whatever you put into it is what you get out of it. The key to consciously using this concept to your advantage is patience. If you are in such a hurry to play fast that you practice the patterns unevenly, your body will learn them unevenly. The way in which you present information to your body determines how your body gives it back to you. If you have a good teacher, or if you naturally have the patience to practice things slowly, you will acquire control over whatever you are attempting to learn. It will become automatic, or a reflex, and will be easier and easier to perform. This is essential to good playing. You cannot consciously think about each stroke and play well at a concert. You want to concentrate on the music and on playing it with feeling. Your body knows what to do because the mechanics of playing are now automatic. It’s just like driving the car: Your body knows what to do so that you can concentrate on where you are going.

Once you know about this concept, consider how well you could play if you practiced the necessary skills on purpose! If you have the patience, you can learn virtually anything. You can acquire any skill if you are willing to practice, and improve any part of your playing. Any skill you want to acquire can become part of you. Many of the martial arts, such as karate, use a similar approach. Students of martial arts are taught the “form” or the basic movements of the arts, until these movements become automatic.

If this is true, why do some people stop learning and become “stuck” in a certain style or way of playing? It’s simply because, for whatever reason, they no longer want to make the effort. Remember, without patience and effort, this concept takes on the hit-or-miss approach mentioned earlier. By effort, I do not mean a blind, “workaholic” approach to practicing. Mindlessly thrashing a drumset for hours without thinking about what you are doing will not yield results. Remember the computer, “garbage in—garbage out.”

What I mean to suggest is this: Decide on the skills you want to develop or improve. Consciously practice these skills with patience every day over a long period of time. For example, if you want to improve your sense of tempo, play along with records or practice with a metronome. Tape yourself and monitor your progress. If you want to improve your technique, study with a teacher with good technique. Practice with patience and your technique will improve. The same goes for reading. Study with a good teacher, and you will develop the skills necessary for becoming a good reader if you practice these skills daily.

If you want to have a healthy body, you must put good food into it. Your body cannot function at its best on junk food—neither can the mind. You must develop good thinking habits and attitudes in order to maximize your ability to assimilate information and to learn. You can always improve if you really want to.

The line between the mind and body is perhaps not as clear as I have indicated in this article. It is really a mind/body approach I’m talking about, and this approach can yield real results. All it takes is good information, effort, patience, repetition and some time. You can learn, improve, develop and grow, and you can do it all on purpose. Best of all, there is no limit to learning. You can do it all of your life. It’s all up to you.