At one time or another, we’ve all heard that ageless expression: “Practice makes perfect.” But does it really? If so, why do some drummers practice almost endlessly, only to achieve limited results, while others practice a minimum amount of time and advance rapidly?
Setting aside natural-born musical abilities, the answer lies in individual practice methods. There are almost as many different practice methods as there are drummers. Some practice routines are conducive to improvement, while others actually restrict it. Practicing just for the sake of practicing cannot ensure progress, and neither can poorly organized, occasional practice.
Since practice methods vary significantly from person to person, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to prescribe a “correct” way to practice. However, there are some successful practice methods that I have observed and also recommended as a teacher, which bear offering in an attempt to make your practice time more beneficial.
1. Locate a practice space. The first procedure should be the location of a suitable practice facility. Where it is located is not really important. (I have practiced in bedrooms, band halls, practice rooms, and even a storage closet in an unused corner of a church.) The important thing is to make sure that the area has adequate lighting and ventilation, and can be securely locked. Places where equipment can be left for extended periods of time usually work best.
Next, check with everyone within earshot of your practice area. Make sure it is okay with them if you practice, and agree on what hours of the day it will be tolerated. A method I always use is to approach neighbors, friends, etc., explain that I am going to be practicing drums nearby, and promise not to practice past 10:00 P.M. I also ask them to call if the practicing ever becomes too loud. (So far, no one ever has.)
2. Plan practice sessions in advance. Planning is one of the most crucial elements of effective practice. An enormous amount of practice time is often wasted due to poor planning and organization. A person who boasts of practicing an hour a day may in fact be wasting as much as 30 minutes sorting through materials and deciding what to work on, or playing over material that is already mastered. Know what you want to accomplish before each practice session. Simply going in to the drums thinking that you will become better just because you are practicing anything won’t do.
3. Long-range/short-range goals. Plan long-range as well as short-range goals. Long-range goals are self-set goals for six months or a year from now, such as “I want to be able to play a good samba groove.” Short-range goals are for today, like “I am going to learn samba exercises 1 to 10 on page 30.” Map out beforehand realistic/obtainable long-range and short-range practice goals, and set out to achieve them.
4. Set up a specific practice order. If a specific practice order is followed from day to day, practice time will become more beneficial. The key is to make the best use of available time in order to produce the maximum results. Having a specific practice order that is regularly followed gives an organizational structure to practice and leaves less to chance. This is not to say that you may not want to vary your order from time to time, in order to give extra attention to a certain area. But planning a regular daily practice routine will be a step in the direction of more effective practice. Here are my suggestions, along with a possible time allotment for each.
A. Warm up (five to 30 minutes). Warm hands up by practicing rolls, technical exercises, scales, rudiments, etc. This prepares the hands as well as the mind for challenging material ahead. Be cautious, though, not to practice technique exercises blindly with no thought processes involved. Careful thought and evaluation should be given to technique each day, in order for improvement to take place.
B. Learn new music/correct problem spots (30 minutes to one hour). At this time, the mind and hands are the most alert. Use this time to learn new music and correct problem spots in old music. You can use this time for working out that fill-in during the bridge of the song that you folded on at the job last night, cleaning up the two seven-stroke rolls that are always sloppy, learning the notes of the run on the third page of the mallet solo, getting the tuning changes worked out that take place between movements of the timpani solo, etc. Have specific goals in mind that are determined before beginning to practice.
Many times, this is the most frustrating segment of practicing. It is often difficult to work on new or challenging music. But remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was Gadd. Miracles can’t happen overnight, so be realistic. Don’t attempt too much in one practice. Take big problems and break them down into a bunch of small problems. Then convert them into your short-range goals, and attack them one at a time. It is much better to take a difficult measure and practice it again and again, until played perfectly, than to stop every time that measure is encountered and say, “I always have trouble with this part.”
C. Take a break (five minutes). During practice sessions longer than an hour, take a short break. After an intense practice, you will need one! Let the mind relax a bit and refresh for what is ahead. After a break, the mind is clearer and can function more efficiently. Long practice sessions go more smoothly if interspersed with regular short breaks.
D. Review learned material (ten minutes to one hour). Go back and play the piece that you have been correcting all the way through. Then, if desired, play other material that brings you personal pleasure. This can be music you learned last week or last month. The whole purpose of this practice segment is to reinforce concepts you’ve already learned.
E. Sight-read (ten to 30 minutes). Somewhere in the latter part of the practice session, it is a good idea to sharpen an important musical ability—the art of sight-reading. The sight-reading potential is often the most underdeveloped musical ability we possess. It needs constant practice and refinement. Daily sight-reading practice will be very beneficial.
Make sure to locate good literature to practice sight-reading. Don’t choose material that is too difficult; it becomes discouraging and also will not carry over to actual situations. On the other hand, don’t read music that is too easy, or the skill will not carry over to situations where actual sight-reading is required.
5. Conclusion of practice. When concluding practice sessions, some people like to do physical exercises—as well as other playing exercises—which they call “warming down.” Other people go immediately to the television. I like to reflect back over the session, and think about what I accomplished and where I still have to go. I will think about such things as: “The four problem measures at letter A are going much better today; I’m finally playing the correct rhythm in the last two measures; I’m understanding the song form much better now.”
While everything is still fresh, plan short-range goals for tomorrow, such as, “I’m playing better fills on the rock chart, but tomorrow I will improve my time and polish the fills a bit more,” or “Tomorrow I’m going to work out the second phrase at letter C that I didn’t get today,” etc. It’s better to work out your goals when you have a chance to realistically monitor your progress.
6. Daily schedule. Every teacher recommends a different practice schedule. Some require seven days a week, while others may only require two or three. I personally recommend practicing a minimum of five days a week. You will find that the greatest progress will occur when you plan an individual practice schedule and stick with it, week after week. It will become a routine—part of your life!
Again, I must state that there are many good practice methods. I have only presented one approach, which has proven successful for myself and my students. Take some time, and concentrate on which method will work best for you. Then, plan out a personal practice schedule to produce the maximum results.