Playing From The Inside Out

Remove the Unintentional

by Russ Miller

This month I’d like to discuss one of the biggest issues I see with young drummers: the loose and questionable sound of unintentional ideas. This usually happens during fills and solos, but it sometimes exists during grooves as well. Many of my mentors referred to this as not playing from the inside out. Let’s go over some of the reasons that this happens and how to fix it. 

Command of the Physical
Players on every instrument have the challenge of physical execution. Oftentimes this can take over focus, especially in young or developing players. The drums push physical limits because of the four-limb independence required to play them well. One of the reasons independence studies are so crucial is that we need the ability to play things using muscle memory without focusing on it. Our ideas need to be executed cleanly and with intention. I often hear drummers go for fills that sound like they’re being created by simply moving stickings around the drums. And many times players go into a solo with no idea of what’s about to happen. They rely on their hands and feet to just come up with something. That approach often causes them to lose command of the music.

Steps to Building Intention in Your Playing
The following are the four steps to intention that I use in my lesson series at Let’s go over each of them.

1. Start by singing a basic two-beat-fill idea along with a metronome, and then play it in the next bar. The point is to get you to hear what you’re doing while you’re doing it. Turn on your metronome and let two beats click by in the first bar. Sing a basic fill for the last two beats. Let two beats of the next bar go by, and then play the fill you just sang. Keep repeating this process with different fills. Play only what you sing. You’ll soon see that when you play the figure that you’ve sung, there’s much more intention behind it. Record yourself as you practice this, and then review it.

2. Sing a full-bar fill, and then play it. Start by singing an entire bar of a fill idea, and then let one bar go by. In the third bar, play the fill idea that you sang. Let the fourth bar go by, and then repeat the entire four-bar phrase using different fills. This practice improves intention in your fills. It also builds your ability to remember and focus on something over a length of time.

3. Work on focused four-limb-independence studies. The next suggestion is to improve your ability to hear the inner parts of a full groove. Too often we think of a groove as one single thing. To break this “interdependence,” sing each voice of the groove while playing all four parts. This will cause you to focus on each limb. I demonstrate this method of independence practice in master classes to show how each limb contributes to the overall groove.

4. Develop your plan-ahead and inside-out skills. Now you’re ready to work on playing what you’re picturing in your mind. The pulse originates from inside. Your hands and feet don’t create the time; they manifest what you’re thinking and feeling. Great groove drummers feel the music first in their hearts and minds, and then create it with their hands and feet. Great jazz drummers have so much intention in their timekeeping and improvisation because they’re internalizing the feel, beat, and ideas before they’re playing them on the drums. Of course, having an extensive rhythmic vocabulary is a crucial asset (we’ll talk about that in another article), but this ability to manifest your mental musical pictures is paramount. You must divorce yourself from a constant focus on your limbs so that you can focus on a mental musical picture that will drive your limbs to manifest it.

Developing the ability to play what you hear is going to involve a few steps. One exercise is to sing something different from what you’re playing. A book that helped me develop this skill is Gary Chester’s The New Breed. I also have exercises on this in my book Transitions. But really, any page of combination rhythms will work. Sing the rhythms on the page while playing a four-limb groove. Teaching the body to execute things while thinking about something else is step one.

Step two is to allow the body to execute what the mind is creating at the exact same time. To practice this, play a groove for three bars and then simultaneously sing and play a fill in the fourth bar. Record yourself and make sure that you’re singing the fill audibly while you’re playing it. You’re going to have to plan out the fill at some point while you’re playing the groove. Now you’re playing the drums, rather than waiting for them to play you!

Although it was borne from his work as a visual artist, the Monet quote above holds true for musicians. The mind and heart need to have an internal conversation with the music at all times so that we know what’s required. Playing anything more than that will sound forced. True artistry lies in the physical manifestation of the artist’s mental picture.

See you next month!

Russ Miller has recorded and/or performed with Ray Charles, Cher, Nelly Furtado, and the Psychedelic Furs and has played on soundtracks for The Boondock Saints, Rugrats Go Wild, and Resident Evil: Apocalypse, among others. For more information, visit