Here is a tool I use and teach to help students get more out of their practice time. I’ve noticed through the years that many students end up working very hard on areas they are already good at, but still don’t get the results they want. Remember that people will do what they think will work,
so these students practice what they do because they think that’s where the problem is. More often than not, the issue holding them back is somewhere else. This tool helps students find what is holding them back, so they can get past their roadblocks, so they can get on with making music.
Generally speaking, There are three things you need to have ‘figured out’ in order to be able to do what you’re working on.
Figure out what it is – What are the notes? This could be in staff notation, or drum tab, or in pictographs. The language doesn’t matter, but you gotta know what is coming next if you want to be able to do it. Sometimes I see students working really hard practicing the wrong notes, not taking the time to make sure they are repeating the right thing.
While the deeper relationships between the notes can take a lifetime to discover, even my youngest students get the basics down in a matter of seconds – when they take the time to do so. This takes very little time, but if you cannot rush through it.
Figure out how to do it – This is technique, or how you play what you want to play. The name of the game here is movement. We must move to make any sound at the drums. There are many different ways to move, and the trick is to find the right one for what you want to do.
This often goes by very quickly as well – especially once a student is more advanced and has experience with all the movements and techniques already. Even beginners can go through this very quickly with the right approach. The ideal is to use our body the way the body is meant to be used, and so effective techniques use movements we do away from the drum set. A one handed roll, for example, is like jiggling a door knob. I’ll describe stick control in terms of throwing and grasping – things our hands and arms are designed to do. Having truly great technique means being a movement nerd.
However, there is a lot even a total newbie can do well, and this is where most students waste time. Some students will work really hard, trying to get their coordination in shape, when it is already in shape. The problem often lies elsewhere.
Get in the zone – The great baseball player Yogi Berra was once asked “What are you thinking about when you’re hitting?” To which he replied “How can anyone hit and think at the same time?” Sports analogies don’t go very far with music, but one thing they have in common is the idea of Getting in the Zone.
‘Getting into the Zone’ is very hard to describe, and for that reason it is almost always left out of discussions about what it takes to play music. However, it is as important as the last two areas. If you are not in the right state of mind, you won’t play music to the level you want to.
One way I describe it is to talk about timekeeping. We have a part of the brain that is great at keeping perfect time. Everyone has it, and if it didn’t work in us we wouldn’t be alive. However, we also have an area of the brain that is really good at wondering whether or not we are keeping good time. If you let the part that is great at wondering actually keep the time, it doesn’t do very well. This is why free throws are so hard in basketball.
The performance suffers as we over-correct, and lose touch with the what is going on around us. The trick is not practicing with a metronome for 80 hours a week, although this will help develop memory. The real trick is getting into the Zone where you can allow yourself to do what you are built for, and not micromanage and second guess.
Something that took me a very long time to discover is that professionals have lots of tricks they use to put themselves into the Zone when they want to be. Some NBA shooters will shift their attention to the feel of the seams on the basketball. Concert pianists will oftentimes whose a part inside the piano to stare at while performing. These are ways to connect with whats going on in the moment and to occupy thought processes that would otherwise interfere with what we naturally do well. This is an area that we can study, figure out, work on – improve at.