THE ART OF EFFECTIVE PRACTICE
When someone asks me how they should be practicing, my first response is always two questions; “What do you want to be good at?” and “How good do you want to be?”.
Besides the fact that the normal answers are “everything” and “the best” it’s important to consider that the recipe for effective practice can change A LOT depending on their answer to this question. For example, if a student replies that they want to be pushing themselves to be the best they can be and to play predominantly reggae, that tells me that I need to first help the student identify important stylistic elements of reggae music to work on, but then I need to take the ‘bread and butter’ elements’ of drumset practice (i.e. rudiments, technique, independence etc) and validate them in terms that the student can understand easily. While most drum teachers will tell you that learning a 5 stroke roll will benefit your playing, many of them struggle with justifying to students why it’s worth persevering with working on them until they actually sound good, particularly when the benefits are not always evident in the music they listen to.
The good news is, a teacher worth their salt will be able to easily directly relate ‘bread and butter’ drumset learning to all musical styles, and the better they are at showing students examples with audio or video samples (or even better, demonstrate it themselves) the more likely the student is to work harder on them. If you don’t currently have a teacher then it’s a good idea to seek one out - if you’re having trouble finding one or are in an isolated area you can check out some great free lessons here.
The important thing here is that a student understands the ‘why’ they need to practice what I’m asking them to - I feel like this question needs to be answered before the ‘what’ is even on the table.
So with that out of the way I can say that for me, effective practice can be achieved using one simple adage: “It’s not practice if you can already do it”
You might think that sounds ridiculous, but let’s think about this. If you have this statement at the back of your mind whenever you’re touching your drumsticks outside of performance, what you’ll have to do is automatically justify what you’re working on in your head. It’s worth noting that there’s nothing wrong with sitting at the drums and playing a simple, steady groove for ten minutes, but rather then telling yourself you’ve practiced, call it what it is - that is, warming up!
Of course, there are a few ways you could frame it. You should be practicing with a metronome, in which case you could label it ‘practicing timekeeping’ or - if you’re experimenting with inter-limb dynamics you could call it ‘independence practice’ but it’s important to note that it’s a small part of your overall practice routine. If you approach each time you practice by thinking you’re going to work on something you can’t already do and then work on it methodically and correctly, I absolutely guarantee you’ll make progress faster than ever before.
I’m not in any way saying that you shouldn’t play stuff you can already do—in fact I’d recommend it—just make sure that if you’re going to call it practice, you’re consciously working on something other than going through the motions of playing the pattern. If you apply this philosophy to the things you consider ‘fun’ during your daily routine, then that in itself is a form of effective practice, because (presumably) you actually want to play the fun stuff, and you can then go from calling it messing around to actual structured learning.
Let’s go for a best-case scenario in which you have the time, discipline and rehearsal space to practice once a day for 35 minutes. If we define effective practice as developing as quickly as possible with as little practice as possible, then let’s go with this blueprint for a routine:
Warmups/stretches - 2 Mins
These are a must if you intent to practice with the same intent and energy that you bring to a performance.
Play some grooves with a metronome - 10 mins
Timekeeping, Independence etc. Maybe even change where you put the metronome placement to help you internalise varying meters - there are so many ways you can categorise this kind of practice.
Rudiments - 10 mins
Five stroke rolls, Double Stroke rolls and flams are just a few of the rudiments which manifest in your playing - no matter which style you play. Your ghost notes will become more consistent, and your general stick control will mean your playing is tighter and more confident.
Prescribed Exercises - 10 mins
These are specific exercises your teacher will give you which address certain holes he or she has pinpointed in your playing.
Warmdown/play to a song - 3 mins
Try to relax and enjoy playing to the song - don’t be afraid to imagine you’re playing to a big crowd!
If you’re like a lot of people and work fulltime with a family, you’re probably thinking that the above schedule would be nice, but let’s face it - is totally unrealistic, then you should try this method:
Aim to try and fit in at least three of these routines a week.
Rudiments - 10 minutes Any one thing off the daily routine - 15 minutes
As long as you’re conscious of the fact that you’re working on improving an aspect of your playing, the practice is effective by default - that’s why it’s so important to define everything you’re playing as fitting into one of the general categories that exist in many routines like the daily routine above.
Tom Pierard has been playing and teaching drumset professionally for 15 years, and specialises in a range of modern styles