How and what should I practise?
Learning to play the drum kit can be divided into three main areas:
Practice of technique is about building physical strength and stamina in your hands, arms, legs and feet. These exercises can be long and repetitive, but if practised regularly – and with a metronome or click track – can have amazing results. Practice of technique is vital, as it provides your limbs with the ability to carry out the instructions of the brain; and there’s no point in having a brilliant idea for a super-fast fill if the arms and legs can’t physically manage it.
- Music theory
Once you’re familiar with the names and values of different notes, practising music theory can begin by playing single-line snare drum exercises from a tuition book, then applying this theory to the kit as soon as possible. Later you can move onto sight-reading exercises and later still, interpretation of written charts (either played with a backing track or better still, a live band). The idea with all theory exercises is to get the written notes as instinctive as possible: You see it and, without thinking, you play it. Whilst unpopular with some drummers, learning music theory has the advantages of enabling you to study directly from tuition books (without the need for a teacher) and will also improve your employment chances as a ‘reading drummer’. Many music theory ‘shortcuts’ apply to us drummers which make reading scores and charts much easier than almost all other instruments – see Notation Guide for details.
- Jamming & improvisation
Whenever possible, join a band or group and apply the rhythms learnt in your lessons to practical playing situations (experience always beats study). Play with emotion and feel; bring the rhythms ‘to life’, not just cold groups of notes. This type of practice is the most enjoyable part of learning any musical instrument and if you aren’t yet in a band, play along to backing tracks and experiment solo with your own rhythms and ideas. This is about developing who you are on the instrument – your tastes, your choices; it’s all up to you.
How often should I practise?
If you have a drum kit and tuition material, a good target to set is an hour a day.
Protection for your ears (plugs/headphones) should be considered in noisy rooms or for longer practice sessions.
How should I organise the time?
Divide and structure your time:
20 mins on technique (this is also a useful warm up)
20 mins on music theory or the exercises, books or Grade material you’re studying from in lessons
20 mins on jamming & improvisation
A structured approach to practice will almost always produce better results than sitting down at the kit with no particular plan of action and just playing something you already know you can do easily (e.g. a body builder won’t develop bigger muscles if they always use the same weights). If you have a particular problem (e.g. weak left hand/tangled independence/wobbly timekeeping) simply spend more time on this area until it’s no longer a problem. Remember that practice should not always be easy to do or pleasant for someone else to listen to: A new rudiment, time signature or rhythmic feel will very likely be difficult and uncomfortable to start with – because you’re attempting to master something you’ve never done before.
I can’t practise very often because of noise and neighbours – what can I do?
The kit can be quite easily damped by attaching thin, circular rubber (or similar) discs to the batter heads of the drums. A similar ‘triangle’ shape can be used for the cymbals and the bass drum filled with pillows/blankets etc. but note that any damping will affect the response of the drums and cymbals when played. Otherwise, a large amount of music reading and technique practice for the hands can be performed on a practice pad. Electronic and dedicated ‘practice’ kits are also useful, but be aware of the dangers of not having to worry about playing quietly with these types of kits – sometimes it can be difficult for students to revert back to the sensitivity and volume of acoustic drums.
I want to practice more than the homework given in lessons – what can I do?
There are always things to practise: Work through your tuition books from page 1 covering 3-4 pages per session and bring any problems to your teacher. Rudiments (particularly double and single stroke rolls) always require practice, with a metronome if possible. Set targets e.g. I will finish this written piece/I will be able to play along with this song/my roll will be this fast – by a certain date. If you still require more, your teacher should be able to provide you with exercises and a list of recommended book titles. There are also many free resources available online, but beware of varying quality.
Learning any musical instrument is as much a test of character as of ability: It’s about how much you are prepared to do, especially when things become difficult to the point of frustration or when progress seems agonisingly slow. Don’t give up! This is all part of the challenge learning a musical instrument presents. If you practise using the above guidelines you will get results and you will be happier in yourself, more confident in your abilities and enthusiastic to learn more.
A review of Roland’s TD-12 electronic drum kit taken from ‘Connect’ magazine, January 2007:
I didn’t want an electronic kit. I’d always played acoustic drums and had good results from experimenting with different skins, cymbals and sounds. I’d also become a dab hand in the art of tuning and loved the quality and lustrous look of today’s professional equipment. I didn’t see any reason to change.
Version 2 of my website contained 120 written drum kit exercises, each with an audio clip. You could visit the site, print pages of sheet music and hear the rhythms being played. The planned Version 3 of the site was going to be much bigger and would contain 600 exercises and clips.
I had a choice:
- Record the clips in the studio, as before: Book up a couple of weeks, take time off work, pay an hourly rate, resolve the rattles and hums, get the best take of each clip – with one eye on the clock – and either break the kit down at the end of each day or worry about overnight security.
- Record the clips at home: Obtain a good electronic kit, suitable software and record the clips directly onto my computer in my own time.
I chose option 2 and contacted Roland, considered by many to be the industry leader in electronic drum kits. Everything was timetabled and ready to go, but I still didn’t want an electronic kit. I didn’t want to study instruction manuals, assembly diagrams or tables of information. I didn’t want to be confused about the functions of buttons, banks and patches and then find myself in the troubleshooting section with a handful of spare leads when it all went horribly wrong. Acoustic kits have wing nuts, springs and tension rods, and have a ‘hands on’, practical feel to them. Getting comfortable with the workings of an electronic kit was obviously going to be a technical nightmare. In the end I couldn’t have been more wrong. The TD-12 took about an hour and a half to unpack and set up, and within 2 hours I was happily playing along to the preset backing tracks.
The advantages of going digital soon became clear:
Noise and neighbours – Headphones, simple as that. You can practise for hours and never bother anyone.
Choice of kits – Changing the sounds of your acoustic kit normally involves experimenting with different drums, cymbals and skins, all of which can be expensive and time consuming. The TD-12 contains 50 different kits and the same experimentation can be done at the push of a button. You can also adjust the size and type of the cymbals and the shell material and size of each drum.
Patterns – The TD-12 contains over a hundred preset backing tracks to play along with, each with an adjustable tempo. This alone is excellent practice for timekeeping and far more fun than using a metronome or click track.
Jamming – Normally the drum kit is the limiting noise factor when rehearsing with other instruments. An electronic kit can simply be turned down. No more hiring cold village halls, no more lugging heavy cases around – providing you’ve got the space, your musical chums can jam at your home. If you’ve all got e-mail and similar recording software, you can also send rhythms, clips and ideas to each other via the Internet.
Tuning – The drums of each kit can be tuned using a simple up/down function. No more tuning keys, tapping around the head to check the balance, or worries about the head loosening during the gig. The snare tightness can also be chosen, as can the level of damping – no more sticky gaffa tape!!
There were only a couple of drawbacks:
I had some problems with the sensitivity of the bass drum and hi-hat (foot) responses. These were eventually resolved and I’m inclined to think that this may have been as much to do with me getting used to the kit, as the kit getting used to me.
An electronic kit will always deliver ‘perfect’ sounds, regardless of your playing ability. As a teacher I’m inclined to advise a beginner to start on an acoustic kit and learn how to produce good quality sounds through practice of technique and tuning, rather than have those sounds given without ‘putting in the hours’.
Overall, I was very impressed with the TD-12’s quality, ease of use and flexibility. I haven’t encountered anything that it can’t do and I’ve still yet to explore some of the more advanced functions. The kit has saved me a great deal of time, money and trouble and has opened up a world of new possibilities.
If you’re curious about electronic drums, I can recommend no better place to start.
Article from ‘Drums UK’ magazine, 1998
We’d been double-booked. It had been a long drive with naff directions and neither band were prepared lose the gig because of the agent’s mistake. To make things easier the venue’s manager suggested both bands share a slightly longer evening of music between us, fees unaffected. To make things more difficult it was soon discovered that we had almost identical blues set lists.
The audience may have been a little ‘bluesed out’ by the end of the night, but it all went well and whilst packing away the equipment, the other band’s drummer marched over and fixed me with a puzzled look. “How come we’ve both just done more or less the same material,” he asked, “and I’m sweating like a pig and you’re not?” I’d been watching him play during their set and, without immediately climbing onto the ‘teacher’ pedestal, suggested to him that he didn’t look particularly relaxed. “Right,” he wanted to know, “so how do you ‘get’ relaxed?”
We all have different approaches to playing and practice, and you should do what works for you. But for me relaxation cannot be achieved without confidence; and confidence depends on a number of things:
- Know your material
Regardless of whether it’s a session, dep. or regular gig, if you’re not comfortable with the music’s feel or uncertain of its arrangement, you won’t be able to relax, mentally or physically. Thoroughly learning the material prior to the gig, and knowing the stops, the starts and any time signature changes enables it to be played confidently. When your playing is confident, it’s easier to relax. Remember, you’re in the driving seat; you’re the backbone of the rhythm and if you relax, the whole band are far more likely to.
Rudiments teach you much more than how to produce nice rolls and grace notes: They teach you how to get the sticks to bounce. When this is achieved the skin and the stick are doing 90% of the work for you and less physical energy is needed (this is the main reason the drummer mentioned above was sweating: he was ‘shoulders and arms’, rather than ‘wrists and fingers’). If less energy is needed, there’s less muscular exertion and the limbs will be more relaxed.
- Practice difficult material
A body builder never develops bigger muscles if they always use the same weights. If you’re comfortable playing rock and swing patterns in 4/4 time, push yourself! Try some world rhythms, advanced independence exercises or playing in odd time signatures – it all adds to your vocabulary, your experience and inevitably, your confidence. If you can play a diabolical polyrhythm in 5/8, you can definitely play a blues shuffle in 4/4.
Just like everyone knows that losing weight is about exercising more and eating less, all musicians know that mastering their instrument is by doing the practice and ‘putting in the hours’. It’s sticking to it that’s the challenge; practising when you don’t really feel like it or when you know that whatever you’re doing at the moment is difficult. ‘Keep taking the pills’ a teacher once told me and, as another teacher pointed out, ‘There are no losers; just winners who give up too soon.’
Article from ‘Drums UK’ magazine, 1998
The problem with the brass section seemed to be communication. When the bandleader said, “Ok, let’s go from the second chorus and tighten up the middle eight,” the horns would flip through their charts and ask, “what bar number is that?” I was baffled because we’d been rehearsing the set for a while and I couldn’t understand why they still weren’t playing it by ear. So I had a chat with the saxophonist. “We don’t play by ear,” he told me, “we always read.” I was shocked. Although the saxophonist is also a Grade eight pianist and enjoys a reputation as one of our area’s finest brass, he freely describes himself as a charlatan and admits that he can’t play any instrument without having written music in front of him. More disturbingly, “For classically trained musicians,” he added, “this is the norm.”
A similar thing happened during a recent interview with Melanie Sykes on T.F.I. Friday when it was revealed that she once played in a brass band. Her Baritone horn was produced and she was asked to ‘play them a tune’. Disappointingly, Melanie said she could only play a scale, as there was no written music in front of her.
Hang on – haven’t they missed the point a bit?
The idea of playing a musical instrument is to express yourself. You have an emotional ‘idea’ in your mind and you use the instrument as a physical medium to get the idea out into the ‘real’ world – whether that’s for your benefit alone or to entertain others. This approach was around long before anyone had the idea of writing music down. No one can dispute the value of written music (although on a global basis it’s pretty much a Western, rather than Eastern thing) but ultimately it’s a learning tool, not a performance tool. Written notation describes the music in terms of tempo, key and time signature and breaks it down into smaller, more manageable chunks to make it easier to digest. Once the piece is learnt, you put the sheet music down, play from your heart, improvise and find your own musical ‘voice’. Surely?
Nope, apparently not. A piano tutor staggered me by admitting that after playing for thirty years she had never felt compelled to compose anything of her own. All of that technique, all of that knowledge; a massive resource never once used to create original work. She had also never improvised because classically trained musicians ‘don’t improvise’ and freely describe anyone who can as ‘amazing’.
Amazing? This is truly depressing. Being unable to play a musical instrument without written music is like being unable to hold a conversation without a script. If all we ever do is teach students how to reproduce the work of others, how can we ever expect anything new and original?