Making The Most of Your Practice Time

tip-logoBy David Barnes, Bethesda Percussion

You put a lot of time, effort, and expense into learning to play the best that you can. And you know that the best way to get even better is the same way you get to Carnegie Hall (at least according to the old joke)-practice, practice, practice. But, bad practice is not much better than no practice at all.

Make all your hard work pay off by practicing smart. Don’t just log in long hours of unfocused and unproductive flailing.

Here are some suggestions to help you make the most out of your practice time. Follow them, and your practice will be more efficient, more effective, and (sometimes) more fun.

Establish a Regular Practice Schedule

I know you’re busy. Almost everyone is. But, you need to find a way to set aside a specific time to practice, on a regular schedule. It’s not enough to say “I’m definitely going to practice 30 minutes each day.” You won’t. Not unless you’ve set aside those minutes in advance – reserved specifically for practice.

Make it the same time every day (“7:30-8:00PM) if you can. Or tie it to another event that occurs each day (“right after I eat breakfast, but before I take a shower”). Don’t give yourself the chance to put it off. Effective scheduling will help keep you disciplined enough to make steady and observable progress, and that will help keep you motivated to continue. It will reduce the chances that you’ll miss a day. It will even help keep harmony in your home (because everyone will know that the time is set aside for practice).

Remove Distractions

When you practice, make sure you can focus your attention on practicing. If you can, set up a practice area that is away from other activities and distractions. Turn off the radio, TV, cell phone, whatever. You can’t multi-task and be productive.

Warm Up First – Every Time

Make sure to spend the first few minute of each practice session warming up. Your muscles need to limber up before they start doing the heavy work. It’s no different than an athlete stretching warming up before a workout. The only difference is that you’re using different sets of muscles.

Hard practice without warming up is not only unproductive-it’s dangerous. A small sprain or strain can put you out of commission for weeks.

Warming up is also a good time to periodically revisit the fundamentals of stroke, grip, and posture (see below).

Slow Down-a Lot

When you’re learning a new piece, beat, or groove, play it slowly at first. I mean really slowly. Make sure you’re doing everything right. Then, gradually speed it up to tempo. If this seems intuitive to you, that’s great. Congratulations. But lots of people cut corners here. Don’t do it. There are few things more frustrating than learning to play something wrong, working hard to learn to play it wrong really well, and then having to un-learn it and re-learn it the right way. Get it right the first time. Play it s-l-o-w.

Practice “Hearing” the Music-Without Playing

I can’t stress this enough. If you can’t look at a piece of music and “hear” what it sounds like in your mind, it will take you longer to learn it, and you may never play it very well. Even if you can’t learn to hear the exact pitches on a keyboard percussion part (a highly advanced skill that most people never achieve), you can still learn to hear the basic shape of the melodic line, along with the exact rhythm.

The first step to learning to hear the music in your head, is to learn to sing it with your mouth. It doesn’t matter if your singing voice stinks. Join the club, and get over it. The quality of your voice is irrelevant.

So, the first time you look at a new piece of music, read it through without picking up the sticks or mallets. “Play” the rhythm with your voice. “Hear” it in your head. Then grab your instrument and go at it.

Count Out Loud

I’m not entirely sure why counting out loud is any better than counting to yourself. But it is. Way better. Maybe it’s because, when you have to say the beats out loud, there’s no place to hide. You’ll easily hear your mistakes. You’ll also be building an essential skill for every drummer and percussionist-keeping track of the beat, the pulse, the goove.

To be a good drummer or percussionist, you have to be able to keep a steady beat, and you have to develop a sense of where the beat is. Listen to some of the great modern jazz drummers playing in a small ensemble. When all the other players are going off in all different directions and the drummer is playing patterns so complex that they could never be transcribed, he or she is still keeping tabs on where the basic beat is and helping keep the rest of the players oriented, too. Counting out loud helps you develop that intuitive sense of the beat. (See also, “Use a Metronome,” below.)

Focus on What You Can’t Do-Not What You Can Do

We all like to impress people, including ourselves. When we’ve worked hard to master a skill, we want to show it off. Fine. Show it off. Play it for someone you want to impress (even just yourself). Bask in the limelight for a moment. Pat yourself on the back. Then . . . move on. Feel free to revisit it once in a while to keep up the skill. But don’t dwell on it. That will just rob you of precious time you could be devoting to achieving your next great accomplishment.

Practice time should-no, must-include lots of “mistakes.” If you do everything perfect the first time in practice, then you’re not learning anything. You’re either the greatest instrumentalist who ever lived, or you’re wasting your time.

So, work on what you can’t do (yet). Don’t become frustrated with all the mistakes. If you challenge yourself to go farther by embracing those mistakes and seeing them as opportunities to improve, then you might be surprised at how far you can go.

Set Realistic Short-Term Goals for Each Practice Session

So, what are you going to achieve today? Are you going to learn a new rudiment or groove? Are you going to increase the speed at which you can accurately play Exercise No. 3 on page 16 from 110 bpm to 120 bpm? How about six new exercises from “Stick Control,” played correctly (20 times each, remember)? Maybe you think you can play double stroke rolls for 5 solid minutes, without stopping? (And then take a break!)

You need to set goals at the beginning of each practice session, goals that are both challenging and achievable. And “practice page 13 for 10 minutes” is not a goal. You can do that without achieving anything (except wasting 10 minutes of your practice time). How about: “play through page 13 at 80 bpm without making a single mistake” or maybe just “play through the entire piece without stopping or loosing a beat”? Now those are goals you can work toward.

If You Can’t Stay Loose, Stop

We all know how important relaxation and freedom of movement are when playing percussion (or any other) instruments. Tension inhibits movement, which makes you slow and sloppy. Speed and precision come from loose and relaxed muscles, a light grip, and stress-free posture.

When your muscles get very tense, then it’s time to take a break. For a beginner, it might take only 5 or 10 minutes of practice to stiffen up. As you build stamina and strength, you’ll be able to go longer and longer. But, even the best players have their limits. If you exceed your limit, you are fighting against your own muscles, and you are not accomplishing anything.

If you find yourself practicing the same thing over and over, but getting worse instead of better, that’s a pretty good sign that you’re too stiff or tired to practice effectively. Take a break. Maybe it’s time to watch one of those old Buddy Rich videos again.

Use a Metronome

Every teacher says this, and every student knows this. But, it is just amazing how many people pay lip service to this advice. Don’t be one of them. You should use a metronome every time you practice, for some portion of the practice session.

You’ve probably heard some people say that using a metronome makes you “mechanical.” Well, if by “mechanical” they mean that it will cause you to develop a steady and unerring beat, and an unfailing sense of rhythm, …well, then I guess they are right. A metronome will do that to you. But, if you’d rather have a vague and variable sense of rhythm, and you prefer the freedom to put the downbeat wherever you happen to land in any given measure, then by all means don’t use one. Just don’t expect anyone to want to play music with you or to plunk down good money to hear you.

Seriously, you need a metronome. You need an electronic one with a headphone jack (because you won’t be able to hear either a mechanical one, or the dinky little speaker on an electronic one, when you’re hitting a drum). You need to use it. You can get one for under $30.

Regularly Revisit the Fundamentals

You have to get the fundamentals right, and keep them right, in order to progress and reach your potential. Sure, there are some great drummers who get by with poor fundamentals. But, they became great in spite of poor fundamentals, not because of them. They had to work harder and longer because they had to compensate for those deficiencies. It’s hard enough to learn how to play well when you’re doing things right. Don’t make it even harder by doing things wrong. So, get these things right from the start, and go back to them over, and over, and over again:

Grip – How you hold the drumsticks affects everything about how you play the drums. And I’m not talking about traditional vs. match grip. Either way, you have to have a relaxed, balanced grip that allows the stick to move properly within the hand. So, when you’re limbering up at the beginning of a practice session, use that time to look closely at your grip. Do your hands match exactly (for matched grip)? Does your grip make a solid fulcrum for the stick to rock in your hand? Is your grip loose and relaxed at all speeds?

Stroke – I know it sounds a little silly (especially to a non-drummer), but you have to learn the right way to strike a drum. There are several different kinds of strokes, each with its own place and purpose. You need to learn them, practice them, use them appropriately, and review them periodically. Practice playing rebound strokes (4 right, 4 left, 4 right, etc.) and, while you’re playing, look closely at the stroke. Are the sticks bouncing naturally? Are the left and right sticks reaching the same rebound height? Are you making wrist and finger strokes instead of arm strokes? Are you relaxed?

Posture – Posture is a frequently overlooked fundamental. How you stand (or sit), balance your weight, move and pivot can make playing drums easier or harder. Learn correct posture and regularly re-check your posture, and you’ll be a better player, and a faster learner. Are you standing up (or sitting up) straight? Is your weight balanced? Are you moving around a lot, shifting your weight? Are your arms hanging by your side naturally? And, once more, are you relaxed?

Be Honest With Yourself and With Your Teacher

My final piece of advice is to make sure you are always honest about how much and how well you practice. I see it all the time. A frustrated student will complain that he’s making no progress, despite the fact that he’s practicing “for an hour a day-every day.” But, in reality, it was actually only three days last week (and two the week before), and it was “about” an hour (really 35 minutes, including one “short” break at the computer to play a video game and send a few IMs, and one trip to the kitchen for a snack, with a couple text messages on the way back). He’s not really lying to me because he has actually convinced himself that it’s true. That’s because he’s lying to himself. If you want to see results, you have to put in the time. Don’t lie to yourself about putting in the time, and then wonder why you don’t see results.

OK – So, what are you waiting for? Get practicing!

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