Learning to Learn

By Fran Merante

When all is said and done, how proficient we are on our instrument is not determined by how long we practice, but by how efficient and productive our practice time is.  The best way to be productive is to have an approach.  Find an approach to learning particular exercises that works for you.  I like to call this “learning to learn”.  Your approaches to your practice material are instrumental in determining how quickly we progress on our instrument.

I’d like to share with you some of the techniques that I use in case you have trouble finding some that work for yourself. I’ve shared these with my students and they all have great success with them and hopefully you will too.

Learning a Linear Type Groove

A linear groove is created by a continual flow of notes that usually don’t overlap.  They are called linear grooves because theoretically, you could draw a line through all of the notes that make up the groove in a “connect the dots” sort of fashion, making a continual line.

These are the steps I use in attacking this type of groove:

1) Determine how to count. I do this by finding the smallest note used in the groove.  In this case it’s the 16th note. Therefore, I will count using 16th note subdivision. 1 e an du ..2 e an du… etc.

2) Learn the groove by beat, rather than by trying to learn the whole groove at one time.  It’s also important to put speed aside until you learn the groove in its entirety, utilizing all dynamics as well.  Once the groove and dynamics are in place, you may increase the speed.  Until then SLOWLY is the key word.  So let’s learn beat one: 1 = Hi Hat, E = kick, AN = unaccented snare, Duh = Hi Hat.  So count and play these syllables and after beat one stop playing but continue counting the remaining 3 beats.  Loop this pattern until comfortable, and then move to the next step.

3) Now you have 2 choices: 1) You can now add the next beat with all of its subdivisions, or 2) you can just add one note at a time. I usually add just one note at a time. It lends itself to better accuracy in note placement.  In this case we would add the accented snare drum on 2.  Start the loop again but now we stop playing on 2 but continue counting the remaining syllables.

4) Continue adding one note at a time until the groove is complete.  Play it SLOWLY in its entirety until comfortable.

5) Work with the groove at various tempos.

Although this method may seem like it takes a long time, it’s much more efficient than learning the whole groove at one time, or by ear.  It’s one thing to learn the notes that are written and another to learn the groove that the notes create. Learning everything at once lends itself to missing dynamics and poor note placement.  You may very well be able to learn by ear just as quickly, but you are also depriving yourself the opportunity of improving your reading skills or learning to read altogether.  So what seems like a short cut actually isn’t, because if you then wanted to go back and learn to read the groove as well, you would be back to square one.  Also, the luxury of being able to hear the groove won’t always be there for you.  I purposely left out a wav file of this groove to keep visitors from learning it by ear.

Overlapping or Layered Grooves

These are grooves where instruments overlap within the groove.  Usually these grooves have a consistent pattern on one or more instruments while another instrument or instruments overlaps the pattern.

The way I would attack this particular groove is as follows:

1) Choose ONE instrument with a consistent pattern within the groove and play just this part. I usually pick the instrument with the easiest part.  In this case I’d have to say it’s the Hi Hat playing quarters with the foot. The snare is a consistent pattern but it is only on 2 and 4, where the Hi Hat is more consistent in that it is the same for each beat.

2) Choose the next instrument with a consistent pattern and play this pattern along with the previous one until comfortable.  I’d go with the Hi Hat played with the hand.  It has a consistent pattern for each beat, an eighth note followed by 2 sixteenth notes with each downbeat having an accent.  Repeat until comfortable.

3) Now pick the next instrument to add. It should be the next easiest part.  Since we would only have to add the snare drum on 2 and 4, I’d go with this one. You are now ¾ of the way home!!

4) Now to add the final part to the first 3; the bass drum.  Since there are quite a few notes involved and we already have three limbs working, I would add ONE note at a time while playing the other parts.  Do not move to the next note until comfortable!!

By using this method, not only will you learn the notes, but you will also learn the dynamics that go along with the notes.  You will also understand the groove better in that you will give yourself the opportunity to see how the instruments overlap and come together to make the whole groove.

In closing, I would just like to reiterate how important it is to play SLOWLY when learning ANY exercise.  There is constant communication going on between your brain and your limbs when you are learning.  The eyes are sending the written music to the brain to interpret, while the brain is telling the hands and feet what to play.  There is time involved between each of these steps.  t makes it much easier for the brain to do its job if you give it the time to do so. SO PLAY SLOWLY. After you repeat the exercise for a while, the brain and limbs will be able to execute the pattern on “auto pilot”.  This is the time to start thinking about speed!!

Good Luck!!

You can check out more by Fran at his website:, and

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