Practice, Practice, Practice (Part 1 – Preparation)
While most students come to me looking to learn how to play the drums, what they don’t often consider is that in order to play well they first need to learn how to practice well. Not knowing how to practice can lead to confusion, unnecessarily slow progress, and frustration. Having a strong practice habit, though, is the best support to satisfying development that can be seen, heard, and felt by the student and those around you.
Big Picture Perspective
Before getting started I think it’s imperative to make sure that you have a clear understanding of how playing music fits in their life. Some people learn as a hobby, others learn to meet school requirements, some want to be able to jam with friends, others have ideas of becoming the best drummer ever. There’s no wrong motivation but no matter what the goal, it’s important to identify it, understand what is required to accomplish it, and have an idea of when it should be achieved. Once you know that, the next step is to look at the big picture by lining it up next to all the other things in your life – family, friends, work, school, sports, TV, video games, etc. – and prioritize them. Again, there’s no wrong answer here. This is just an honest assessment that helps you calibrate your values, and consequently your expectations. Once this is done the final step in this preparatory phase is to look at how time in a normal week is divided among these things and make sure it is appropriate to each’s importance. Once you’ve gotten that far, having a sense of how much weekly time should be given to practice, the next phase is developing the habit.
In order to retain skills and concepts regular practice is essential, ideally every day. This keeps things fresh in the muscles and the mind and reduces the need to relearn skills and concepts after longer gaps. This is definitely not to say that practice should be aimed simply toward filling a certain amount of time. That generally trains a person to be a clock-watcher not a musician. The goal isn’t so much to practice for a certain period of time but to practice until a certain skill is learned. The aim should be towards achieving small goals that aid in the accomplishment of the larger goals. Still, designating a general or minimum amount of time is very helpful in making that happen. Keeping a record or log of practice time can be very useful in evaluating follow-through on the plan and identifying what works in your schedule and what doesn’t.
Your practice space should be pleasant, physically and emotionally (comfortable temperature, properly lit, clean, perhaps a musically inspiring or educational poster or two, etc.). Drums should be tuned and all gear in proper working order (ensure your stick beads are un-chipped, felt washers and sheaths in place for cymbals, there are no random buzzes or rattles). Organization is important, especially as the number of things on your plate increases. You should review long-term, mid-term, and short term goals and be clear on what it is you want to accomplish in a given practice session. I always make it explicit in my students’ notebooks specific exercises they are to work on during the week. Those exercises are short term goals and serve the mid-/long-term aims. It’s best to practice alone, where you won’t be distracted by the activities of others. If you’re practicing at home let those around you know you’re not to be disturbed. When you sit down to practice you should have all the necessary materials at hand. That might be your lesson notebook, printed parts from which to study, sound recordings, reference videos, etc. Pre-empt diversions: turn off the cell phone, turn off any instant messenger/chat programs, & don’t give in to temptation to check email while practicing.
Once you’ve gone through all these steps then you are physically and mentally ready to practice! Stay tuned for part two of my thoughts on how to practice, including focus concepts and time structure considerations…