Practice, Practice, Practice (Part 2 – In the Moment)
In part one of my blog post on practicing I discussed a number of important considerations for being suitably prepared to practice. In this second part I’ll address the practice session itself. When it comes time to actually get the sticks moving the two most important habits to develop are focus and patience.
Bringing Things Into Focus
The word ‘focus’ gets thrown around a lot but I think it’s necessary to clearly define it as a state of mind. The focused practicing of music means strictly dedicating your thoughts and senses to the refinement of your ability to create pleasing sounds. I find focus to be practically synonymous with the concept of mindfulness, which is a conscientious awareness of the present moment. When sitting down to practice, clear away all the non-musical things that occupy your mind and energy throughout the day. Set them aside so that you can free your mind to be fully involved in the music, without distraction. This is easier said than done since it can often be challenging to quiet one’s mind. Here’s where the practice of counting the pulse of the music demonstrates its worth. While counting is a great tool to make sense of a piece of music in terms of beat, rhythm, and structure it also has the amazing additional value of focusing the mind. Counting while practicing, especially when done out loud, requires just enough concentration that un-related thoughts are kept at bay (use of a metronome is always a good idea to strengthen the evenness and consistency of your count, and consequently your feel of pulse). When non-musical thoughts are kept away there is a greater chance to immerse fully in the music – hearing with clarity, creating from inspiration, playing with command.
Once you are in that mindset then your senses need to be fully engaged, most importantly your ears and eyes. First and foremost, critical listening is imperative. Practice listening so you can catch every nuance and shade in the sounds you create. The more time you give this the more you will find you are able to distinguish. Once the sounds are properly taken in then the next step is evaluation. Make judgments on whether or not the sound came out as intended. Is the sound pleasing? Are you able to recreate it consistently? How can it be better? What else can be done with the sound? Your eyes should be watching what you’re doing – your hands, the sticks, the drums & cymbals. I have so many students who set their hands in motion while their eyes wander around the walls of the studio, out the window, at me – everywhere except where the real action is. The hazard here is two-fold. First, the student is not seeing what they’re doing to learn from it. Secondly, they are opening themselves up to unrelated stimulus to distract the mind. Keeping your mind, ears, and eyes focused allows great things to happen.
Next to focus the greatest virtue when practicing is patience. The adage, ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day,’ is quite relevant to the process of building a musician. There is a grandiosity and complexity to accomplished musicianship but it is built on a foundation of solid fundamentals. If fundamentals aren’t sound then everything built on top will crumble. The surest course to a solid foundation is practicing the fundamental skills slowly and accurately. It’s a common trap to rush through the “simple” or “boring” stuff to get to the “cool” or “fun” stuff. However, by short-changing the “boring” but fundamental stuff the thing that’s supposed to be “cool” won’t be fun because the foundation is weak. Being patient with the basics makes everything better.
Patience is also a valuable quality when it comes to making mistakes. I see so many students get frustrated and discouraged by mistakes and this is a big challenge to their development. Nobody likes the feeling of being wrong or not being able to do something. The natural reaction is to hide from a mistake, but doing that does nothing to make your music better. Once you run up against a mistake it is really helpful not to experience it as a spotlight on a personal shortcoming but rather as an opportunity to improve yourself. Take mistakes head-on and correct them. When you find something you can’t do, stop and slow it down (there is no such thing as too slow) to where you can play it cleanly and musically. Once that’s achieved then gradually broaden the range of tempi at which you can play it (again, a metronome is a very useful tool here). I find it useful to imagine that everyone has a certain number of mistakes inside them and the only way to improve is to get them out, one at a time, until they’re all expelled and what’s left is the skill of consistent and accurate execution.
It’s Not the Destination, It’s How You Get There
In the process of writing this blog post I have been reminded of just how much goes into the critical skill of practicing one’s instrument. While there’s plenty more to discuss in future posts about the art of practicing I feel that the concepts discussed here provide a framework into which all the other elements can fit. Planning, preparation, focus, and patience are some of the greatest tools in your personal development as a drummer and musician. These take as much time to develop as your arsenal of grooves and fills. Taking the care to properly cultivate them is the best path to a satisfying and rewarding journey on the path of musicianship!