I began practising properly during my degree. Of course, I’d also spent many hours at my drums as a younger player, but my practice wasn’t as effective as it could have been. I’ve been fortunate enough to study with a number of wonderful teachers over the years, and it was they who taught me how to practise properly.
In honour of this, I want to share the ten most practical tips I’ve learned. They serve me well to this day, and I hope they’ll help you get more out of your daily practice sessions.
1. Get used to practising at the same time and in the same place each day.
If you set the time and place in advance, you’ll save yourself a great deal of time and mental effort on planning. We all have a propensity for occasional laziness, particularly when it comes to regular practice. If you build practice times into your daily routine in the same way as you do brushing your teeth, you’ll no longer have to think about how to create time. Regardless of what else is happening – even if you wake up feeling less than great – you should make every effort to stick to your plan. Otherwise, you’ll lose the focus and the momentum you need to be able to improve.
2. Set up your practice area in the way that allows you to work best.
Though my apartment can often be utter chaos, my practice room is clean enough to eat off the floor. I can’t work well if things are chaotic or dirty. For many people, it’s the opposite. Maybe you need your practice books and notes to be spread across the room, “organised” in a system that only you understand. The key is to arrange your space to be perfect for you. In my studio, you’ll find inspiring images, signed drumsticks, my degree certificate, awards, and photos of the former teachers who gave me so much of their time and energy. This surrounds me with positive energy, which in turn helps me concentrate on the things I want to achieve.
3. Figure out how long you can practise before needing a break, and let this guide you.
Everyone is different, and every musician should figure out how long they can practise before their concentration starts to drift. I play for for 90 minutes before taking a small break. I stand up, stretch and perhaps fetch a glass of water, but never stop for more than five minutes. If you divide your practise time into manageable units, you’ll notice that you retain more information and are able to work for longer. Picture your brain as a sponge. As soon as the sponge is full and no longer has space for new information, you need to take a break and “wring it out”. When you feel ready, you can return to your playing with a fresh mind and a renewed supply of energy.
4. Practise in front of the mirror. What you look like is reflected in how you sound.
It’s probably something you rarely think about, but next time you practise, take a moment to concentrate on your upper body. Tension leads to problems with rhythm and, more generally, to a range of technical issues. Tension also affects your ability to breathe. Without oxygen, our muscles cannot function and our ability to grasp new concepts is reduced. In addition, as a drummer, I’ve found a mirror to be very useful in developing the Moeller technique or remedying problems in my handwork and footwork. It’s an affordable but highly worthwhile practice tool that no musician should be without.
5. Divide your practice time into 3 to 4 units.
Let’s say you have an hour of free time and want to work on your technique. In this case, I suggest 15 minutes of snare drum technique and reading, 15 minutes of drum set technique, 15 minutes of solo play and concept development and 15 minutes of play-along. This is a good template for making use of an hour and avoiding getting bogged down in allocating your time. I recommend you set the alarm on your mobile phone and move to the next section as soon as it goes off. If you’re anything like the majority of my pupils, you’ll have a tendency to lose yourself in trying out new ideas and in “musical doodling”. This is great, and has its place, but will also distract you from the work you actually need to do. For this reason, I allow myself a bit of time at the end of a practice session to simply play and enjoy. For me, this is an opportunity to creatively deploy the technical skills I worked on during the individual practice units.
6. Record your practice sessions.
As the old saying goes: “The camera never lies”. A recording device is one of the best and most important practice aids I know, up there with a metronome. It doesn’t matter whether you use an old sound recorder, a digital video camera with all the bells and whistles or the new Macbook with Pro Tools: what does matter is that you have a good method for analysing your playing. And if you ever doubt the value of recording your practice sessions, think about why studio drummers have such fantastic technique.
7. Spend 70 % of your time working on your weaknesses and 30% on your strengths.
This might seem logical, but many drummers are more interested in hearing themselves sound good (and perhaps impressing any observers) than in working on weaknesses in their playing. As such, a worthwhile practice session can and should sound completely different from a live performance. Of course, there’s nothing against practising the things you’re already good at – practice is about perfecting your skills, after all – but you shouldn’t shy away from occasionally sounding bad. Nobody will care, but you will learn new skills. If you sit in the practice room solely to show off what you can already do, you’ll only be wasting your own time.
8. Understand the difference between the conscious and the subconscious mind
Practice sessions can be frustrating. Last time, you could do a particular lick perfectly; today, you seem to have no clue how it goes. In this regard, there’s one thing you need to know: that repetition is the only way of anchoring new information in the new brain. One of my teachers explained it as follows: that when you practise something for the first time, it enters your conscious mind only. During this stage, you begin to understand the practical knowledge and the technique that underpins it. Having allocated it the bare minimum of time, you march enthusiastically on – but this is a mistake. At the moment we grasp how to play something, the real learning has only just begun! Only when we do something repeatedly over a longer period of time can it begin to sink into our subconscious.
Imagine you have to relearn how to stand and walk upright. At some point, you’ll find yourself able to do so without actively thinking about the placement of your feet, though you’ll still need to be careful to avoid falling over. This is the difference between the conscious and the subconscious mind. Musical playing must come from the subconscious level. When we try to use techniques that we have only understood on a surface level, mistakes will be the inevitable result. In my experience, the best place to practise difficult techniques is in the quiet of your own home. On stage, you must put them aside in favour of those you’ve already mastered. It takes time for new ideas to anchor themselves firmly in your playing, but if you stick to it, it will come!
9. Practise SLOWLY!
Practise at a slow tempo, particularly when you’re trying to get to grips with new material. This is a great method of anchoring new information quickly in your subconscious. While it may sometimes be frustrating and arduous, playing slowly can allow you to acquire a deep understand of timing and a much more precise technique. As a drummer, you’ll often find yourself thinking about notes, but not necessarily about the pauses between them. As a result, you may have a tendency to rush or to hold back in terms of tempo. Practising at 40 to 60 bpm forces you to acknowledge the gaps between the notes, which is of immeasurable value for your own playing. Try it – you’ll be surprised at the results!
10. Don’t give yourself a hard time.
It’s important that you push yourself to get better, but it won’t do you any good to chastise yourself for not understanding something first time. Every drummer wants to sound unique and see quick results. Sometimes, it can seem that our colleagues and friends are racing ahead of us, and we become demoralised. But everyone learns differently and at a different pace. For some people, natural talent is enough to get them over the starting line, but they hit a wall later, when the hard work starts. There are no shortcuts on the path to success, but strict discipline can only ever be of great help.
So, those were my ten tips for optimising your practise sessions. If you know a colleague who could use them, feel free to share this post!