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When drummers say they’re going to practice, they will often sit down at their drum-set and play along to their favourite songs or practice their favourite grooves or fills. This is awesome – but is this really all there is to practicing? If they are only practicing songs, grooves, and fills that they can already play, the point is being missed. Practicing is about targeting your weaknesses and pushing yourself in different areas of drumming.
Everything we practice on the drums can be broken down into four main categories:
If you take the time to practice specific material from each of these categories, you will see significant improvement in all areas of your drumming.
The technique category includes both hand and foot technique. Hand technique includes techniques like Moeller technique, finger technique, push-pull technique, etc. There are also different grips like German, French, American, and traditional grip that are used to develop different hand techniques. Foot technique includes techniques like heel-toe technique, slide technique, constant-release technique, heel-down technique, etc.
Developing technique will allow you to be able to play more efficiently around the drum-set. It will also enable you to express more vocabulary on the drum-set as certain techniques are required to play certain patterns, grooves, fills, etc. You can think of technique as being the tools that allow you express your ideas on the drum-set. The more tools that you have available to you, the more ideas you’ll be able to express!
One of the best ways to practice hand technique is on a practice pad while sitting in front of a mirror. Practicing on a practice pad will allow you to focus on your technique without the distraction of other drums and cymbals. They are also perfect for low volume practice. So when it’s late at night, you can choose to work on your hand technique without waking up the neighbors!
Practice pads will expose ALL of your mistakes. If your drumstick heights are even slightly different, you’ll be able to notice the difference between strokes visually (by using the mirror) and sonically when playing on a practice pad. You may not notice these small differences when playing on a drum-set because of the volume. For that reason, it’s important to use a practice pad!
You can also use a bass drum practice pad to practice foot technique in the same way. You can use these for single or double bass drum pedals.
Vocabulary is what we play on the drum-set. This includes everything from rudiments and sticking patterns to grooves and fills in all styles of music. The more “words” that you can say, the more unique “sentences” you will be able to create. In relation to drumming, if you can only play ten different drum grooves, you will only have those ten options to choose from. But, if can play 100 different drum grooves, you will have 100 different options to choose from! Having a large vocabulary will allow you to become a more creative and versatile drummer.
The two most important types of vocabulary are rudiments and stylistic vocabulary.
Everything we play on the drum-set can be broken down into individual rudiments. For that reason, it is very helpful to know a little bit about each one – even if it’s just the basic sticking pattern. Even if you’ve been playing for years, make an effort to go back and learn, or review all of the rudiments. You will likely find a few that you incorporate into your playing regularly, even without consciously choosing to use them. You may also find some new ones that you want to try incorporating into your playing as well!
Stylistic vocabulary includes grooves, fills, and other patterns that are associated with specific styles of music. If a drummer gets asked to play a show with a local rock band, the chances of them being able to play a number of different rock grooves and fills are pretty high. However, if they get asked to sit in with a Latin band, the chances of them having a number of samba, mambo, or guaguanco grooves and fills at their disposal is much slimmer.
Having an arsenal of different grooves and fills for every style of music is an excellent way to be prepared for any playing situation. You’ll also find that learning these different styles of music will benefit your playing in other styles you’re already comfortable with.
Independence refers to being able to play separate rhythms or patterns with each of our different limbs. Coordination refers to being able to play these independent rhythms together in an effective way. Just like technique, independence and coordination are tools that allow us to express our ideas on the drum-set.
Here is a basic rock groove that incorporates all four limbs.
Having independence and coordination will allow us to create countless variations of this groove. Here are four variations that will alter each limb pattern. This could be referred to as groove independence. You can apply these ideas to any of your own grooves!
Lead Hand Variation
Alternate Hand Variation
Bass Drum Variation
Hi-Hat Foot Variation
Practicing stylistic independence with ostinatos is another excellent way to develop independence and coordination. Styles of music like swing, samba, and baião are all based on different ostinato patterns (these can be played with any of our limbs).
The samba and baião ostinatos are patterns that incorporate both feet while the swing ostinato pattern, or the “jazz ride cymbal pattern” is played with our lead hand (and accompanied by the hi-hat foot). Here are what these three ostinato patterns look like.
Once you’ve become comfortable with an ostinato, there are a variety of ways to develop independence and coordination. If the ostinato is played with the feet, you can practice playing different rudiments and sticking patterns with your hands while continuing to play the ostinato. You can also try playing different grooves that incorporate the ostinato.
If an ostinato incorporates one of your hands, you can practice playing different rhythmic patterns or motifs against the ostinato. These rhythmic patterns could be played with your hands or your feet. Even if these exercises aren’t the most practical – they will push your technical abilities, ultimately allowing you to have more freedom on the drum-set.
This category is all about applying what you’ve worked on to a musical context. This could be playing along to drumless play-along tracks, playing along to your favourite songs, jamming with your friends, or playing with a band!
If you’ve been working on swing independence, find a swing recording or a drumless play-along track to practice with. This will help you turn the exercise into something musical and applicable. If you’ve been working on a new challenging groove, get together with some musicians and try creating a song based around that groove!
It’s so easy to spend all of your time sitting in your basement working on things like hand technique. You can have the best technique in the world, but if you can’t apply it to anything – what’s the point? Musicality is just as important as technicality.
One of the best ways to learn is from watching and listening to your favourite drummers. This can be done effectively through active listening and active viewing. Many drummers will simply listen to music while they’re doing another activity – like driving or working. Active listening refers to listening to music as its own exclusive activity and fully concentrating on what you’re hearing. The same concept applies to active viewing when you’re watching a video of your favourite drummer.
Transcribing takes these concepts one step further. Transcribing refers to writing out, note-for-note, what a drummer is playing. This is by far the most accurate way to determine exactly what a drummer is playing. However, in order to start transcribing, an understanding of theory and notation is required. If this is an area that you struggle with, this article may give you some incentive to learn about music theory and notation (yes, you can learn all about this on Drumeo)!
Now you may be wondering how this category is relevant to practicing. You could think of this category as a subcategory of the previous “Musicality” and “Vocabulary” sections. In relation to musicality, all of these concepts will help drummers become more musically aware by focusing on the details in music (this is especially true for those who transcribe). Being musically aware is important because we are musicians – not just drummers.
When we play with other musicians, we need to focus on how each instrument is contributing to the overall sound. Even though we may just be concentrating specifically on what a drummer is playing (while actively listening/watching or transcribing), when we go play with other musicians, we will likely pay closer attention to what other musicians are playing as well.
In relation to vocabulary, active viewing/listening and especially transcribing are excellent ways to learn new vocabulary. Whenever you hear a groove or a fill in a song that you want to learn – transcribe it! Take the time to slow the song down (via YouTube, Logic Pro X, Reaper, etc.) and write out exactly how to play it. You’ll often find that after transcribing a groove or fill, you can sit down at your drum-set and play it almost immediately.
Depending on the amount of time you have to practice each day or week, it may be impossible to work on material from each category in every single practice session. If it’s not possible, try to work on material from half of the categories in one practice session, then in the next practice session, work on material from the other categories. By doing this, you’ll have a balanced practice routine that will help you improve as quickly as possible and help you reach your drumming goals!