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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 favorite songs or practice their favorite 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:

  • Technique
  • Vocabulary
  • Independence & Coordination
  • Musicality

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.
 

Technique

The technique category includes both hand and foot technique. Hand technique includes Moeller technique, finger technique, push-pull technique, and so on. There are also different grips like German, French, American, and traditional grip that are used to develop different hand techniques. Foot technique includes heel-toe technique, slide technique, constant-release technique, heel-down technique, and more.

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 as certain techniques are required to play certain patterns, grooves, and fills. You can think of technique as being a set of tools that allows you express your ideas on the drums. 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. Pads 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 it for single or double bass drum pedals.
 

Vocabulary

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. If you can only play ten different drum grooves, you will only have those ten options to choose from. But if you 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 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 to incorporate into your playing as well!

Stylistic vocabulary includes grooves, fills, and other patterns that are associated with specific styles of music. If a drummer is 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’re 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 & Coordination

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 drums.

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. An ostinato is a phrase or rhythm that repeats over and over. 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.

Samba Ostinato

Baião Ostinato

Swing Ostinato

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 keeping the feet going. You can also try playing different grooves that incorporate the same foot 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.
 

Musicality

This category is all about applying what you’ve worked on to a musical context. This could be playing along to drumless playalong tracks, playing along to your favorite 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 playalong 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.
 

Bonus: Active Listening/Viewing & Transcribing

One of the best ways to learn is from watching and listening to your favorite drummers. This can be done 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 favorite 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, you’ll need to have an understanding of theory and notation. 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 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 contributes to the overall sound. Even though we may just be concentrating 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.

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 (with 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 on the drums and play it almost immediately.
 

Conclusion

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!

Brandon Toews

Brandon Toews is an author, educator, and performer based out of Vancouver, Canada. He is the co-author of The Best Beginner Drum Book and the Product Director at Musora Media Inc., home to the award-winning online music education platforms Drumeo, Pianote, and Guitareo.

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