I often look back to my music school days with a bit of nostalgia… Most music students usually have anywhere between 4-8 hours PER DAY to practice their instrument, spend the rest of the day in music classes, usually followed by some sort of rehearsal or gig later that night. Music students have the advantage of TIME… those critical 4 or 5 years of life when it's actually your JOB to practice!
THE MUSIC SCHOOL PRACTICE REGIMENT
The music school practice regiment is as follows: spend as many hours as possible practicing everything you possibly can! Ask any percussion/jazz studies major to show you their practice schedule for the day and they might show you something like this:
August 9, 2016 Practice Schedule
1 HOUR: Warmup / Stick Control exercises
1 HOUR: Left foot hi-hat jazz comping exercises
1 HOUR: Chart reading
1 HOUR: Uptempo swing
1 HOUR: Classical snare drum excerpts
1 HOUR: Double Bass Drum chop building session
1 HOUR: Open Drum Solo practice
1 HOUR: Samba
Ah… the glory days. How I long for thee.
THE REAL WORLD PRACTICE REGIMENT
Now... ask any professional, gigging drummer how much time THEY have to practice each week. They might look at the schedule above and laugh!
They’ll often explain to you that they may not have even an hour per day to practice their instrument, let alone an hour per week!
The problem is that once drummers enter the "real world" (w/ family, bills, commitments, etc), they often try to honor the same kind of practice regiment they once had in music school. Unfortunately, this system isn’t sustainable because there are far too many variables to cram into a shorter amount of practice time. With this many variables, the practice routine becomes way too complicated for the amount of time allotted. When this happens, you may start to feel like you’re A) not improving or B) no longer seeing the point in WHY you're practicing these things in the first place. When that happens, the motivation to practice starts to melt away.
If the majority of drummers will eventually face this “lack of time" problem, what do we do about it? In this article, I’ll tell you how I solved the problem for myself, but first we’ll need to turn to the world of fitness.
ISOLATION EXERCISES VS COMPOUND EXERCISES
Let me ask you this: If you only had 5 minutes to work out each day and wanted to stay as fit as possible, which 1-2 exercises would you choose to do?
Calf raises? Wrist curls? Of course not. Instead, you’d be smarter to spend those 5 minutes performing total-body, “bang-for-your-buck” moves called COMPOUND EXERCISES. A compound exercise is an exercise that works many different muscle groups simultaneously. An example of this would be something like a pushup-burpee, a deadlift, or a pull-up.
For busy people looking to get fit, they don't have time to do a series of “isolation exercises” (such as bicep curls), which only work one muscle at a time. Instead, they'll choose a compound exercise such as a chin-up, which hits both the bicep AND the back. The result: similar (and often better) results, in significantly less time.
Yet, if we move back to drumming, many drummers with limited practice time still choose to spend their precious time on a routine filled with "isolation exercises.” This might be things such as pad work or chop building exercises.
When faced with limited time, this type of practice is ineffective. Instead, we need to take the principles we’ve learned from fitness: our practice routine must shift to compound exercises in order to be most effective.
How do we come up with compound exercises for drum set practice? By asking yourself the following question:
“What is the ONE thing will get me the most bang for my buck in the practice room today?"
Which brings us to how I was able to simplify my practice routine.
Enter the “60 Minute Showdown"
THE 60 MINUTE SHOWDOWN
GOAL: In 60 minutes, you will complete the following: Learn and perform one song of your choice from start to finish. This performance will be recorded on video.
SAMPLE PRACTICE SESSION
Here’s what a sample 60 Minute Showdown practice session might look like:
10 Minutes - Listen to the song while writing out a form chart
30 Minutes - Groove construction / work on sections of song
5 Minutes - RECORD SONG, TAKE 1
5 Minutes - Listen Back, taking notes on what to improve on
5 Minutes - RECORD SONG, TAKE 2 (implementing notes)
5 Minutes - Listen back. Are you satisfied with the job you did?
- If you don’t have a video camera (such as a GoPro), your phone will work just fine.
- Try to find a “minus-drums” version of the song. There are many places online as well as drumming books that offer play-along tracks with “minus-drums” versions.
WORKING ALL MUSICAL "MUSCLES" AT ONCE
The 60 Minute Showdown is the ultimate compound exercise for drummers. In order to understand WHY, let’s take a look at the areas of drumming you’ll address over the span of just 60 minutes:
1) TIME EFFICIENCY - You only have 60 minutes to complete this exercise… there’s no time to slack and you have a deadline to meet. You have to find a way to make it happen. Welcome to the real world!
2) GROOVE CONSTRUCTION - You’ll need to come up with different grooves for each section of the song (or learn pre-determined drum grooves note for note). Perhaps you never would have practiced / thought of these grooves independently, but the music now calls for it.
3) STYLISTIC AUTHENTICITY - You may need to change your playing, tuning, or even the gear you’re using to match the style of the song you are playing. This may require you to learn new techniques/skills you currently don’t possess.
4) MUSICAL CONTEXT - By playing along to a song, you’re no longer just practicing mindless patterns/rudiments, you’re practicing MUSIC. Everything you practice now has a context.
5) TIMING - Maybe your play-along has a click track, which you’ll need to be locked into. Playing along to a song without a click track will force you to focus on locking in with other instruments (which you should be doing anyway), and is much more fun than working with a metronome.
6) CHOPS - Instead of mindlessly playing chop-building exercises, now you can develop your chops with an actual musical goal in mind. For example, there may be a tricky double bass drum pattern in the song that you’re uncomfortable with. Now you have a real, tangible musical goal to achieve rather than just playing repetitive exercises at a random BPM marking.
7) CHART READING / CHART WRITING / MEMORIZATION - Perhaps the play-along comes with a chart. In this case, you’ll be refining your chart-reading abilities. If the song doesn’t come with a chart, you may need to quickly write one out of your own. Or you simply may choose to memorize the tune by ear. Regardless of which method you choose, all 3 are critical skills required for any working drummer.
8) PERFORMANCE MODE - Turning on the video camera will immediately force you to practice "playing under pressure". It also forces you to stay focused so that you don’t waste time in the practice room. You’ll be surprised at how turning on the camera will inspire you to bring your “A-game."
9) CONSISTENCY - Are you able to play the song all the way through without any mistakes? If you do make a mistake, are you able to quickly recover and keep going?
10) CRITIQUE AND REFINE - Perhaps the most valuable part of this practice. After you’ve finished performing the song, watch the video back. What did you do well? Where did you fall short? Being able to analyze your drumming is the fastest way to improve; by watching the video you’ll immediately know right away what to improve on and where to focus your efforts in the practice room.
Look at how much you’ve just accomplished in the span of one hour… if you’ve successfully completed this exercise, you should feel extremely proud of yourself!
But why did it work? Because in 60 minutes you hit many different musical “muscles” all at once: groove construction, timing, chops, soloing, chart reading, time efficiency, performance pressure, consistency, reviewing and more! If you had tried to isolate each of these areas individually, think of how much time you would have spent!
SAY GOODBYE TO ISOLATION EXERCISES?
Does this mean that we should stop isolating specific areas of our drumming? Absolutely not. Isolation exercises (such as practice pad work, rudiments, or specific coordination exercises) are still critical to refining your drumming, but they should be supplemental rather than used as the bulk of your practice. For example, rather than spending an hour per day building double bass drum chops, maybe you spend 15 minutes of your practice session working out a tricky double bass drum fill because you NEED IT TO PLAY THE SONG. You’re using an isolation exercise to carry out the compound goal… far more effective. A fitness analogy: adding 5 minutes of ab work at the end of a total body workout. Important? Yes... but supplementary to the larger goal of total-body fitness. If you instead ONLY worked on abs, your body would be out of balance.
Further, if we primarily focus on isolation exercises, we end up “learning” hundreds of patterns/chops in various drumming books but never applying them to our actual drumming vocabulary. However, by starting with a compound exercise (in this case, learning a song), then that pattern or chop you end up using is far more likely to remain in your drumming vocabulary long-term because you are already practicing it in a musical context.
CHANGE THE TIMELINE
You can also practice this compound exercise over the span of a slightly larger timeframe. For example, let’s say you want to practice the 60 Minute Showdown over the span of one week. Perhaps your goal is also to create a nice drumming video out of this experience that you can put on your YouTube channel and share with the world, so you’d like a little more time with it before you hit record.
Here’s what a “1 Week Showdown" might look like:
DAY 1 - Write out chart, learn / construct grooves (60 min)
DAY 2 - Isolate each section of the song / chop building for drum solo section (60 min)
DAY 3 - Practice problem areas (60 min)
DAY 4 - Practice problem areas (60 min)
DAY 5 - Practice running through the song (60 min)
DAY 6 - RECORD SONG (30-60 min)
DAY 7 - Edit and upload to YouTube (60 min)
Along the way, you may be practicing several isolation exercises (focusing on a chop, fill, or technique), but everything you practice now has a PURPOSE: to record the song by the end of the week.
Some food for thought: Imagine if you followed this schedule every week for a year… you’d have 52 unique drumming videos on YouTube! Think of how much you would have improved in one year by doing this!
Try this exercise and let me know how it goes. I can guarantee that the amount of growth you’ll experience will be far greater than if you had spent the same amount of time playing mindless paradiddles and double bass drum exercises with a metronome. The difference? COMPOUND EXERCISES give you a purpose to your practice and put everything in context.
Hopefully, you see that the point here is not how much time you have to practice, but how you spend the time you DO have so that it’s as effective and uncomplicated as possible! Now stop reading and start drumming!
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Thanks so much for reading this week's article! Each week, I select one person from the video "100 RULES FOR DRUMMERS” and write an article based on the three-word rule they offered. My goal is to provide questions, thought experiments, and specific action steps you can take in order to improve both your DRUMMING and LIFE!
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ABOUT WALFREDO REYES JR.
Thank you to Walfredo Reyes Jr. for offering his 3 words of advice to drummers (DON'T GET COMPLICATED) and for inspiring me to write this week's article!
Walfredo has played with: Carlos Santana, Traffic, Steve Winwood, Jackson Browne, Celia Cruz, Gloria Estefan, David Lindley, Ricki Lee Jones, Richard Marx, Sergio Mendes, Smokey Robinson, Robbie Robertson, Joe Sample, Boz Scaggs, Christina Aguilera, Ricky Martin, Johnny Hallyday, Khaled, Lindsey Buckingham, Chicago and many others.
Because of his versatility, Walfredo is one of the most in demand musicians in the world today. He currently lives in the Los Angeles area where he continues to expand his talents to recording, producing, composing, education, live performance, and touring. Walfredo is currently touring with the world renown Classic Rock band, Chicago, playing percussion.