“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.” ~ Aristotle
Make Your Practice Time "SIC"
“SIC” is the best acronym I could come up with for helping my students remember the 3 ways to maximize practice efficiency – besides, my kids tell me it is cool to spell slang words wrong.
“S” stands for Slow it down. Practice slow, and you will learn fast! As common sense as this may seem, we all have a tendency to prematurely practice difficult exercises/grooves at the goal tempo (and often times faster) – which is incredibly inefficient for improving. Slow things down, get them perfect, and then gradually increase the tempo, again getting it perfect at each tempo increase. Getting difficult exercises up to tempo will usually take multiple practice sessions, so don’t rush the speed up process! Also make sure to record yourself periodically to ensure you sound good before increasing tempo.
“I” stands for Isolate – specifically your limbs. It can be extremely helpful with some grooves or patterns to isolate what each hand and/or foot is doing on its own within the exercise. If you can’t play each part separately, there is approximately a 100% chance that you can’t put them all together!
“C” stands for Chunk. Another great way to make difficult grooves/patterns manageable is to practice them in chunks – meaning practice only 2 to 3 beats at a time (or 1 if necessary), and gradually add a beat or two at a time once you have the 1st chunk perfected.
All of the previous practice methods can also be combined in different ways to maximize efficiency and reduce frustration. For example, If you are working on an 8th note rock groove with a challenging bass drum part, 1st slow it down, isolate and repeat the parts the hands play. Once that is solid, “chunk” the bass drum part by gradually adding in one beat of it at a time.
Your feel and groove will benefit more from using music recordings as your “metronome” when practicing, but when working on new challenging exercises, a metronome is a less distracting, tailorable source of time reference. While it is good practice (and training for studio click track playing) to put the metronome on quarter notes, you must not become too reliant on having the metronome “spoon feed” you every beat if you want to develop good time feel.
With the advent of metronome apps, there are many ways to practice with a metronome that can keep you challenged, yet give you the necessary reference of time for training. When practicing swing, I like setting the metronome to the half note and visualizing the click as being on 2 and 4. Many other times I will set the metronome* to play the first two beats of every other measure. The first two beats give you the tempo, while the 6 beats of silence force you to be more accountable for the time. Try different ways to challenge yourself when programming a metronome, but as a general rule, strive for leaving more and more space between metronome reference clicks in order to develop a better sense of inner pulse.
*The app I like to use to customize which beats the metronome plays is Pro Metronome
In general, drummers don’t practice enough playing quietly. I get it – it isn’t nearly as fun or cathartic, but taking the time to add super soft practice time to your practice routine will not only expand your dynamic range and improve control, but it will also give you a fatter groove when playing loud. This is because at softer volumes, a “fat” groove/pocket is more reliant on beat placement and attitude than volume. So if you can make a soft dynamic range groove hard, it feels comparatively easy to groove once you really start hitting the drums.
There are certainly gigs that require you to play loud and hard, but for a gigging drummer, many jobs require you to play impossibly quiet, and you can’t expect to sound good playing softly if you haven’t spent a significant amount of time honing the muscle groups and techniques required to do so. If your current practice situation doesn’t allow you to practice late at night, try using some of that previously unusable practice time to play as soft as you can, and expand not only your dynamic range, but your gig range as well!
Looking back on my practice routine over the years, I spent so much time trying to just play things correctly, that I would often lose sight of the most important thing: how does the music feel? As the philosopher Aristotle said (and I concur), “We are what we repeatedly do…” So if you spend the majority of your practice time trying to make exercises groove and feel good, grooving will become habitual (conversely, habitual apathetic practice routines leads to apathetic performances). I say the majority of your time because there will be instances where you are working on something that requires all of your mental resources just to play it correctly, but the sooner you can start shifting some of your focus (and your student’s focus when teaching) to how each exercise feels/grooves, the better chance you/they will have of always grooving.
“The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.” ~ Amadeus Mozart
If you want to be considered a musical drummer (and keep gigs), you will need to leave space for other musicians to contribute, and musical “breaths” are also essential for keeping your listeners interested. Ipso facto, you need to spend the majority (if not all) of your practice time using rest phrasing (click for more info on phrases and phrasing).
I firmly believe that in no small part, the countless hours I spent practicing exercises from books contributed to my own habitual overplaying when I was younger – because most stick control/chop building exercise books have approximately zero rests! This is where I bang my own drum, and mention that for this very reason, every exercise in my book Melodic Stick Control was written with phrases, rest phrasing and accent phrasing in mind, so that you can develop your stick control and sense of phrases & phrasing at the same time.