Doubtless you have heard the statement “practicing is an art form” many times from many people and wondered, what the heck does that mean. If you consider an art form as something that takes a great deal of effort, patience, and creativity to master then you are on the right track. It is important to note that when we are doing something that we enjoy it is not considered by most people to be hard work. For some the term “practice” rivals “homework” as a word that brings a sense dread to many. But if done in an organized and systematic fashion practicing need not be a chore. It can even be a hell of a lot of fun and give you a great sense of great accomplishment. And of course it will help you reach the ultimate goal of becoming a master on your instrument. With this in mind let’s lay down some basic practising pratices (sorry) to help you become a master of the practice room.
Where do you practice?
You should do your practising in an isolated environment, which consists of you and your instruments. This environment should be free of any distractions such as other people, televisions telephones, pets, and refrigerators. The room should be comfortable (as far as temperature is concerned) and be well lit. If possible treat the room acoustically so it sounds good while not disturbing others. A lot of my students tell me that they hate to practice at home because they feel like they are disturbing other family members. This can be remedied somewhat with some sound insulation and acoustic treatment.
When do you practice?
This varies from person to person but I like to practice in the earlier part of the day. The reasons for this are:
- I find I am fairly alert in the morning, which may not necessarily be the case by the afternoon.
- If a get a good practice session in early in the day I find it gives me a feeling of accomplishment for the rest of the day. It also gives me less to think about for the rest of the day.
- I am usually performing at night so my mind and body are fresher for the performance.
Of course most people have to practice whenever they have a spare moment. If this is the case try to make that spare moment happen at roughly the same time every day. This will put you into a routine and routines are terrific for cutting down on procrastination.
What do you practice?
There are basically two types of practicing. The first type is what I call Fundamental Practicing. This consists of the learning of new techniques and pieces and generally improving your playing ability. This might consist of:
- Any lesson material your teachers have given you.
- Working on new pieces you are interested in learning
- Sight reading
- New technical exercises
The second type of practicing is what I call Maintenance Practicing. This mainly consists of reviewing material and repertoire but can also include routine technical exercises to keep your physical skills strong. As I get older (and busier) this is sometimes all I have time for. This is why when you are young and have the time you should dedicate yourself to as much as the first practicing type as possible.
While not considered practicing by most people, critical listening is a skill that will improve your playing immensely. Try to spend at least a quarter of your available time analyzing and in some cases transcribing the performances of several top players. Always check out several recordings of any piece you might be performing if they are available.
How long should you practice?
This is the most common question that students ask me and my answer is “as long as it takes to achieve your goals for that session.” Of course this varies with the amount of time one has available but goals are of the utmost importance for successful practising. A short range (one session) goal may consist of something like reading through a new piece or reaching a new (faster) tempo. It could also include memorization of a section and sight-reading a given amount of music. This is an organized way of taking small steps to reach a goal.
In any given week I might have music to learn from the two orchestras with which I perform as well as upcoming Broadway show performances that I may be involved with. I might also have music to learn for upcoming studio sessions and I have to constantly learn new pieces that my students may be working on. If I didn’t approach all of this in an organized manner I would be constantly overwhelmed (I won’t say that this has never happened) but thanks to good sight-reading skills and an organized practice routine I can usually get everything done and have time to hang out with my family.
How do you partition practice time?
I tell my students to break up their time as follows.
There obviously may be times when you are in a pinch to learn something and in that case you would adjust accordingly.
- Spend an 8th of the allotted time warming up
- Spend an 8th of the allotted time on technical exercises
- Spend an 8th of the allotted time on sight-reading
- Spend a quarter of the allotted time on learning new pieces
- Spend an 8th of the allotted time on reviewing repertoire or old pieces.
- Spend a quarter of the allotted time critically listening to or transcribing music.
These times will also obviously vary for someone who has three hours to practice instead of one but you get the idea. If you are practicing more than one hour take a 5-10 minute break every hour. Get away from the instrument, do some stretches and take a walk. This will help clear your mind and refresh you.
Last but certainly not least...
Practicing should not be an emotional experience. If you have a “bad day” in the practice room, you should not let it bother you and if you have a great day, you shouldn’t get too excited. Your sessions should be as emotionless as possible. This will help you avoid the up and down roller coaster that so many musicians ride and fall off of. Practicing is something you will do you entire life as a musician and it should be a workman–like experience. That is, it should be the total opposite of performing, which for me anyway, is the ultimate emotional experience.
The Skills You Need back to top
The market is being flooded with more and more qualified players every year and good paying gigs are getting fewer and fewer. It is a tough time to be starting a music career. If it makes you feel any better though in seems nowadays that even the white-collar work force isn’t safe. People who have worked for the same company for 20 years are getting laid off. There is however one way to partially insulate yourself from being an unemployed musician. It’s call versatility.
I am convinced that versatility has been the key to my success. When I lived in New York I could comfortably take any gig I was called for be it drum set, Latin percussion, orchestral percussion etc. If the set gigs were slow I could do orchestral or show work and so on. This way I was always making some sort of income and never had to get a day job.
I try and teach this philosophy to all of my students. These days you should be well versed in at least three of these genres of percussion performance.
- Drum Set - You need to know all styles and play them with confidence.
- Orchestral Percussion - This is a huge genre and it encompasses many instruments such as timpani, all the mallet instruments, snare drum, tambourine, cymbals, bass drum etc.
- Hand Percussion/Latin Percussion - Again an enormous family of instruments. The most important for general performance would be the instruments from Cuba, Brazil, Africa and the middle east. These include congas, bongos, timbales, djembe, frame drums, cuica, and literally hundreds more.
- Jazz Vibes - You may also want to learn to improvise and voice chords on the vibes and marimba. This will open up a whole world of new gigs for you including solo gigs and jobs with bands that already have a drummer. It will also make you much more attractive to touring groups looking for a percussionist. At the very least you should be able to voice chords on the vibes with only a chord symbol as a reference.
Many of these instruments cross over into different groups. For example, you will be called upon to play congas and bongos in an orchestra as well as for musical theatre. Likewise you can make yourself invaluable by being able to perform orchestral percussion overdubs on a session in which you were originally called to play drum set. Learn to do all of these things well and you will most likely never be unemployed.
Why You Need A Teacher back to top
You might think there is not enough time to learn all this but lets take a closer look. Many of techniques you use in one of these genres transfers directly over into another. For example, good snare drum technique is a prerequisite for almost any instrument you play with sticks. Good conga technique can be used on djembe and a score of other ethnic drums. The toughest part for most drum set oriented players is to learn the mallet instruments such as marimba, vibes, xylophone and glockenspiel. These instruments require a thorough knowledge of music theory and the ability to read two clefs: bass and treble. Playing timpani also requires reading in bass clef and the ability to hear and tune pitches. Although it is possible to become an excellent "self-taught" drum set and Latin percussion artist, these orchestral instruments will require some study with a qualified teacher. There is just too much material to cover on your own. A teacher will also be able to show you the critical things you need to know quickly (by demonstration) and hopefully steer you in the right direction career wise.
Finding a good teacher is very important and sometimes difficult. Seek out a professional musician who is doing what you would like to do. Make sure that they have the following qualifications.
- They have played professionally for at least four years.
- They read music proficiently.
- The have excellent fundamental technique.
- They demonstrate what they are teaching during the lessons.
- They have a place to teach where the instruments you will be studying are available and are of good quality.
- They share their professional experiences with you and are honest about your abilities.
A teacher with these qualifications may be expensive but it is worth the price. This type of instructor will be able to evaluate your skills, work ethic and dedication. Ultimately it is this person that will shape your foundation as a professional musician.
The Physical Drummer
Avoiding Injury and Preserving Your Hearing back to top
Life as a drummer and percussionist is extremely hard and taxing on the body. We are asked to use all four of our limbs in a progressively complicated manner while balancing our body on our tailbones (drum set). We are asked to hit drums and other objects forcefully with our bare hands (congas, bongos, djembe) and we balance on one foot for long periods when playing the vibraphone or chimes. We subject our hands to even more abuse by sticking two (or three) heavy mallets in each (marimba and vibes). Not many things in life demand these types of techniques and lets face it -- our bodies were probably not designed with these things in mind. It is therefore very common to see drummers with all sorts of injuries related to their instrument. Repetitive stress injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome and the dreaded “drummers foot” are extremely common as are the proverbial back and neck problems that come with constant sitting. I myself have suffered with some of these maladies and over the years have had to make adjustments to alleviate them. The most important thing you have to realize is that the human body over time does wear out. Although our bodies have an incredible ability to regenerate and heal, as we get older all the hours we have spent practicing, performing sitting, and standing will take a toll. When I was a teenager I know that I was able to literally practice and play all day (and night) long. This continued into my 20’s through college when I would sometimes practice12 hours a day and then play a four hour gig at night. Looking back at this I can tell you at the time I felt like I could go on forever. It seems that when I hit 30 my body was continually telling me to slow down and when I didn’t listen, part of it would basically say enough, and just shut down. I finally realized that for years I had taken my physical-self for granted and so I began taking steps to change the way I approached the this side of my craft.
Here are some of things I have learned and try to share with my students.
- Always warm up.
This is probably the most important step for a long injury free career. By warming up I mean stretching all the pertinent parts of your body. Then, if your hands are still cold you may want to run them under some warm water. The object is to get the blood flowing through your hands and limbs and loosen up tight muscles. When stressed tight muscles lead to injury. I also highly recommend doing some nice relaxed hand and foot exercises -- perhaps from George Stones “Stick Control” or any of the other technique books out there. A good teacher should be able to show you some warm ups that they use on a daily basis. Make these a regular part of your practice schedule.
- Drink a lot of water.
Water keeps your muscles hydrated and will also replenish the fluids you loose when sweating your butt off on stage or in the practice room.
- Use good posture when standing or sitting
This was one thing that I did not do when I was young and I wish I had. Bad posture (leaning over, bending your neck, hunching your shoulders etc.) almost guarantees back and neck problems later on in life. You do not want to go there! Watch yourself in a mirror or have someone video tape you when you practice. You may be surprised to see Quasimodo staring back at you. Sit and stand up straight If an instrument is uncomfortable for you to play rearrange the instrument, not your body. If a mallet instrument is too low put it up on blocks. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen students set up their drum sets in the most uncomfortable of ways just to get another tom, cymbal, or bass drum pedal in there. Arrange your drum set so that everything is within easy reach. You never should have to lunge to reach a cymbal or tom. I like to sit on the drum stool so that my legs are parallel (straight) in relation to the floor. Try this: put your drum throne out in the middle of the room with no drums close by. Now sit down and put your feet where you feel the pedals would be most comfortable. Now go sit down at the kit. There is probably quite a difference in the comfortable way you were sitting out in the middle of the room and the way you are now sitting at your drums. Try and move your bass drum and hihat pedal’s so that they are in this comfortable position.
- Don’t over do it.
Well, I sound like my mother now and I can hear her lovely Brooklyn accent in my head but there is plenty of logic behind this statement. Looking back there is really no good reason that I was practicing 12 hours a day except that I was having a hell of a good time. It could have easily been condensed into half of that. A good teacher will show you how to practice and use the time you have to best advantage. If you think of your body as a car the more miles or hours you put on it the quicker it will wear out. Save those 12hour days for the studio where you will definitely need them (and get paid for it too). If you feel like you need to practice 12 hours a day use some of the time to do less physical things such as listening to, transcribing and writing music.
- Always wear hearing protection.
This is one thing I did do from a very young age and I’m glad I did. At the time I had no idea that as well as a drummer and percussionist I would end up being a recording engineer and that would not be possible without good hearing. I’m sure you have heard all about it by now but there is an epidemic among musicians concerning hearing loss and a terrible malady called tinitus that is a loud, constant and supposedly maddening ringing in the ears. This is usually but not always a result of many years of exposure to loud noise such as drums and guitars turned up to 11. I wear earplugs when I do anything involving loud noise or music. I play in two symphony orchestras, which between them perform over 250 concerts and rehearsals a year. You might think an orchestra is not that loud but guess again. I have taken SPL (sound pressure readings) of over 110 DB’s during Mahler symphonies. That’s as loud as the Who playing at Madison Square G arden. Without the plugs I would surely have some hearing loss. The earplugs I use are custom molded to my ears and are sonically flat across the entire frequency spectrum. They reduce about 20 db’s, which is fine for the work I do. Heavy playing rock or drum corps drummers may want to look into plugs in the 30db range. It is also important that when you do use earplugs you don’t end up playing too loud since the volume you are hearing yourself at is now reduced significantly. Make sure you ask the musicians you are playing with if this is a problem.
The Good and Bad of Being a Freelance Musician back to top
1) Playing music all the time is awesome.
2) You have no boss. You work for yourself and set your own hours.
3) You can work at different hours than most people so you usually can avoid rush hours and can also go places during the day when they are not crowded.
4) There are many tax breaks for self employed people.
5) You have more free time than most people (although you will probably spend this free time in a musical endeavor).
1) You have no guaranteed income -- ever.
2) You get no benefits -- health, retirement, etc.
3) The IRS hates you.
4) You are responsible for your own record keeping and booking (very time-consuming).
5) The banks and the federal government consider you an unemployed loafer until you prove that you are a functioning member of society -- i.e. you pay you bills, buy a house, pay your taxes for a number of years, etc.
Although it seems like #1 in the good column would be enough for most people if you’re a materialistic kind of person you might want to think twice before pursuing a performing career. It will likely take you years to develop a good steady income but it can be done.
Here are some reasons to go into music followed by reasons not to.
Reasons To Do It
1) You love playing music, it consumes you, and you can’t see yourself doing anything else as a career.
2) You love to challenge yourself.
3) You love being part of a creative group of people.
Reasons Not To Do It
1) You want to be famous.
2) You want to pick up chicks.
3) You want to be rich.
4) You are an instant gratification kind of person.
5) You need to be the center of attention.
6) You can’t think of another career you want to try.