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Practicing Drums - by Mat Marucci

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Are you sure you know "how" to practice drums?
Pro drummer Mat Marucci offers a valuable article on this subject.

There is a saying regarding practicing that has been attributed to the concert pianist Vladimir Horowitz and paraphrased by many. One version of this saying is: "If I miss one day I know it. If I miss two days my wife knows it. If I miss three days my audience knows it." That is arguably the consummate statement on the importance of regular practice.

The hours we all put into practicing technique are very important to us. We all do it to maintain or improve our playing. However, often much of the time spent behind the drums is not put to the best use.

Time spent practicing brings up the old debate of quality versus quantity. If the musician's focus is right, more can be accomplished in thirty minutes time than two hours of time with the instrument.

Many musicians do not really practice but "play" their instruments. That is to say that they sit down (or stand) with the instrument and play what they know. This can be great for the maintenance or polishing of certain techniques but, with those exceptions, no progress is being made.

The essence of the practice session should be musicality while striving for perfection and improvement. Even while practicing, the musicians should concentrate on playing music!

Perfection, improvement and musicality are the guidelines for a productive practice session.

Perfection: Every technique should be done as perfectly as possible. This includes hand positions, stickings, stick height, wrist movements, touch, etc. Practicing wrong will develop improper technique - and all execution is affected by technique. To strive for perfection is the first step in practicing.

Improvement: Each practice session should create a challenge for the musician to accomplish something never previously done. This could be a new rudiment, piece of music, or exercise. It could also be a new tempo for an old exercise, etc. And the tempo does not necessarily have to be faster - just different. Old exercise books are excellent ways to improve. (Every book should be played at least twice, because it is never mastered the first time through.) But, whatever it is, some new accomplishment should be attempted at every practice session.

Musicality: The purpose of playing any instrument is to play music. And music should
be kept foremost in mind whenever practicing. Even when playing a rudiment or
technical exercise it should be thought of musically and how it can be applied to music. As stated earlier, musicality is the essence of playing an instrument.
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The amount of practice time will vary from individual to individual and also from beginner to professional. A beginning drummer might practice thirty minutes to one hour a day and increase that to two hours per day as he progresses after the first year or so of study. If the student continues to be serious and is looking toward or is in a college program as a music major, the practice time should increase to approximately two to four hours per day. As a struggling career minded professional it can increase to four to eight hours per day. As steady engagements, playing situations and other responsibilities increase with a developing career (and with life in general) practice time then starts to decrease again. It might be one to two hours per day again or maybe two to four hours three times a week - whatever the individual needs are and professional and personal schedule allow. But, whatever the situation allows, practice should be continued throughout one's professional life under any conditions.

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Modern medicine now has practitioners who specialize in problems peculiar to musicians of all instruments. They are finding that players of the same instrument experience the same or similar problems. (Two of the problems for drummers are carpal tunnel syndrome and lower back pains.) To alleviate and/or prevent some of these problems experts recommend resting for five minutes each half hour instead of continuous practice. The recommendation is twenty-five minutes - practice, five minutes - rest.

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I have made a list of some important points that if adhered to should not only make your practice session more productive but also more enjoyable. (We all enjoy what we're doing much more when we can see advancement and improvement.)

1) Watch Your Hand Position: this is the No. 1 problem I have found with drummers and students - from beginner to advanced. Whichever grip you use, when practicing always be sure your hands are in the correct position. It just doesn't make sense to put time in practicing technique and not have your hand positions correct. These positions are used for a reason and your development will be limited if you do not use them correctly. Once your hand position improves you will find your playing will become much cleaner and faster.

2) Sticking: this is the second biggest problem I've come across in teaching. Keep in mind the phrase "one stick up, one stick down" and practice that way. You will always have a stick in position to make a stroke either from the high ("up") position or from the low ("down") position. With concentration on "sticking" your hand techniques will start to flow much more smoothly.

3) Stick Height: this is different from sticking in that it refers to how high you bring the sticks. Whether you work from a full 90 degree position, a 45 degree angle or anything in between the important point is that both sticks return to the same height. Because most of us are not ambidextrous we have a tendency to favor our strong hand and bring that stick to a higher position than the weak hand. This means one stick is traveling a shorter distance to reach the drum whenever a stroke is made. Think about it. It stands to reason that if one stick is traveling eight inches and the other only five inches, the stick farther away has to move faster to reach the drum in the same time interval as the closer stick. This also means the rebounds will be weaker with the closer stick. Are your Single Stroke and Long Rolls uneven? Stick height is probably at least part of the reason - along with the Hand Position and Sticking. Concentrate on these three common problems and you will see a vast improvement in your technique.

4) Play Off The Drum: unless they have learned this somewhere along the way, most drummers, especially heavy hitters, play down into the drum instead of off it. When making your stroke think up and bring the stick away from the head immediately after striking it. Some teachers describe this as "drawing' or "pulling" the sound out of the drum. The shorter the time the stick is on the drumhead the more resonant and responsive the drum will be. Thus, a cleaner and fuller tone and increased stick speed.

5) Learn And Practice The Rudiments: even if you only spend a minimal amount of time on them do at least something. If you only study one rudiment a week - just one - you will have learned all 26 in exactly six months. You do not have to be a rudimental champ but the knowledge will be a definite plus - and you'll feel good about your accomplishment besides.

6) Work With A Metronome: use it at different speeds including the slowest ones. It won't make your playing stiff but will improve your time and meter. And, if you ever encounter a click track in the recording studio you will be thankful for any time spent with a metronome.

7) Keep The Practicing Habit: We all know that Occasionally time is at a premium and a full practice session is impossible. On those days at least do something - even if it's just a 10 or 20 minute keep-in-shape or warm-up routine.

8) Strive For Perfection: be as perfect as possible when practicing. There is no sense in putting in the time and hard work if you don't go for perfection. Be your own worst and toughest critic and don't sell yourself short.

9) Vary Your Practice Routine: this is especially helpful when practice time is limited. Sometimes it is better to look at your practice sessions on a weekly instead of a daily basis. One day spend the majority of the time on hands, another on independence, another on reading, another on rudiments, etc. and be sure to rest for a few minutes between segments or five minutes per half hour. This will help avoid overuse or strain of your muscles. Be sure and spend some time creating and just playing. Some teachers suggest you do it at the end of your practice session. However, I have found it often works better to do it at the very beginning to get it out of your system. Then you can just focus on what you planned to work on that day.

10) In Regard To Sticks: you should generally use the same size stick to practice with that you play with. But it can be beneficial to spend a few minutes a week with heavier or lighter sticks to give your hand and wrist muscles a change. This can improve strength and reflexes.

11) Study The Traditional Grip: and if you generally play traditional spend some time playing matched. The traditional grip has some definite advantages which include finger dexterity and flexibility of the weak hand. If you generally play matched grip, spend at least some time every day on the traditional grip. The increase in finger dexterity will even help your matched grip playing.

12) Keep Challenging Yourself: never be satisfied. Try to be working on something new at all times - a rudiment, book, rhythm - and once that is accomplished, whether it takes a day, a week or a month, move on to something else new. Strive to constantly improve during each practice session.

These previous tips should be concentrated on only while practicing. Once you are at rehearsals or the gig don't think about them. Concentrate on the music and feeling relaxed and comfortable. If you use these tips diligently every time you practice you will find they will creep into your playing without your realizing it and you will see a vast improvement in your technique and playing in a few short months.

Copyright 1999 Mat Marucci

Mat Marucci is an active performer, author, educator, and clinician listed in Who’s Who In America and International Who’s Who In Music. His performing credits include jazz greats Jimmy Smith, Kenny Burrell, James Moody, Eddie Harris, Buddy De Franco, Les McCann, Bobby Shew, Don Menza, Pharaoh Sanders, and John Tchicai, to name just a few. He also has seven critically acclaimed recordings to his credit as a leader and others as a sideman, including those with John Tchicai and Jimmy Smith, with many of them garnering four stars (****) in various trade magazines including Jazz Times, Jazziz, and Down Beat.

Mat is the author of several books on drumming for both Lewis Music and Mel Bay Publications, is an Adjunct Professor for American River College (Sacramento, CA) and an endorser for Mapex drums, Zildjian cymbals, Pro-Mark drumsticks and Remo drumheads. He has written numerous articles on drumming for Modern Drummer magazine, the Percussive Arts Society’s Percussive Notes and Percussion News, Pro-Mark’s Upstrokes, and the online drum Magazine Cyber-Drum [www.cyberdrum.com]. Wave files of Mat’s playing can be heard at: http://www.jazzinspiration.com/artist15.html


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