Learning Drums

How to Practice Drums Effectively

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We’ve all been there. Sitting at our kit ready to practice but struck by a sudden, exciting thought about the video game we could be playing, the friend we could be calling, or the food we could be eating.

The clock slows to a tortoise-like 20bpm. Time crawls forward—Tick, by painful tick. And we think to ourselves:

“Drumming would be really fun if I didn’t have to practice!”

Most of us were probably drawn to pick up a pair of sticks because we saw or heard a great drummer doing their thing. Their playing was enthralling, full of energy, and it flowed in an unhindered river of energy.

Above all else, they made it look, well, easy! When we finally sat behind our first kit, we might’ve found that it is kind of easy to start randomly hitting things. The trouble is, this doesn’t sound so great—and it soon gets boring.

In the end—if we’re serious about getting good at the drums—it’ll eventually hit us: drumming is actually pretty freaking hard!

The Good News

We all know that you can make an instrument sing if you’re good at it, and we’ve all heard one or two musicians who can make our jaw drop, our stomach flip, and our heart melt.  

And getting started is no trouble at all—it’s easy to look at the highlights of someone’s best playing and to aspire to hit the same heights that they’ve reached. Anyone can dream of doing that.

Learning a musical instrument can be one of the most fun and rewarding things a person can do. Adults from all walks of life often say to me: “I wish I’d learned to play an instrument when I was younger!” But I’ve never met anyone who’s said, “I wish I hadn’t taken the time to play music!”

If you’ve started learning your instrument—and you’re aiming to have fun and to improve—you’re already ensuring that you’ll have no regrets about it later on.

That sounds like pretty good news to me!

The Hard Reality

I’ve been lucky enough to do some work-travel recently, and right now, I’m writing this in Helsinki, Finland. I was Skyping a friend the other day, and I told him,

“If I wanted to, I could post all my highlights on Instagram, and people would think that I had the best time that I’ve ever had in my whole life!” In truth, I am having an amazing time, but it’s also pretty normal.

I wake up. I eat, work, and—now and again—something cool happens that probably wouldn’t happen at home in the UK.

All this has to be balanced with the fact that I miss my dog and that I kind of miss my day-to-day life in the UK.

There are trade-offs between many pros and many cons. The dream is always balanced with hard reality. Why do I mention this?

Because—whatever we do—we aim for the highs, but they’re only a very thin part of the story. And to be honest, the highlights probably aren’t even the most critical bits—we learn more from the struggles.

The Bad News

Learning a musical instrument can be one of the most fun and rewarding things a person can do. But in the end, we need to acknowledge that it’s rewarding because it’s hard.

The annoying truth is that those top musicians we all aspire to emulate make it look effortless when it’s actually quite difficult.

This would probably be fine if practicing drums was always fun, always an adrenaline rush and if time always went fast when we did it, but we know this isn’t the case.

Practicing can sometimes feel dry, uninspiring, and challenging. There’s sometimes a gulf between the exciting vision and the day-to-day reality—between the ultimate goal and the small steps of hard work that we need to take to reach the goal.

It always seems like a good idea to practice, but the TV usually has something just that little bit more exciting to show us—just as we’re about to get started.

Sometimes, it’s just hard to push through our distractedness so that we can take the time to improve on our playing. 

Does that mean we have to give up on our goals, targets, and dreams? Of course not! We need to approach things a little differently; that’s all.

The Solution

Okay, I should come clean. There probably isn’t a ‘golden bullet’ solution to solve all the problems we’ve talked about above (you’re probably not surprised)!

But some clear, logical techniques might be useful to try out. Below you’ll find just a few of them. Hopefully, they can help to make practicing a little easier, more efficient, and more fun.

Listen to Music

This is probably the easiest step, and I’m willing to bet that it’s the most important one too. Always give yourself loads of time to listen to—and to enjoy—music.

Carter McClean drove this point home at his clinic at last year’s Drummerfest.

Don’t get sucked into trying to listen to ‘the right band’ or ‘the best drummer’ all the time; listen to the things that you really, genuinely enjoy. Turn the music up in your car, listen while you cook, wake up to rock’n’roll, and fall asleep to your favorite film soundtrack.

Stay inspired. It’s so easy to get stuck with a feeling of obligation—to feel like we have to practice and to forget why we’re even doing it in the first place! Starting from a place of excitement and fun is the best way forward.

Find a Good Teacher

I have several drum students, so I guess I’m biased(!), but finding a good teacher is essential. Even a pro-level drummer will find themself in a rut now and then, and checking in with someone—even just occasionally—will help you to identify your blind spots and to stick to your targets.

There’s another point to be made here, too: music is a relational activity—it comes into its own when we share it with other people.

Sure, we can learn drums online, make music on our own, play drums in our rehearsal room, and produce tracks on our iMacs, but every drummer has something to share. Connecting with a teacher in your area can make everything more fun and more sociable too.

Set Two or Three Clear Targets

First and foremost, drumming is meant to be fun—there’s no need to be super-serious about it all the time. But a key part of the fun is seeing yourself move forward and improving in your playing.

It’s a great idea to set two or three clear targets for growth. You might decide to improve your kick and snare independence or to become faster at playing specific grooves, fills, and rudiments

You might be aiming to develop your ability to play a particular technique, work on some more creative fills, or grow in your knowledge of a new music genre.

Ask yourself:

  • Is my target clear?
  • How will I achieve it? and
  • How will I know when I have achieved it?

Make Regular Notes

Taking regular notes can be a fantastic way to track your progress. Without doing this, it can be really easy to play drums day-in, day-out without really paying attention to all the many successes and challenges you’ve experienced over time. 

You might be improving at a considerable rate without noticing, or you might be wandering around in circles without ever really getting anywhere.

Your notes don’t have to be too detailed, either. It’s usually enough to note the practice date, what you worked on, the length of time you spent working on it, and anything else that seems important to remember.

And it should go without saying—make sure you’re using a metronome while practicing the drums.

For example:

  • 18th November 2020
    • 20 minutes
    • Single and double stroke roll, single paradiddle: 90bpm for 5 mins
    • Kick and snare independence grooves: 100-110bpm for 10 mins
    • Jam track: ‘Jazz-Fusion 1a’ for 5 mins
  • 19th November 2020
    • 20 minutes
    • Single and double stroke roll, single paradiddle: 93bpm for 5 mins (felt tension in left wrist, slowed to 91bpm – try to relax more tomorrow)
    • Kick and snare independence grooves: 103-113bpm for 10 mins 
    • Jam track: ‘Jazz-Fusion 1b’ for 5 mins

As you can see above, you may choose to note the BPM for each exercise and note any pain or discomfort you felt while playing.

You may also like to note any creative ideas you could forget, a target that you’ve reached, or an area of difficulty which you need to come back to the next day.

After two weeks, you’ll be able to look back on how the BPM numbers rise each day. After a month, you’ll be able to look back on the highs, lows, frustrations, and achievements that you’ll have documented as the weeks have passed.

You’ll also observe patterns (both positive and negative) that may be useful to be aware of. Above all else, it’s such a great feeling to look back on a journey of growth and see how far you’ve come. It only takes a minute at the end of each session, and the benefits are enormous!

Try Filming Your Practice

Linked to the above, this is a sure-fire way to notice something you might be missing. 

  • Are your flams as tight as you thought?
  • Is your use of sticking correct, or did you start leading with your left hand when you meant to lead with your right?

You’ll notice little things which you’d otherwise have missed, and these things can go in the aforementioned notes too!

Try to Develop a Practice Routine

It’s been said that if you decide to do something, you may do it. If you choose when and where you’ll do something, you will do it.

Try—if you can—to practice at the same time every day and to finish at the same time too. Try also to work out a formula for your practice sessions, dividing them into smaller bites of a few minutes each, so that you can work through a varied session clearly and logically.

You might decide on a 5/5/5 rule: five minutes of rudiments and warm-up, five minutes of independence, and five minutes of jamming to a backing track.

If you have more time, you can turn that into a 10/10/10 rule, or a 5/5/10/10 rule. You can see that we’re splitting each session to spend an allotted time reaching each of our specific goals.

Take a few minutes at the end of each session to focus on playing for fun. That might include playing favorite tracks or—as mentioned above—jamming to backing tracks (YouTube has many drumless tracks to play along to).

When you’ve finished practicing, go and do something else to unwind.

Five Minutes is Better than No Minutes

We can often be a little over-ambitious when it comes to planning our practice time. We may say things like, “I’m going to practice for three hours this week!” (Without deciding on specific time slots each day.)

Three hours in a week sounds like nothing, but after work, eating, tidying, running errands and walking the dog, relaxing a little, and catching up with friends, the time soon disappears. This can then be really discouraging when the target isn’t reached.

Five minutes of genuine, focused practice is way better than twenty minutes of scrolling Facebook, replying to WhatsApp messages, and occasionally drumming, despite a wandering mind.

Treat Yourself After Every Session

If you’ve ever tried to muddle your way through a Twin Peaks boxset, you’ll know that you should—in the words of detective Dale Cooper—treat yourself every day!

This one doesn’t have to be at all complicated.

Find something you’ll look forward to—however small—and wait until after you’ve practiced to treat yourself with it.

Treat Yourself When You Reach a Target

When you reach a specific target, ‘to play a single stroke roll around the kit at 120bpm,’ for example, be sure to cut yourself a little slack.

Spend the next practice session playing along with your favorite tracks, order in a takeout pizza, or pick up that new cymbal/jacket/hamster you’ve been eyeing up. This one sounds really obvious, but it’s another thing that people often forget.

It’s really important to celebrate success—even if you don’t necessarily feel an immediate urge to. Working towards (and achieving) a target is a big thing that requires dedication and discipline. Don’t down-play that. Be sure to acknowledge your successes, and reward yourself accordingly!

Remember to Have Fun

Again, this one sounds somewhat obvious, but people sometimes forget it. Somewhere along the way on our drumming journey, we can forget that hitting stuff in an interesting pattern to make music is—basically—pretty awesome.

The more fun we have, the more we’ll want to drum and the better we’ll get. There’s no need to over-think it or to take it too seriously. Leave behind the temptation to be a ‘purist’ about things. Play, have fun, go crazy!

And Finally

There are so many tips, tricks, and methods that can help make our practice time easier and more effective. You probably know some great ideas which aren’t listed in this article.

Ultimately, the idea behind most of these points is to have a clear plan, be a little organized, reward yourself often, and to have fun.

Organization doesn’t come naturally to many creative types (it definitely doesn’t come easily to me). Still, if we don’t take an organized approach to our practice, we can easily fall into the trap of firing sporadically in all directions without really achieving much.

A little organization can go a long way when turning our ideas, dreams, and goals into reality. So make that plan, work in clear steps to reach it, and enjoy the process.

It’s possible to construct a clear path for yourself in the pursuit of all your drumming goals. Bit-by-bit, day-by-day, step-by-step, you can follow that path and do so successfully. Find what works for you and get going!

Featured image credit: Jake Maciosek

Chris Witherall

Chris Witherall is a pro drummer, producer and songwriter from London, England. He loves talking about music, and helping people to reach their music goals.

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