"...but my focus has been the ride cymbal. Ride, ride, ride. After all, what makes the groove happen for a jazz drummer?"

The Thinking Drummer: On Practice & Patience

I went to a drum lesson on Monday. It had been six months since my last one, which felt like a long time to me, especially since I’ve been spending almost all of my practice time on a single skill: my jazz ride cymbal technique.

My first lesson with my teacher–the great John Riley–was in January of 2010 (for more on this, see my previous post, How To Blaze The Ride Cymbal”), and this lesson on a Monday in May of 2011 was my fifth on the topic. We’ve talked about a lot of great drumming topics, but my focus has been the ride cymbal. Ride, ride, ride. After all, what makes the groove happen for a jazz drummer? Yup. What’s more important than the groove? Right, nothing. What is the thread through history that links great jazz drummers? I would argue that one of the most important skills…perhaps the most important…is a swinging ride cymbal groove.

After showing my teacher where I was at with this method, it was clear that I had made significant progress towards my goal. My motion looked good, my triplet phrase was solid, and I could play faster more easily (we’re talking 300 bpm’s plus….the ultimate goal being quarter note equals 350). And yet, there was still one little tweak I could make that would make my technique even better, which I have already started to work on and which I feel is going to make a difference. In fact, I think it might be the last piece of the puzzle. This little detail? My pinky and ring finger were sometimes coming off of the stick when the stick bounced up from the drop motion that occurs on beats “two” and “four.” By letting my fingers come off the stick, I am losing some control and some efficiency from the method, which is all about fingers creating those last two notes (the “let” and the “one” or the “let” and the “three”).

I have spent several hundred hours working on this. Yup. You read this correctly. Several hundred hours, and I need even more to get this the way it needs to be. “Several hundred hours!!??” Is what I imagine some readers might be thinking, “is this guy insane!!??” Or do I just suck? Or both?

Well, you might question my sanity based on my career choice. I’ll give you that. But what we’re really talking about here is achieving a high level of musical skill, and what is required in order to do so.

In fact, I questioned my ability and sanity too. So when I saw John for my lesson, I explained how hard I had been working and where I was at. I was concerned about how much time I had spent because I couldn’t play at 350 with ease yet. One part of me thought I should be doing this perfectly at any required tempo by now. I’d already spent so much time and worked so hard. But when I explained my regimen and demonstrated where I was with the technique, he didn’t bat an eyelash, he didn’t tell me I was not making enough progress, or ask me what the hell I’d been doing with my time. In fact, he acknowledged that I was allocating my efforts correctly, and pointed out the thing he noticed (see above) that I could improve. So, OK, I thought. I’m not screwing up. This stuff just takes time and patience.

So, to the point, acquiring the skill to play an instrument well takes a lot of hard work over a long period of time and the help of a good teacher for guidance. I am lucky that I have the help I need to get me where I want to go, but none of that would matter if I wasn’t willing to put in the hard work.

Patience. That is key. You’re building something and it takes time. For a couple of years, I lived in an apartment building on the water’s edge in Queens, in a little neighborhood called Long Island City. There was a lot of development going on there, and right outside my window was a large empty lot. A few months after I moved in, they started building another apartment building there. For most of the time that that building was going up outside my window, I was going to my drum studio every day, practicing. At the time, I had figured out a way to fund myself so that I could practice 35 hours a week…..it was my job. 

I was working on something, trying to get my skill level higher. I was trying to become a better drummer….I was building my own structure of drumming skill. It took about two years for that building to go up and I practiced about 4,000 hours during those two years. Every day when I came home I would think about how I was building my drumming skill just like they were building that apartment complex. Now, I may not be as good as I want to be, but I’m on my way. And it’s all because of patience and practice.

One last thing. It’s not just about the amount of time one spends practicing. A huge part of the success of any musician who is spending time doing this kind of work is the HOW.

The actual details of how musicians practice are extremely important.

But–shocklingly–hardly anyone ever teaches this.

I did find a great article written by several professors at the University of Texas in Austin. The paper they published is called “It’s Not How Much; It’s How”

The paper is based on some research they conducted and it is very interesting. It’s definitely worth a read.

To check out the PDF, just click the bolded red title above or this link: HERE’S THE LINK TO THE PRACTICING RESEARCH PDF 

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