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Suggested Practice Times for Drummers:
|Beginners||At Least 30 Minutes Per Day|
|Advanced Players||At Least an Hour Per Day|
Daily Consistency is More Important than Length of Time Each Practice
Practice is one of the fundamental realities of being a musician; it is the primary way we develop our skills as musicians. It is drilled into our heads from when we begin to play that practice makes perfect.
What teachers often don’t tell you is that the act of practicing is a skill as well. Effective practicing is a skill you have to develop, just like rudiments and grooves. It took me a long time to figure out the most effective ways to practice in my own life.
Drummers Should Practice as Much as Possible
A common question that many people have when they begin learning an instrument is: How much should I practice? The short answer I would give is “as much as you can,” but there is a lot more to the art of practicing than this short, open-ended answer.
The fundamental reality of practicing is that it is a very personal process, and what works for me may be different from what works for you. However, there are specific universal approaches and truths to practicing that can benefit everyone.
Beginner Drummers Should Practice Every Day
I believe it is appropriate to start practicing as a beginner, as this is the place where you learn the fundamentals of practicing.
The subheading used here is a bit of a misnomer, as I believe asking how long you should practice is actually asking the wrong question. The question one should be asking is, how often should I practice? The answer to this question is every day if you’re serious about being a musician.
Practicing Drums Consistently is Most Important
Consistency of practice is essential to improving your instrument. I always tell my students that I would rather they practice for 30 minutes every day than 4 hours one day, and take the rest of the week off.
This study examined how the brain’s gray matter changes when practicing a new skill. It examined people who were learning how to juggle. The study showed that when the participants practiced juggling showed a growth of gray matter related to motor function, whereas there was less gray matter in the same spot when participants were told not to practice.
Practicing Drums is About Building a Habit
Part of what we’re trying to do when we start as musicians is trying to build good habits. This is on the technical level (holding the stick the proper way, hitting the center of the drum, using our bodies the right way), but also on an intellectual level.
Building a practice routine is about creating good habits. In this case, we want to develop the habit to make sure we not only play our instrument every day but to also work on the various technical facets of the instrument. This is the drier stuff and “less fun.”
This study has shown that on average, it takes about 66 days for something to become habit. This study also shows that that number varies widely depending on the person, but the key to forming practice habits is to stay consistent.
Practice Drums in Small Bites
A great way to build practice habits is what I call the “eating the elephant” principle. Just like the old adage says, you start with one bite at a time. It’s easier to approach any daunting task by starting small.
Physcologically, it is a lot easier for us to get ourselves to practice for 30 minutes a day than it is to get ourselves to practice for 2, 4, or 8 hours. 30 minutes of your day is a lot less intimidating and we can all find that time somewhere in our schedule.
Starting Small Can Turn into Longer Periods on the Drums
What often happens once you sit down at the instrument is you get into the flow of practice, and what starts as just 30 minutes of practice can become 2 hours without you intending it.
Setting goals is critical to this process too. When I was in college, a teacher of mine suggested I try to practice at least an hour a day. In my mind, I doubled that amount to 2 hours, and I would hold myself to that standard throughout my education.
Immersion into Drum Practice
When starting, play along to music! Part of developing any skill is immersion. To use the oft-stated metaphor of music as a language, the best way to learn a language is to immerse yourself in it. You’re more likely to learn Spanish if you lived in Argentina for a year than you are to learn it in a classroom environment.
The same is true for music; you’re more likely to learn afro-Cuban music from listening to records and going to see bands perform than you are to learn it just from a book.
Practice Along with the Master Drummers
I learned how to swing by playing along to recordings of great drummers such as Elvin Jones, Philly Joe Jones, and Jack Dejohnette. Through osmosis, I picked up a lot of vocabulary.
I had a teacher in college who once remarked he could tell those who listen to jazz music, as the way they approached playing was informed by what they had listened to.
How to Structure Drum Practice
The other big question regarding practicing is how to structure your practice time. The answer to this question is whatever works best for you, but there are certain principles that I find incredibly helpful in figuring out what works best for you.
I also recommend finding a great teacher near you so you can develop a personal relationship. I’ve been lucky to have some great teachers that have not only been mentors in my life, but I’m also fortunate to call them friends. A great teacher can not only show you concepts to work on, but can help guide you in developing a practice routine.
Practice the Right Things on the Drums
The main question of practice is, “what should I be working on?” It’s incredibly important to practice the right things for our work to pay the most dividends. This means working on your weaknesses.
As we all know, that list can be very, very long, too long to accomplish in one sitting. I have a note on my phone that has a very detailed list of subjects I need to work on.
The issue with this long list is we spread ourselves too thin if we try to focus on too many things at once. This doesn’t allow us to really develop any particular skill; it’s the old adage says, “jack of all trades, master of none.”
The “Effortless Mastery” Method
One of the most powerful shifts in my approach to practice happened in the middle of my college career. This shift happened from reading Kenny Werner’s book Effortless Mastery (Amazon Link). There was one sentence in that book that completely changed my perception of how to practice, which was:
“You should stay with one exercise until mastery has been achieved.”
Master One Drumming Skill
The reality of practice is if we can master even just one skill on the drums, it fundamentally affects the way we approach the instrument. Everything else we do gets a boost from mastering a single concept.
From that point on, I would take one or two concepts and practice them for months before moving on to something different. That way, you can absorb what you’re working on, and it will come out naturally in your playing.
Drum Practice Makes Permanent
Henry Threadgill once wrote, “practice makes permanent.” What you practice makes a fundamental impact on your musical DNA.
When organizing your practice routine, I would pick around 2-4 topics and solely focus on those. Often I will choose one topic related to the hands, one related to playing the whole set, such as a particular groove, and another concept, such as working on your feet or an independence exercise.
My Current Drum Practice Routine
To show you how I approach this in my practice, I’ll show you a bit of what I’m working on. There are three main subjects I’m exploring in my own practice: triplet phrasing, orchestration, and right foot left hand coordination.
For practicing triplet phrasing, I’m mainly dealing with a basic single sticking or RLR LRL. From this base, I’ll accent different beats in a measure, such as the downbeat, the second triplet partial of beat 2, or the third triplet partial of beat one. I’ll start on the snare drum, and then I’ll move the accents to different drums. I will also practice the triplet rolls method of reading Ted reed’s Syncopation, as popularized by Alan Dawson. You can learn about that method here:
A large part of my practice routine these days is working on orchestration pathways. Recently I had realized I was not thinking of all the various orchestation pathways that are possible when playing drums, especially with different rudiments. I never had consciously practiced orchestration, and I realized this was limiting my expressive capabilities on the instrument.
The way I have been practicing orchestrating around the drumset is by picking intentional orchestrations, choosing a surface for each part of any particular sticking, and repeating it over and over again. I’ve written out a couple of orchestrations for the six-stroke roll below:
The first variation I call “Around the world,” in which I go down the drums and then back up, accenting the start of the pattern with the ride cymbal
This second variation is the inverse of the first, where we start on the floor tom and go up the drums.
Variation 3 is playing the accents of the six-stroke roll on the toms, where we play the left hand on the rack tom and the right hand on the floor tom.
Practicing Coordination and Limb Independence:
Finally, for the bass drum left hand coordination exercise I’ve been working on, I use some examples my teacher showed me from George Lawerence Stone’s book Stick Control (Amazon Link), playing the right hand pattern on the bass drum and the left hand on the snare drum. Here are a couple of example patterns.
These are all permutations of the double stroke roll. I will do these examples by themselves, and also with a different right hand and left foot ostinatos, such as:
Practice Rudiments in Different Ways:
You can also do different rudiments with this approach, such as paradiddles.
The thing I like about practicing conceptually is that you can also go more in-depth with any concepts. You can add foot ostinatos, permutate rhythms, utilize different subdivisions, add accents, and so on.
Think Simply on the Drums
My teacher told me that someone asked Bill Stewart how he developed his abilities as a soloist. Bill answered: “I try to take one idea and play it ten different ways.”
This same teacher has also told me, “I can explain everything I do as a drummer on one page of sheet music.” This was a powerful lesson for me.
The art of practicing and drumming is to think simply. If we can see how different concepts relate to each other, our drumming becomes stronger.
Play One Drum Idea Many Different Ways
As drummers, we are all dealing with the same primary musical language of rhythm, be it the various subdivisions, grooves, and rudiments. What separates the masters from the rest of the pack is their ability to disguise what they do.
They can take one idea and transform it so many ways that the core idea becomes unrecognizable.
But that core idea remains, and it is more powerful to master playing one idea in many different ways than it is to learn a million different things on a surface level. And the benefit of this approach is that through mastering one skill, you begin to see the patterns and relationships that make up all styles and modes of playing.
Global Drumming Method
The hyper-focused, conceptual practice is great when you have a degree of technical fluency on the instrument. It’s a bit more difficult to practice this way when there are a lot of different topics that we need to address as drummers. Sometimes we need to have broader scope in how we approach our practice regimen.
The late, great Bob Gulotti was one of the most renowned educators of the drumset. He had a way of practicing that is different, but similar to the mode of practice I mentioned above. On his teacher page on the Berklee website, Bob said:
15 Minutes Per Subject:
“I have them know exactly how long they’re going to practice. So if a student has an hour and a half, and I give them six subjects to work on, I want 15 minutes each subject, then put it away until the next day. Even if you’re just about ready to get something pretty well, if the 15 minutes is up, you put it away until the next day.”
This is a powerful way of practicing too. It takes extreme self-discipline to put yourself to a strict time limit with any task, putting it down once your time is up. I know when I practice, I have a hard time moving onto another task when I’m in the middle of another.
Focusing on Each Task:
Another benefit of the way of practicing is that it forces you to focus on each task at hand. It’s also great because giving equal time to each subject means that over time they will all grow and develop at a similar rate.
This method takes patience though, In an interview conducted by Boston-based drummer (and Drumsector contributor) Dave Fox, Gulotti says:
“the result to see progress might take longer than one would expect. I like to work in three-month stretches and judge improvement over that amount of time as opposed to getting hung up judging progress by week to week.”
This method of practicing is like planting a flower, it takes time to grow, but when the flower blooms, the time and effort is all worthwhile.
Try Different Practice Routines:
This also goes to prove that there is no right one approach, and you need to try different methods and find out what works best for you. Some people need strict structure, while others prefer a looser, more exploratory approach.
Active Listening to Drums
Another essential part of practicing doesn’t even involve the instrument. Listening to music is a massive part of developing your craft as a musician. But the type of listening I’m talking about goes deeper than just cursory listening.
This type of listening is called active listening. Active listening is a focused, disciplined type of listening where you try to put yourself into the music as if you were playing. When listening this way, you’re trying to hear and understand what is going on in a song.
Listen to a Song Multiple Times:
To start practicing this, take a song you like, and listen to it multiple times. The first time, try to focus on one instrument, such as the bass, or the accompanist (be it guitar, piano, or another instrument).
Really listen to what they’re doing, and note how it interacts with the other layers. The next time, listen to the top layer, be it the singer or soloist, but also note how the top layer interacts with the instrument you focused on in your first listen. You can do this with all the different layers of the song.
Finally, listen to the track globally. Hear how all the different parts interact together to create the song what it is.
This is the way we should be listening whenever we are playing. We need to have both a global understanding of what is going on, as well as the ability to focus on any particular ensemble member.
We can also take active listening to the practice room. Try actively listening to a song, and then play along to that same song afterward, and see how it affects the way you play.
Check out this clip by Bob Reynolds to learn more:
How Often Do the Pros Practice Drums?
People often wonder how often professionals practice their instruments. The answer to this question is that it varies! I know professional musicians that practice every day, and I also know pros who don’t practice as often as they did when they were younger.
I heard from Ra Kalam Bob Moses that Jack Dejohnette used to practice 8 hours a day, and would record those sessions. Dan Weiss has said in interviews that he still practices at least 2 hours a day.
Herbie Hancock said in his autobiography Possibilities that during his tenure with Miles, he would only practice an hour a day, and Nate Wood has said when he was younger he was only able to practice drums 2 hours a day because of his neighbors.
All of the Greats Still Practice:
The point is that everyone practices for different amounts, but all great musicians are still practicing and developing.
I know in my own experience, I practice less than I did in college, but that is because of physical limitations caused by tendinitis. Between gigs and teaching, though, I’m playing the instrument an equal amount, and possibly even more than i did in school.
I also think about music in a holistic sense. I make sure that every day I do something related to music, whether that’s practicing, composing, playing the piano, or actively listening. All these different aspects of music are important and help us develop as players.
How Long does it Take to Become a Great Drummer?
Becoming a skilled musician takes a long time. The question is, how long does it take?
People often talk about the 10 years, 10,000 hours theory, as popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. The popular theory that it takes about 10 years or 10,000 hours to become a “master” of a skill
Check out this Janek Gwizdala clip, where he discusses this theory.
I think Janek makes an excellent point by saying he still doesn’t feel like a master. He is acutely aware of what he still needs to work on.
Enjoy the Journey:
Being a musician is about the journey, not the destination. It is a lifelong practice. You’re never going to be “done” with the work of practice, you will always have things you can develop further.
That being said, the longer you play, the more comfortable you are in situations. I’ve been playing for about ten years, and while I am no master, I feel much more comfortable with how I sound in many playing situations.
Your Timeline is Not Mine:
The reality of music is we are all on different timelines. Some people are fully formed musicians at a young age. Others don’t find their stride until much later in life. Patience is key in this process.
Zen and the Art of Practicing
A lot of the art practicing is how you view it. If you see practicing as this intimidating, frustrating process, you’ll hate it and never want to do it.
The way I try to approach practice is like meditation. I really try to focus on what I’m playing, sound, touch, dynamics, rhythm, body, and breath. This helps put me in a different state and makes practicing a refreshing, enjoyable, and sustaining process for me.
Practice is Freedom:
I think one of the most powerful things about music and practicing is the daily aspect of it. How many things are there in your life where you can go to it every day, and work on something and make it better on that day?
Practice is liberating; the ability to always be working on your music and improving it is a beautiful metaphor for life. To live is to grow, develop, and try to become a better person.
Every day is a new opportunity. Next time you practice, take this opportunity to approach the process with humility and openness. You’ll find it will pay dividends, in all aspects of life.
John Dalton is a Boston based drummer, composer, bandleader, and educator. He is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. He performs regularly as both a leader and a sideman. His modular ensemble “Spheres of Influence” has recently released their debut album, Indigo Skyline. You can find out more about him here : https://johndaltonspheresofinfluence.com