I’ve been getting a lot of questions about practicing lately so I’ve decided to write a piece about what I’ve learned about practicing over the years. I love practicing and have been trying to learn how to maximize my own practice time. I’d like to share what I’ve learned with the SMDA community. I look forward to hearing your comments on these ideas and learning more about your experiences.
Retention and Programming Your Muscle Memory
This is a topic that I’ve been giving much thought to lately. I have some theories I’ve developed recently by observing some of the results of my own practice routines.
I’ve recently been working on several specific issues that I want to improve upon. For example, playing three 16th notes in a row on the bass drum has always been an Achilles’ heel for me.
So a few months ago, I decided to tackle this issue head on. I developed a series of exercises to work on this specific issue. I would practice these exercises for about an hour and a half. When I first started I would start my practice session at 60 bpm. I eventually got to where I would start at 80 BPM. I would maybe play through the exercises 3 times at 80, then increase to 85, play 3 time through, Then 90, 3 time through, but somewhere in the third time through at 90, my execution of the exercises started to get a little sloppy. So I would keep trying and keep failing... So then I would back down to 85 bpm, still sloppy... but I was just playing it fine at 85 bpm! Ok, so let’s back it down to 80 BPM... STILL sloppy!!! What the ####!?!?
Frustration starts to set in. So I bring it down to 70 bpm, slower than where I started and finally can play it clean, but by this time I’m getting aggravated and my hour and a half to practice is up and I have to go do other things. So, after a few sessions similar to this, I started to wonder if maybe I was hitting a point of diminishing returns in sessions like this. I started to wonder if my brain to muscle memory wiring process would be better served if instead of trying to cram so much in on one topic of practice, maybe my time might be better spent if I would stop working on that specific issue as soon as it started to get sloppy and move on to something else.
I started to theorize that the mind and body need time to synthesize the connections we’re trying to make during our practice time. In other words I started to think it might be better if I would literally sleep on it. So I started practicing these exercises for about 15 minutes each session, then moving on and practicing something else. And an interesting thing started to happen... I started to improve on the issue I was working on! I started to theorize that improvement doesn’t necessarily happen when you’re sitting at the drums, but improvement happens when you’re away from the drums.
Granted, you need to put the time in at the kit, but don’t get frustrated when you don’t progress as much as you’d like in a particular session, the progress will happen while your mind and body process, synthesize and program themselves to convert to muscle memory what you just worked on. Have you ever noticed how you can be trying to play something...it’s a bit challenging... You go away from it and come back and it’s a bit easier to do? I think that’s because you mind and body have had time to process it.
At the Lab Drum Camp in Greece back in June, we had a panel discussion with all of the instructors there in front of the 25 campers. I posed this theory and asked for everyone else’s thoughts on it. I got some amazing answers. Everyone seemed to agree with what I had been thinking and everyone had a slightly different angle or evidence to back this up. Alex Ktistakis had some very interesting things to say about the learning process. He pointed out that one might improve upon something at a brisk rate, then you reach a peak and actually get worse at it for a bit. You will eventually start to improve again but at a much slower rate.
I’m a very firm believer that if you practice something very slowly, flawlessly, with a metronome or steady time source, you will wire the connections between brain and muscle in a much deeper way.– -Stanton Moore
All of this leads me to rethink my practice approach. I am now thinking that instead of trying to “master” one new aspect in my playing and then move on to another issue, my time may be better spent if I practice one thing in a super focused manner for 15-25 minutes, then move on to another topic of practice for 15-25 minutes... (Alex pointed out that this is very similar to the Italian Pomodoro time management technique). This way my mind and body can process what I just worked on and I will be improved upon that when I come back to it. Practicing the same issue for an hour and a half, I think you reach a point of diminishing returns and then you’re just spinning your wheels (or wasting time) when you could be spending your practice time more wisely working on something else and then letting that process sink in as well.
All that said, I usually practice things to the point of where I can start to feel comfortable playing them in front of one or two other people, maybe a drummer buddy or another musician. Then I start to introduce any new ideas at rehearsals or sound checks. Once I feel I have a strong enough grasp on the idea I can start to introduce it on gigs. I’d like to point out though that the way to truly master a particular idea is to play it on multiple gigs and in multiple situations. That being said, don’t force new ideas and over play them just to get to a point where you master them. Remember to always put the music first.
I’ve recently been thinking that my practice time as I was growing up could’ve been organized a little better. I seem to remember that as I was coming up, I would practice something for a few minutes, then get bored with that and move on to something else, then maybe get up and get a snack, or maybe go outside for a while. I felt like I had a bit of an ADD approach to practicing. But now with my new theories on practicing, I think maybe the “ADD” approach to practicing is not such a bad thing. Working on one thing for a smaller bit of time and then working on something else gives your mind and body time to synthesize things. I think over time your practice time will be more productive if it is varied and you don’t spend too much time on any one particular thing.
Keep in mind your 15-25 minute intervals of working on something have to be highly focused sessions. You are basically programming your muscle memory and for this to really take hold, I’m a very firm believer that if you practice something very slowly, flawlessly, with a metronome or steady time source, you will wire the connections between brain and muscle in a much deeper way. You will learn the thing at hand on a much deeper level, with deeply programmed muscle memory which will make it so you have a much greater retention of the thing you are practicing. Playing something slow cleanly can often be more challenging than playing something at a faster tempo sloppily. When practicing something slowly, concentrate on having no fluctuations, no cobwebs, and no “tremors in the Force”.
Once you can play it cleanly at a slow tempo, then you can gradually increase the BPM until you get it to the speed you’re looking to achieve. This will help you play whatever it is you’re working on cleanly at any tempo. Remember, practice slow to learn fast!
If you enjoyed these thoughts on practicing, share it with another drummer friend or let me know on my Facebook page.
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