I think one of the things that keeps me going after many years of teaching drums is that I really enjoy mistakes. There are two things I often tell my students: (1) “If you were perfect, you could just mail me the money,” and (2) “If you’re going to make a mistake, make it a good one.”
By a “good” mistake, I mean an honest one, made with sincere effort. Such a mistake, if analyzed, can guide us to better musicianship and precise performance. These types of mistakes should not be confused with mistakes that come from timidity and uncertainty. These latter mistakes are weaker in nature than the honest ones I have been describing, and do not allow us as much chance of overcoming. So again, if you’re going to make a mistake, make it a good one. Jump into it!
Most musical errors can be categorized into two groups: mechanical (coordinational), or mental (perceptual). Often, they are a blend of the two. Here are some strategies you can take to turn those mistakes into musical moments:
This is the all-time problem solver and the first thing I look for when things are not happening. How do you count that pattern/measure/passage? Drum teachers have been telling students for years, “If you can count it, you can play it.” A proven prescription.
- TIP: Get any beginner snare drum reading page. Play it while counting quarter notes aloud: “one, two, three, four, etc.” This can be a little tricky if you haven’t tried it before, but it is greatly beneficial to perceiving where you are in a measure as you play a rhythm. Graduate to more difficult pages once this skill is mastered.
2. Slow Down
This also is a proven time-tested method. Playing a piece of music at a slower tempo allows you to process your understanding of the music in a relaxed frame of mind, and to incorporate the necessary coordinational motions in a fluid manner. Not surprisingly, many of my younger students say something like “I can’t play it that slow.” We all have a tempo “comfort zone” that we are happy in, but we have to push those boundaries on both sides.
- TIP: I’ve got an old Yamaha RX15 drum machine that must be 25 years old, but I use it every day. I’ll program a groove or exercise in a pattern mode. Then I’ll go to song mode and have the machine do a countoff, then play the pattern four times at a very slow tempo. Then there will be another countoff, and the pattern will play again, this time a little faster (I’ve got it programmed to go 4 bpm faster each time). My students and I both benefit from this. If this automatic increase is too complicated but you do have a drum machine, just program the pattern, play it slow as possible, and increase the tempo manually as you progress.
3. Dissect It
There are many interactive relationships going on when we play the drums. Think of one of those casino slot machines where there is a payout when you get three cherries in a row. If you are playing three lines at a time, there are at least 8 different ways to win (three horizontally, three vertically, and two diagonally). One thing we do as drummers is “stack” rhythms on top of each other, so there will always be a vertical and horizontal component to what we do. Try separating your pattern by different limbs and combinations of limbs. When you do this, often the weakness in the pattern you are playing becomes evident, and you can focus on that. Take the weak part of the music you are playing and make a repetitive exercise out of it, until it is no longer weak, then place it back in the music.
- TIP: Look for the “key note.” Often, when a student is playing a pattern, I’ll perceive a note that is weaker than the rest. I’ll mark the note with yellow highlighter and tell the student to give more focus to that note. The feel of the music is almost always improved.
I’ve seen this work many times, and its intriguing that it does. Take the problem measure or pattern and rewrite it on another paper in large notes. By writing it out proportionally, you get a sense of where notes belong in relationship to other notes. A sense of sequence is developed.
- TIP: I created and made copies of a paper with very large staves for this purpose.
One interesting statement I heard a college music professor say years ago was that music existed before theory. People were playing music, then it was analyzed. When jazz was being born in New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century, there were no jazz books or schools, of course. When younger musicians wanted to play this new music, they went to the performances, saw what the musicians were doing and how they were doing it, then went home and duplicated it. The combination of sound and visual input remains an important learning tool today.
- EXAMPLE: I love this story: Paul McCartney tells of a time when he and John Lennon were learning the guitar. No books, no teachers. They had learned the E and the A chord, and knew there was a missing chord for that series of chords, which was B7. Neither one knew how to play B7, but they had heard of another boy across town who could play that chord. What did they do? They got on a bus, went to the boy’s house, knocked on the door, introduced themselves, and asked him to show them a B7 chord. The surprised boy agreed, got his guitar, and showed the chord to John and Paul. The boys thanked him, and got back on a homeward bound bus. This story illustrates the modeling principle perfectly, as well as shows what curiosity and determination can produce.
6. Walk Away
The mind is a funny thing, and sometimes we can get into a rut of making the same mistake over and over. The trick here is to hit the “delete” button in our heads by walking away from the problem. You can literally walk away by taking a break, or you can “walk away” by moving on to something else. Come back to the problem in a few minutes and you’ll have a fresher outlook on it, and your chances of success are much higher. This technique has worked countless times for myself and my students. I’m not sure why this works as well as it does, but I suspect the answer lies in the same situation where you wake up in the morning with the solution to a problem that has been bothering you. That, no doubt, is where the phrase “sleep on it” originates.
- TIP: I like to work on at least three things during a practice session, so that, if I find myself up against a technical wall, I’ll move on to one of the other challenges I have. Then I’ll return to the problem.
Well there you have it. If you are a conscientious musician seriously trying to improve yourself, try incorporating these techniques and watch your efficiency rise greatly in your practice and performance!