Hittin' The Shed: 10 Tips For An Effective Practice Session

John Ramsay - Chair of Percussion
Berklee College of Music
It really wasn't until college that I learned how to practice.  This is not to say that I didn't dedicate hours upon hours in my basement in junior high and high school working things out, but it wasn't as effective as it could have been.  Attending Berklee, I had the great honor of studying with many great teachers, one of which, John Ramsay (pictured right), was very helpful in teaching me how to practice.  

With the heavy amount of work assigned by John each week, I either had to adapt or spend another lesson experiencing the slow ticking of the clock.  If you didn't know your material, John would fold his arms, smile, and say, "let's get it together for next week," or simply raise his eye brows and let the silence drive the point. John had a standard and a way of making you want to reach it without being demeaning. The movie "Whiplash" could learn a thing or two from these master teachers...   

The biggest lesson I learned about practicing from John was hidden in the way he ran his lessons. Each lesson followed a structure mapping its way through hand technique, drum set independence, solo/transcription, and listening/playing.  I'm still amazed at the amount we could achieve in a one hour lesson.  The format he used in lessons, once applied to the practice room, led to an immediate growth in my drumming.  I think many musicians fail to create a plan for their practice, and John taught me to always have a plan.  With this said, John was also highly intuitive about when to take a break in a lesson.  When frustration would hit a high, John always had an Art Blakey story to share, or something music related that took us away from the drums for a moment and usually resulted in big laughs!  This in itself was an important lesson for me.. learn to take breaks and don't forget why you are doing this in the first place!  I learned so much from these lessons and am happy to be passing it on to my own students now.  

Listed below are a variety of practice habits and techniques I have learned over the years that have served me well.  I hope that they will help you to achieve more in your daily practice.  

1. Build the habit of practicing at the same time and same place, each day.

Simplifying the "when and where" of your practice will free your mind from annoying logistics.  All of us have a tendency to procrastinate, especially when it comes down to practice, but if you build practice into your daily life, like brushing your teeth (hopefully), then you won't have to worry about scheduling time.  No matter what, even if you are not feeling well that day, do your very best to keep this schedule.  Falling off the schedule will make you lose the structure and momentum needed to improve.

2. Customize your practice area so that it represents an environment that you work best in.

As much as my house is a mess sometimes, my practice space is immaculate.  I can't do good work when it is disorganized or messy.  For you, this might be the opposite.  In fact, maybe you like to have your books and papers spread out in a system that only you understand.. The point is, customize it so it's perfect for you.  In my practice space I have inspirational photos, signed drum heads, CD's I've played on, my degree, awards, and pictures of old teachers who gave so much of their time and energy to me.  I feel the positive energy surrounding me, and that helps to keep me focused on the work I need to do.

3. Learn how long you can focus and let that guide your practice session.

Each person is different, but everyone needs to figure out how long they can sit and practice before losing focus.  For me, I practice in 15 minute sections and take a little break.  A break for me means standing up and stretching or taking a quick walk downstairs for a glass of water, but I don't exceed 5 minute breaks.  You will notice that when you organize your practice sessions into short blocks that you will retain more information and be able to work longer.  You need to think of your brain like a sponge..  once that sponge is full and there is no more room for new information, take a break and ring that sucker out... When you feel ready go back to the practice room, go back, but with an open and clear mind.

4.  Practice with a mirror.  How you look, is how you sound.

When I got to Berklee one thing I noticed was that many drummers had mirrors in their practice rooms.  To me, this was a bit of a foreign concept (Narcissistic are we?), but once I understood the value of using one, I never practice without one.  As drummers, so much tension is often held in our neck and shoulders.  You might not even be aware of this, but next time you are practicing, stop and focus your attention on your upper body.  Tension leads to time playing issues and overall technique problems, so it's very important to take it seriously.  Tension also affects our ability to breathe, and without oxygen, our muscles don't work and our mind becomes unfocused.  In addition, I have found a mirror to be invaluable in developing things like the Moeller stroke and identifying issues in my hands and even my feet.  It's an inexpensive and valuable practice tool that everyone should have in their studio.

5.  Structure your practice sessions into 3-4 sections.

Let's say you have an hour to practice and you want to focus on your overall playing.  I suggest 15 minutes of snare drum technique and reading, 15 minutes of drum set technique, 15 minutes of soloing and creating ideas, and 15 minutes of playing with "minus drummer" recordings.  This is a pretty effective method to get a good hour of practice in without getting too bogged down in one section.  I recommend setting a timer on your phone and switching between sections when the alarm goes off.  If you are like a lot of my students, it's easy to fall into "jamming" and trying out new ideas.  This is great and important, but it can also be a form of procrastination from the other work that needs to be done.  For this reason, I always set aside time at the end of my practice sessions just to play and love the drums!  For me, it's the chance for me to try the things I'm working on in different sections in a creative way.

6.  Record your practice sessions.

As they say, the tape doesn't lie.  Next to the essential metronome, the greatest practice tool I know of is a recorder.  Whether you are using an old tape deck, digital recorder, Logic/Pro-tools, or a video camera, it is an amazing way to check-in on your playing.  There is a reason studio drummers are so amazing...think about it.  To this day, I still record every performance and re-visit it on my long car rides or during practice.

7.  Work on weaknesses 70%, and your strengths 30%.

This seems obvious, but many drummers are more interested in sounding good to themselves (and maybe nearby listeners), then they are in working through the weak spots in their playing.  A good practice session should not sound like an amazing performance really.  With this said, there is a time and place to practice what you know, but understand that practice sessions are supposed to sound a little ugly.. it's OK, accept it, no one cares, you're working.  I do recommend playing things you are comfortable performing in pursuit of developing your sound, but don't be the drummer who goes into the practice room and just sheds a bunch of stuff they know, you're wasting your time.

8. Understand the difference between your conscious and your subconscious mind.

It is easy to become frustrated in your practice sessions.  Sometimes you've been working on a particular lick that sounded perfect last time, and now you can't seem to pull it off.  Understand that repetition is the only way for new information to fully integrate into your playing.  One of my teachers taught me that when you practice something for the first time that you are only bringing it into your conscious mind.  This is the stage in which you work to understand the exercise and the concepts behind it.  Once played perfectly, we often move on, but this is a mistake.  The fact is that once you know how to play something, the learning has only just begun!  It isn't until you have practiced something for a long period of time that it begins to enter into your subconscious mind.  It is like learning to walk.  At this point in our lives, we walk without thinking about it, but there was a time when we had to carefully calculate each step or risk falling over.  That is the difference between the conscious and subconscious mind.  When we are performing, we are playing from our subconscious.  If we try and play things we only understand on a surface level, then we will often overplay or make mistakes.  In my experience, it is best to practice difficult concepts at home, and when it comes time to perform, let go of all of that and play what we know.  It takes time for an idea to become a part of your playing, but it will happen.

9.  Practice SLOW!

One of my favorite and most challenging teachers in school was the great Bob Kaufman, who taught me the idea of slow motion practice.  Often the tempo would be set so slow that I could hear my own breath passing by, and that was part of the point.  Practicing at a slow tempo, especially with new material, is an amazing way to bring new information into your mind quickly.  For some, this exercise may seem counter intuitive and frustrating, but there is an amazing amount of technique and understanding to be gained from playing slowly.  One of the many benefits of this way of practicing is your time playing will improve drastically.  As drummers, I think we are overly concerned with the notes, but not the rests, and that leads us to rush/drag tempos.  Taking an exercise at 40 - 60bpm will force you to acknowledge the space between the notes, and that is extremely valuable to your playing.  Another major benefit is you will hear the quality of your sound on your drums and cymbals.  To this day, I still believe Bob has the most beautiful tone I've heard, and I know that it comes from this concept.  Give it a try, you'll be amazed at what you hear.

10.  Don't beat yourself up.

It is important to push yourself to get better, but it is extremely detrimental to beat yourself up when you don't understand something.  Every drummer wants to sound great and achieve quick results.  Sometimes we watch as other drummers seem to gain more ground then we are, and we start to lose hope.  Understand that everyone learns at their own pace and in different ways.  Often the ones who fly by on natural talent hit a wall later when hard work is needed.  There are no shortcuts, but there is a lot to be gained from building the disciple to become a better player.  

Remember to end each practice session with a smile.  After all, the drums are an extension of our own voice and soul.  

Thanks and happy practicing!

- Jeff