Thursday, April 12, 2012

Five ways to improve your playing

As musicians - and especially as drummers - we tend to complicate things. We especially overcomplicate things that we oversimplify......wait, what? Allow me to 'splain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up here.

One thing we all want is to consistently improve. Here are five simple (I didn't say easy, okay? Just simple) ways you can quickly improve your playing.

1. Take private lessons from a great teacher.
This one activity will probably have the greatest and longest-lasting impact on your overall music career. That being said, it's an investment of time and money, and won't usually pay immediate results. While you can make an improvement after the first lesson, most of your progress will depend on your dedication to the concepts you are taught and your own practice habits.

But I'm telling you this - don't reinvent the wheel, so to speak. Learn from someone who can show you the high road and steer you away from pitfalls and traps.

While I'm on this subject, I hear some musicians who say they don't want to take lessons or study music because they want to, "be creative," or, "be my own person." They don't want to have any outside influences that might color their own personality or style.

To me, that's the same as a carpenter not wanting any tools because it might make their handiwork look like someone else's. No matter what, you're still you, and no amount of teaching or studying will change who you are as a person unless you choose to change based on new knowledge.

But the more tools you have, the more you'll be able to freely express yourself.

2. Attend great live performances.
No, I'm not talking about your sister's punk band. They may be awesome, but I'm talking about top-level, world-class performers on your instrument or in your genre. There is nothing quite so inspiring or educational as being the in same room with someone who is doing what you want to do, or - even better - opening your mind to new possibilities. You will find yourself using some of their tools, thinking differently and holding yourself to a higher standard.

Another way to think about this is this: we tend to become like those with whom we associate because we begin to emulate their habits and behaviors. As Dave Ramsey says, "You wanna be rich? Do what rich people do. You wanna be skinny? Do what skinny people do."

You wanna be a great musician? Do what great musicians do. And the more you see, hear and associate with them, the more you'll learn what they did and do to become great and stay at the top of their game.

3. Use a metronome.
And not as a drink coaster. One of the hallmarks of a great percussionist/drummer is the ability to keep impeccable time. If you consistently train yourself to play in time, you soon internalize the pulse and everything you play feels great. When everything you play feels great, other people want to play with you and you become known as a good player.

One of the bands I play with has asked me to play with a click track on stage during live shows. At first I was a little hesitant (not insulted, per se, but...), but I've been using it at rehearsals, and it's amazing what it's done for me. I never worry about whether we're too fast or slow, or if the tempo is wavering. I wouldn't do it all the time, but it has allowed me to lock into the tempo and just worry about making music.

As with private lessons, this improvement may take a little time, but if you consistently use a metronome (or "click"), your playing will become more and more solid. You'll develop a good feel for time, and it will be natural to play "in the pocket."

4. Upgrade your gear.
About ten years ago I was playing an old and beat up kit. When an opportunity came up to purchase a new DW rig, I jumped at it. It took almost three years to pay off the drums, hardware and cases, but it was well worth it.

I became a different, better player that day. My mindset was totally different. I no longer thought of myself as an inferior or second-tier player with a cheap set of drums. I had stepped up to a level of instrument quality that was as good as what the pros play. It was as if one of the natural barriers between me and greatness had been removed. Mentally, I was a new man, and I played like it.

Not only that, but my new rig was capable of sounds that I never would have gotten from my old drums. The hardware was in great shape (still is) and the heads were pristine and in tune. I went straight to a recording session that afternoon and did the best playing I had ever done.

In short, I wasn't being held back by my equipment.

Now, you don't have to buy a new kit to have this experience. Sometimes new heads or trying a different set up will have the same effect. Heck, even just taking an afternoon to clean everything up and get the everything in tune and feeling great can give you a major lift.

Bottom line is that you need to be able to depend on each and every piece of your gear to make you sound and feel great when you play.

5. Commit to your goals.
I mean this in the long-term sense as well as in the day to day sense. Set yourself up a plan to achieve your goals. Break it up in terms of what you need to do this month, this week and today. Then commit to what you have to do today, and do it.

Of all the ways to improve, I think this one has the most power. If you have a specific goal for today, and you achieve it, you can answer this one critical question: Am I closer to my goals today than yesterday?

Progress is progress, even if it's just one click up on the metronome.

So, there you have it. Five simple ways to improve your playing. Go and make your dreams into your reality. Your success is up to you.

Happy drumming!


  1. I happen to play in the mentioned band. i can tell you that the band really sticks tighter to the drummer when we know the drummer is on a click. And then in tunes that we dont use the click we key in just the same on the drummer. This is tightening our sound up - lots of fun.

  2. Good insight. I teach violin lessons and want my students to read these tips. They're good for any musician!


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