Saturday, June 23, 2012

How do I know I'm making progress?

I used to give my high school students a hard time when they would say somebody was a "good" musician, or a certain band was, "awesome." I'd ask how they determined if a certain musician or band was "good," and I'd get blank stares.

Honestly, most of us know when a player or group is "good," but we do we have concrete reasons to think so? Closer to home, how do we know when we are getting good ourselves?

Much has been written and discussed on this topic, but I'm going to try to boil it down to a few key indicators that you can look to when assessing your own playing and musicianship. Keep in mind that these are only a few of the ways you can tell if you're "getting better."


Keep excellent time.
This means that everything you play - every groove, fill, chop, lick or kick - is in time with the metronome. You are able to play freely at the same time that you are a dependable time-keeper and can "groove" with the rest of the band or group.

Play within the texture.
Another way to say this is that you should almost be "invisible." Great musicians are great because they contribute to - and fit within - the sound of the band. If you ever stick out, it's either because you're the soloist, or you're playing something that doesn't fit.

Check out a recent recording (ideally a video) of yourself playing with a band. Do you do anything that detracts from the music or performance?

Develop consistent technique.
Do you have a good sound? Are your hands even? Are you comfortable playing the notes and music that you need to play to make good music? This isn't the most immediately gratifying part of being a musician, but you need to spend enough time practicing that performances are easy.

Make fewer mistakes. 
Not that you shouldn't push yourself and play past your boundaries from time to time, but you should be continually mastering the instrument, pulse, fills, grooves and music to the point that you can start to tell that you're playing more and more mistake-free.

Sound like a drummer.
Yes, eventually you should have your own sound, and that sound should be unique. But even then you should sound like you know what you're doing on in the instrument, within the style, and in any given moment. Again, check out a recording of yourself, and note the things you play that you like and that you don't like. You're a musician, you're familiar with drummers and you have ears.

We're all still learning to play, and as the old saying goes, "The good ones borrow, but the great ones steal." It is okay to play what your favorite drummers play, as long as you're using it as a tool to improve, and not a crutch to hide your weaknesses.

Play what you want to play.
Here's another old cliche: "Most people play whatever they can, but some play whatever they want."

I notice that as I practice and perform more - little by little - I'm able to be more expressive on the instrument. I get closer to executing what I'm hearing in my head. In other words, I can "say" what I want with the drums and music, instead of being limited by "vocabulary."

Imagine someone who is learning English as a second language. At first, they can only say a few things, and only one way. But as they gain fluency, they can not only say much more, but in different ways. Think of how many different choices you have when saying something as simple as a greeting, and you'll get the idea.

It's no different with music. This is why - without having to invent a new "language" - every person, every musician is different.


Obviously, there are myriad ways to determine whether you're making progress as a musician. I offer these as a starting point. As you set your own goals and benchmarks, you'll begin to see which tactics produce results and which are a waste of time.

Share your best ideas below.

As always, happy drumming!

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