Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Practice LESS. (Wait....what?)

Like all music majors, I performed solo recitals at the end of my junior and senior years in college. The experience of prepping for a recital is excruciating, and it feels like every waking minute is devoted to learning, cleaning and rehearsing every aspect of the performance.

Just a few weeks prior to my senior recital, I was seriously struggling with a difficult snare drum solo, and the stress was really getting to me. I was practicing no less than an hour and a half per day on just this one piece (in addition to hours on marimba, vibraphone, timpani, rudimental snare drum and drum set), and I was making very little progress. I was frustrated, and getting very desperate.

At my weekly lesson, I presented the problem to my instructor, Dr. Dennis D. Griffin. He suggested something that sort of blew my mind. It went something like this:

Dr. G: How long are you practicing this piece every day?

K: About ninety minutes, give or take.

Dr. G: And how long do you spend warming up - doing exercises and rudiments and the like?

K: About fifteen minutes.

Dr. G: Ok. Here's what I want you to do. Practice the solo less. Spend at least half of your time on technique exercises, things like the Stick Control book. Make sure you're using exercises that apply to the challenging aspects of the solo.

At this point I sort of freaked out.

K: Practice....less? But, Dr. G, I only have a few weeks until my recital! I just CANNOT give up the practice time on the solo.

Dr. G: Try it for just one week. Give it as much focus and determination as you can, and if it doesn't help you in one week, you can go back to doing it your way.

Needless to say, I felt pretty hopeless. How could I possibly make progress on the hardest solo I'd ever played in my life by practicing less? And a lot less, at that?

But the good Dr. Griffin had never led me astray before, so I took his advice and went to work. Over the next week I took apart the solo, broke it down to its elements, and found exercises (mostly out of the Stick Control book, using the slow-fast method as my approach) that applied to each element.

To cut to the chase, it worked. In that week, by practicing my solo for half of my normal time, I made more progress than I had accumulated up to that point. I made my recital deadline, and played the toughest piece of concert snare drum literature of my life - and played it pretty well!

Candidly, it would have been good enough just to make it through my recital, but here's the amazing part: the skills I worked on during that period of time have stayed with me to this day. They have become part of my vocabulary and remained at the tip of my fingers for use not only in formal concert settings, but in my improvising and drum set playing, as well.

There are probably more lessons here than I'm thinking about, but here's the one: Being a great musician is much more about having the skills to construct a variety of musical phrases, sounds and components, rather than knowing a piece or a collection of pieces. You've got to have a repertoire, for sure, but to continue to be expressive and adaptable, you must constantly be building a collection of musical tools.

Musicians often call this their, "toolbox," or, "bag of tricks."

Let's think about it another way.

Did you ever play with Lego's? Imagine if you only had one kind, size or color of Lego block. What could you build? Not much. You would have a limit on what shapes and functions you could construct out of one block.

But what if you had two, or five or a hundred? With every added type, shape, size of block, you exponentially increase what you can build, how it can function, etc.

One more comparison: Basketball. If you only have one move, your defender will easily stop you from scoring, and you'll be an ineffective - not to mention boring - player.

The same is true with your musical skills. If you don't have very many rudiments, sticking patterns, independence skills - even ideas - to draw from, you'll be limited, ineffective, boring, etc. More than that, you'll be frustrated.

Lego's, basketball and music all have this one thing in common - they're more fun when you're better at them. And you're better at them if you have more tools, tricks and skills.

So, long blog post, but short message: Practice less. You'll get more done, and you'll keep it longer.

Happy drumming!

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