There are so many techniques, so many drum beats, and so many styles, that we just can’t learn them all. So which ones should we incorporate to our practice routines?… Because you do have a routine, don’t you?… Anyway…

As I was saying, swimming in a sea of paradiddles and bossanovas can be fun. But we need to ask ourselves if it’s a practical use of our time, or are we just having fun. There is nothing wrong with having fun, of course, but not at the expense of the skills we will need in a real live gig.

So in this post, I would like to present my ideas on how to best choose what we should be practicing.

Are we ready?… Let’s do it!

Your practice needs to cater to your needs. And what your needs are, as always, will depend on the gig’s you will be doing. If you are in a Rock band, you don’t need to be practicing Jazz beats. Crossing styles can definitely add some flair to your drumming if done in a subtle way. Unless your gigs needs are polished, straying too far from the path, will do you more harm than good.

Whatever gig you are going to be playing, will most likely be narrowed down to a particular style. And even cover bands like the one I play in, don’t go too far to the extremes of genres. So your gig determines your needs, and your needs determine your practice.

The best way to uncover your needs is to do the gig in the first place. Now it’s obviously a much better idea to rehearse the gig first. But make sure to go through the whole set, with the whole band. Preferably without stopping just like it was the real thing. When we rehearse under “relaxed” conditions, we can miss little things or even get lazy. But playing the set through like it was a real gig can expose all the areas we need to work on. Both as individuals, and as a band.

I remember when I first needed to play “the boys are back in town” by Thin Lizzy. I had never played that particular bass drum pattern in a shuffle before. I had only played the typical blue’s shuffle’s, with a straight 4 on the bass drum. I thought nothing of it… big mistake! When it came time to do the song, I realized there was no way I could pull it off without messing the whole thing up. So instead of going back to a straight 4 on the kick, I changed the hi-hat from the shuffle to a straight 2×4. That allowed me to play the proper bass drum pattern (with the wrong hi-hat one!). Needless to say, the next day I allocated half an hour to practice that particular beat. It didn’t take long to get it at all, but it took me getting it wrong live, to realize I needed to work on it. And it’s not the only song it happened in! So from then on, I always make sure I run through everything I need for every particular song we learn.

And that’s a great segway into the next section…

Common needs

There are many needs that will be common to all kinds of gigs. Things we need to dial in and polish up as drummers way in advance of any stage performance. Most of them are obvious but bear repeating due to their importance.

Tempo

The most obvious one, but unfortunately also the one I see overlooked the most. I don’t know if it’s because drummers assume they are already playing the right tempo, or they are too busy having fun to care.

Either way, your tempos should not only be steady, but also consistent. And what I mean by that is, each time you play the same song, you should also be playing at the same tempo. Now it doesn’t have to be nailed since many factors can lead to different tempos in the same song. But at least somewhere around where you usually play it. And a nice comfortable tempo for everyone needs to be decided by the whole band. Playing a song way too fast or slow than it should be, can really kill your groove.

Dynamics

Dynamics is another common need for any style of music to have in your arsenal. The different parts of the songs like the verse and chorus, different styles of songs, and even the different parts of the drum beats, will all sound more musical when you know how to control your dynamic range.

And again, consistency is key here. You don’t want to be playing a certain song at a moderate volume, and the next time smash the crap out of the drums. Just like with the tempos, the volume of the song also needs to be decided beforehand, practiced and memorized. That way, we can maintain a certain level of consistency. Again, there is always wiggle room here, but you don’t want to be playing “wonderful tonight” with the same dynamic range as “the ace of spades”!

Different styles

As far as drum beats go, it is going to depend on what kind of band you are in. Needless to say, you should have the basics down, but from there on, your gig will dictate your needs. Whether it’s a rock band, jazz, death metal, funk… you name it. It will have a set of beats, techniques, and fills that are more common in that particular style. So whatever your needs are, is where you need to focus your attention.

And as fun as it is to practice all styles all the time… we can’t learn everything! Becoming proficient in a wide variety of styles takes a long, long time. But, if we focus only on what we need at one time, we can become comfortable in one area very soon. So it makes perfect sense to focus our attention on what we need right now because the shortest distance between two points… is a straight line.

Uncovering the holes

So how do we actually choose what to practice? Well, by far the easiest way, is with the songs we need to play. Whether we are in an original band, a “genre” band, or an all round cover band (like myself), the songs we have to play will reveal all the holes in our game.

Each song will have certain beats, techniques and fills we will need to become comfortable with to perform them well. The biggest mistake we can make is to skip over things we find difficult. If we are learning one of the songs for our set, and there is a beat or fill we find hard, we need to make a note and include it in our practice routine until we are comfy with it. By doing this, we can build up a nice little “database” of beats, fills, and styles that we can continue to draw from (and add to) forever.

If all we do is play what we are good at, then we will never improve. Don’t be that guy (or gal) who plays the same beats and fills all the time. Yeah… You know who I mean… you see them all the time, playing with different bands, year after year, always sounding the same. Once we have uncovered our weaknesses and discovered what we are lacking, we can begin to organize them into our practice routine.

Parctice pad by Denise Chan
photo credit: practice pad by denise chan

Pactice pads are great for building your chops, but you won’t be playing a pad on stage!

Another thing we can account for will be the environment. When we are on stage, things change. The sound, the lights, the atmosphere… all will be very different. If you are able to replicate these conditions in practice, it will be a big help since you will be able to build some familiarity with the environment. And at the end of the day, what we are familiar with is what we are good at.

If you are finding it hard playing a certain song, beat or fill… it’s because you are not yet familiar with it. And exactly the same can be said about the environment you play in. You can have your songs, your beats, your techniques all dialed in. But something as simple as changing the environment can easily throw you off.

If it’s possible, try and use the same equipment, sound system, and gear. Arrange the speakers about where they will go on the stage. Play at a similar volume. If you can, use the same lighting. And if you will be wearing certain clothes, practice in them too. Now I know this all sounds a little overkill, but it will fast forward your familiarity with the environment, and familiarity builds comfort. And you can only play at your very best when comfortable.

So to wrap up. Discover your needs and weaknesses by playing through the songs in the same environment you will be in at the gig. Don’t just assume you have the chops for the job. Make sure to double check yourself. Organize those needs into your practice routine. Build comfort and familiarity with them.

Avoid making the rookie mistake of only working on your strengths because it makes you feel good. If you only do what you’re good at, you will never improve an inch.

And keep your mind and your attention on the task at hand. Practicing for 30 min with maximum attention is far better than just going through the motions for 3 hours.

And with this, I wish you good “luck”. And by “luck” I mean Labour, Under , Correct, Knowledge.

A musician friend once told me… “Always practice and prepare like crazy, but tell people you just made it up on the spot”.

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How do you prepare for a gig? Is there any gig you wished you had practiced more for?

Please share with the class.

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