Ever notice how the stuff you find easy in practice feels a lot harder on stage? Well, it’s happened to every drummer that ever got on stage to play a live gig. Most veteran drummers will tell you that you just need some experience. And that when you’ve been playing live for a decade or two it will all come together and you will sound great.
Is that true? Kind of. There is definitely no shortcut to experience.
I wince at the thought of some of my first live performances. My tempo was all over the place, my dynamics non-existent, my beats sloppy and way too busy. Nowadays, I feel completely comfortable on stage. Everything comes together nicely and I play with confidence.
So obviously my drumming has changed. But what exactly has changed? It can’t just be the passage of time, we can’t just grab a sleeping bag and camp out on a stage for the next 20 years and expect to be a better drummer. We need to learn the lessons that the experience of live performing can teach us.
On a neurological level, our brains need to re-wire themselves to be more like the brains of an experienced live drummer. What if we could somehow speed up this process? What if we could give our brains the push it needs, in the right direction, so it can re-wire itself in the shortest time possible?
Well that my fellow drummers is what this post is all about. It’s a bold statement I know.
So let’s get to it.
You know how sometimes you get in your car (or public transport) for your daily commute, and when you arrive at your destination, you don’t remember the journey? Ever wonder why that is? There is a simple one-word answer. Habit. Yep, once something becomes a habit, you can perform it without even thinking. No thoughts, no focus, no decisions, just habit.
On a neurological level, habits actually take place in a different part of the brain compared to our thoughts or decisions. Charles Duhigg, in his great book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, details how our habits occur unthinkingly in a part of the brain called the basal ganglia.
The difference between a thought and a habit is that a thought requires constant focus, attention, and decision-making. A habit, on the other hand, only requires a cue for it to be triggered. After the cue has been set off, the habit happens naturally without any need for thought.
Similar to the way you brush your teeth upon getting up in the morning. The cue is the time of day. It’s morning, so your teeth brushing habit is automatically triggered, and you go through with it unthinkingly. But let’s say now you go for a sleep in the afternoon. Most likely, when you finish your nap, you won’t go and brush your teeth. The cue for the tooth brushing habit (the morning), isn’t there. And even though everything else is exactly the same, if the cue is different, the habit won’t be triggered.
So what parallels can we find with drumming? Aha! This is where it gets really interesting.
Let’s say you and your band want to play Rosanna by Toto. So you get to work practicing and you search youtube for a Jeff Porcaro lesson on how to play the Rosanna shuffle. You sit behind your practice kit, in your well-lit rehearsal room. You watch the lesson, start to practice, and eventually start to get the hang of it. After a few days, you’re feeling pretty good about it. The band gets together for a rehearsal and after a few hours its a done deal. Nailed it! Rossana in the bag. Right?
Ah, but wait.
You get on stage for your live gig. The lights are in your eyes, the sound is totally different, you have your expensive kit this time. Nothing feels, sounds or looks the same. You click the sticks for the intro to Rosanna. The song starts, and it all feels so hard. It’s an effort to concentrate and it’s just not coming together like it did in practice.
What went wrong? In one word, habits.
By practicing songs, we are creating habits for our brain. The problem is, those habits rely on the correct cues for them to be triggered.
So when we rehearse on a different kit, with different lighting and a different sound, then the cues are all missing when we get on stage. And this confuses our basal ganglia to the point where we no longer rely on the habit we established in practice, and now have to perform the mental effort of concentrating hard as if it was the first time we had ever played the song.
But when an experienced musician that’s been performing live for decades gets on stage, they have developed all the right cues for on-stage performance. And can easily trigger the correct habits to play effortlessly.
So it makes sense, that if we want to be as comfortable on stage as soon as possible, we need to ensure that we program in the correct cues when we practice. And these cues will all come down to the major differences between our practice environment and the stage.
Let’s now break down these cues and attempt to re-create them as much as we can in practice.
This one is easy. Practice on the same kit you will play on stage with.
And if for any reason you can’t, then try to have a practice kit that is as close to your live one as possible. The same amount of toms, same size snare, etc. And of course, the placement must be the same also.
If you practice with an electric kit then play live with an acoustic, all the tactile cues will be totally off. If your hands, feet, and backside (yep, the stool matters too) have a different tactile experience, then the cues developed in practice are going to be absent. Forcing you to need to concentrate hard on what felt easy during rehearsals. So try your best to practice on your full live kit. Both on your own, as with your band.
What you see and how you see it, can also be used by your basal ganglia as a source for a cue. This is another reason to use your full live kit in practice.
Beyond your kit, there is the matter of lighting. Depending on the stage you will play on, you could have lights straight in your eyes, or a lot fewer lights than in practice. I kind of have both. I play on a fairly dark stage with colored led spotlights pointed at us. So there are plenty of shadows around my kit making it hard to see the toms clearly. And at the same time, some of the spotlights are in my face.
Practicing in a well-lit environment can teach your brain to depend on visual cues. But if your stage lights are different, then you will get confused once on stage. Now you may not have access to spotlights for your practice room. But you can, however, try to replicate the conditions by either having fewer lights or swapping the bulbs out for lower power and colored ones. My stage environment is primarily a red color.
Another visual cue can be the placement of our bandmates. A lot of bands tend to practice facing each other. The problem is when you’re on stage you will all be facing the same direction. Towards the audience!
Try to space yourselves out in the same way as you will be on stage. The same distance from each other and all facing the same direction. It can be a tough habit to break, but it’s worth it.
Bands also fall into the trap of looking at each other during practice to the point of not being able to play without it. Even though I do encourage communication and interaction, it’s also important not to develop the habit of needing to meet each others gaze to play. The crowd doesn’t want to see the bands back!
Speaking of the crowd, this can be another visual cue for our habits to lock on to. If we never play in front of anyone, then a large group of people staring at us when we are on stage will feel off-putting.
The solution is simple. Invite some friends over to watch your practice. Start with very few people. Maybe just a couple of close friends, family members, etc. Then slowly start to grow the list by inviting more friends, acquaintances, distant family, etc. Then eventually ask them to invite their friends so you have people watching you that you never met before. This practice will allow you to get comfortable with groups of people and help solidify your habits in front of a crowd.
The sounds on a live stage are also vastly different than a practice environment. Unless you design your practice with this in mind, of course.
First of all, the placement of the speakers and amps will make a huge difference.
It’s not the same playing with the speakers facing you during practice, as it is with them facing the audience during a live gig. I’m about 4 meters behind the speakers (that face away from me), and I’m also sandwiched between the guitar amp and the bass amp (that also face the front and not me).
So take a look at the layout you will have on your stage, then try to replicate it as much as possible during practice.
Oh yes, and play at full volume!
Not with the amps maxed out, but at the same volume they will be at during the gig. The change in volume will certainly catch you off-guard and throw your habit loop out the window.
The bottom line is, your practice should mimic your live environment as much as possible.
If you want to learn more about the importance of replicating your stage environment for practice, I have a detailed video lesson with footage from my actual gig showing the difference in sound and how to practice for it.
Click the button below to learn more.
The habits you develop during practice will only be fully triggered again if the cues are the same.
An experienced drummer has been on stage so long, that they have added the cues of a live performance into their habits. Making it easy for them to be triggered on stage. They have also been on stage so long, that the unexpected cues from the lights, sounds and such, are no longer a problem to ignore since they are not caught off-guard anymore.
In The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Duhigg talks about how Michael Phelps (one of the most decorated Olympic swimmers of all time), rehearsed his victories day after day. He would get up at the same time, eat the same meals, warm up and stretch the same way, wear the same training gear, play the same playlist in his headphones, etc. He would even go so far as to visualize the race and the victory the same way. So eventually, when the time of the real race came around — he would get up at the same time, eat the same meals, warm up and stretch the same way, wear the same training gear, play the same playlist in his headphones — and win the race the same way he had done in his mind over and over again. Victory became a habit because on the day of the race, all the cues were the same.
As drummers, we can think along the same lines. So long as we practice to the same cues, our live gigs will go just as effortlessly as our practice.
Again, this is no shortcut for experience. You still have to do the work. You still need to practice hard. But if you practice in a smart way following the right cues, then you won’t have to wait for decades of experience to kick in and make you play as good on stage as you do in practice.
Since landing my current gig of 6 nights a week in the same pub, almost 9 years ago, we have had every rehearsal on the stage we play on. The pub is shut during the day, so we have the place to ourselves. We switch the spotlights on and the P.A. system so it all looks and sounds the same. And this means that if we nail a song in practice, we will nail it that night when it counts. It’s the second night when it all falls apart. We get cocky and mess it up! lol!