The ability to effortlessly play any musical idea that comes to mind without having to worry about executing it should be the goal of all musicians. But is it possible to go so far into this concept that it becomes detrimental? “Technical headroom” is a term I created that describes the ability of musicians to always have abundant technical prowess and proficiency on their instrument to execute the most demanding musical passage with ease.
To get to the point of having enough technical headroom, most musicians are aware that years, if not a lifetime, of practice, is needed. Knowing this inevitable commitment exists, one question commonly arises: Is the incessant practice of intricate, technical exercises truly practical? Could it even have negative implications? Students are frequently encouraged by instructors to build as much technical expertise as possible. However, even the most dedicated student can find this discipline uninspiring, and many well-respected, popular players often downplay, if not criticize, this type of advanced study, which can lead to conflicts of intent and conviction.
Musical instrument practice is an inherently isolated act. Aside from the requisite physical seclusion, it takes a great deal of mental fortitude and inner work that's seldom credited by the outside world. In our increasingly technological existence, many have developed a craving for social media recognition. That style of praise is not present when developing this technique. Could this lack of external acknowledgment hinder technical study?
For my musical purposes and career, I believe that having adequate technical headroom is a must. I’ve been playing for roughly 35 years. I’ve studied quite diligently and am fluent in virtually all common hand and foot techniques. I am also very well read, having worked through countless method books, including our “bibles” of drumming. To this day, I still practice everything—from the most basic rudimental exercises to advanced snare solos and drum set techniques. I've concluded that the work I endure to build technical headroom is for my satisfaction and peace of mind. Furthermore, I have decided that if I only encounter one spontaneous, unforced use of the technique that I’ve accrued, then it has been worth the effort.
One of the best compliments a musician can receive is that your performance is raising the music's overall level. If your musicianship is so strong that no matter what comes your way, you can elevate the music (without worrying about your technique), then consider your technical headroom adequate. This technical effortlessness should also simultaneously benefit the musicians with whom you are working. If I have an easy time working with (and locking in for a rhythm section setting) other musicians, it also holds true that others should feel the same about me. Having complete control to play steady, fluid, effortless time is far more fun than struggling to maintain a simple groove. The great feeling of accomplishment and knowing that you are doing something good for yourself and your fellow bandmates is an obvious plus. Not to mention the work ethic you are cultivating by consistently working on your technique will benefit you in numerous other areas of your life. Pursuing truly meaningful goals is arguably the key to finding significance and satisfaction in virtually every aspect of our lives.
CONSIDERING THE SACRIFICE
Achieving these lofty objectives amounts to a lifetime of work and sacrifice. Some people believe their time can be spent better elsewhere, and that's fine. Everyone finds different value in their chosen pursuits. As long as we have honest intentions, then the results should lead to positive conclusions. Following are a few valid reasons to lay off the heavy practice routine.
First, many musicians have limited capacity to practice for long, sometimes monotonous, lengths of time. These players are highly susceptible to burnout. Taking a more deliberate practice routine may be the only way to avoid this issue. In this case, technique can and should be practiced, but not as long.
For some, it can be problematic to skip or limit practicing musical elements that they must play for gigs in lieu of technical exercises. It is never wise to jeopardize your employment—much less the music itself—in preference of self-indulgence.
Another pitfall is overuse injuries. Granted, this damage usually occurs when improper grip or other restriction problems are present. However, repetitive exercises can take a physical toll over extended periods, so critical attention must be used to prevent injury.
Achieving a surplus of technique is a must for some, but has less significance for others. It is critical for each performer to evaluate his or her own situation and make the appropriate choices. Be honest with yourself, set a goal, and make the right decision for now and the future. We all strive to make our instrumental voice as fluid and effortless as our speaking voice. For some, that means building technical headroom; for others, it's not. The primary difference is that we individually arrive at our musical destinations at different times and in different ways.
Phil Smith is a professional drummer and educator based in Atlanta, Georgia, and a music and percussion instructor at Georgia State University and Talladega College. He has had numerous articles published in various media forms, including Modern Drummer magazine and Steve Smith’s Drum Set Technique and the History of the U.S. Beat DVD. Phil is also the host of the popular drumming podcast Drummer’s Weekly Groovecast.