Several years ago, in a Modern Percussionist cover story, jazz vibraphonist Gary Burton — whose virtuoso four-mallet technique revolutionized vibes playing — commented that he had never spent much time practicing technical exercises. “You can build a technique just as surely by playing pieces of music as by playing pieces of non-music, which technical studies are,” he said. “They are mechanical repetitions. The danger with mechanical repetitions is that they are nonmusical.”
Nancy Zeltsman — who teaches marimba at the Berklee College of Music and Boston College — expressed that same idea in a Percussive Notes article, and I’ve also heard jazz drummers Bob Moses and Barry Altschul express disdain for “mindless” repetitive technical exercises.
I’ve thought about that a lot over the years, in terms of my own practicing and what I give students to work on. I certainly spent my share of time hammering out patterns from Stick Control when I was first trying to develop technique, including times when I would set up a pad in front of the television and let my hands play a pattern on “autopilot” while I watched a show. Was that type of practice doing more harm than good? Not necessarily. My speed and control definitely got better. But was I getting the maximum benefit from all those hours on the pad? Nope.
Before going further, I want to defend the concept of practicing technical exercises — at least, from a drummer’s standpoint. Whereas other instrumentalists might occasionally lock into a riff or ostinato, drummers — in our role as timekeepers — spend much of our time laying down repetitive grooves. Doing the same thing over and over demands a different type of concentration and muscle control, and that has to be practiced and developed. So while repeating the same phrase multiple times might not have much practical application for many musicians, it’s at the very core of what drummers do.
But even if practicing technical exercises is more relevant for drummers than for other musicians, that doesn’t mean we should only concern ourselves with chops. The greatest drummers use technique to serve musical ends, and learning to do that takes just as much practice as the technique itself. The good news is, we can work on both at the same time.
An easy and fun way to accomplish that goal is to play technical exercises along with music. I started doing that instinctively back when I was playing on a pad in front of the television. If background music was playing, or a commercial came on with a jingle, I would play along using whatever exercise I happened to be playing at the time. Sometimes that meant speeding up or slowing down, sometimes I had to change the feel from straight to swing or a shuffle, and sometimes I had to adapt a 4/4 pattern to 3/4 or 6/8 time. The first few times I tried playing along with anything other than straight 4/4, it didn’t feel very good because when I wasn’t “mindlessly” exercising my hands while I watched television, I was practicing those patterns to a metronome, making sure my subdivisions were perfect.
Of course, in those days we thought that metronomically perfect subdivisions equaled good time; then drum machines came along and showed us that perfect subdivisions sounded stiff and mechanical. “Click tracks and metronomes aren’t rhythm,” Keith Richards once told me while relating a story about an engineer suggesting that the Rolling Stones record with a click track. “That’s just timing. Rhythm has to breathe; it has to push a little here and pull a little there.”
It’s nice to have the control to play perfect subdivisions, and in drum corps or some of today’s techno settings it might be necessary. But a lot of styles of music require that “push and pull,” and if you spend all of your time practicing sticking patterns just with a metronome, you will sound stiff when you play with a band. We play what we practice.
The answer is simple: Play whatever technical exercises you are working on along with a variety of music—different styles, different feels, and different tempos. Make that paradiddle sticking feel as good with a samba and a swing tune as it does with a Sousa march.
I used to measure my technical progress not only by how far I was able to increase the metronome speed over the course of time, but even more by how many patterns or pages I could check off in the book. I’ve found that it’s more beneficial to play a few patterns with as many different feels and tempos as possible than to practice a lot of patterns the same way. So instead of practicing a whole page of, say, Master Studies, I might just pick two or three patterns, and I’ll play them along with different music, making those patterns lock in with that music.
My own drumming got a lot better when I started making sure that whenever I hit a drum or pad, it was for musical and technical development. I’ve also seen this same improvement in countless students. Their physical control of the drumsticks steadily improves, and so does their musicality.
Drummers certainly need to work on technique, and practicing rudiments or from such books as Syncopation or Accents and Rebounds can help us develop the control we need. But if we truly want to be musicians, we need to practice those exercises in musical contexts.
Rick Mattingly is a drum teacher, an editor and author of drum and percussion instruction books for Hal Leonard Corporation, and Executive Editor of Percussive Notes.