This final element of the performance loop detailed in this series of articles concerns making informed determinations regarding what to practice. The purpose of this loop construct is to leverage the findings on human expertise toward performing music, supplementing and fortifying focused, solitary, and repetitive practice. In order for this practice time to be at its most efficient for the musician’s improvement, it must be designed for maximum gains per minute toward the most glaring flaws marring the current version of the music. This requires knowledge of two things: what those most glaring flaws are, and how to mitigate them and transform them into strengths.
Each of these points is possible to be done by the musician, while likely to be done better in consultation with teachers and peers through lessons and mocks as discussed in last month’s article. Feedback gained from all three sources funnels directly into planning for targeted practice, allowing players to most effectively allocate their practice time. This process is both highly domain specific and highly contextual; not only do issues and problems rarely transfer between instrument types or styles, but individuals have very different problems to solve, requiring targeted practice. Therefore one-size-fits-all methods and processes are less valuable than targeted and specifically crafted deliberate practice plans.
With feedback in hand and understood, prioritizing practice time effectively requires merely recognizing which elements are most in need of immediate improvement. This, in turn, relies on the player’s amassed domain-specific knowledge, as discussed in the mental representation article of this series. Because of this reliance on domain specificity, the prioritization stage is the most difficult to describe in absence of example; thus, I will demonstrate its application with three examples below. The one common element, however, is the need to order a musical hierarchy of elements in the music being prepared in order to determine relative importance.
Metropolitan Opera principal timpanist Jason Haaheim poses a pyramid structure for ordering musical priorities, with the base constituted by objective, binary, right-or-wrong elements and increasingly moving toward more subjective and expressive elements toward the top, culminating in a capstone point at the top of the pyramid that is difficult to define, but recognizable in both presence and absence. His structure is expectedly targeted for orchestral timpanists; below I will present three similar pyramids for other percussive situations with a brief discussion of each. My goal here is not prescriptive; I’m not trying to tell you “These are the priorities in these domains because I said that’s what they are.” Rather, I’m suggesting a structure that makes sense to me based on my experiences; students, professionals, and teachers are welcome and encouraged to create their own based on their personal weightings of the elements for performance success and long-term improvement. Each of the pyramids I present is intentionally less detailed than Haaheim’s, so that all readers may engage their own knowledge and critical thinking to their own musical situations without being weighed down by the excess baggage of my opinion.
EXAMPLE ONE: TOURING DRUMMER
Consider a drummer with a touring band. The genre is irrelevant for these purposes; this could apply to anything from pop and funk to experimental jazz or djent. In the process leading up to this band’s next tour, as the drummer is working for improvement both in the rehearsal room and individual practice, this priority structure is helpful. Hopefully, this drummer recognizes the power of self-recording and has been recording rehearsals, and listening back to analyze performance and effectiveness in supporting the other musicians in the group. During that process, I suggest the following example priority structure:
Each of these pyramids sits atop a three-legged stool of non-negotiable elements that are objectively measurable, without which no amount of success at the higher elements is relevant. I think for this audience, we can agree in principle that a drummer with bad time (the pulse of the beats) or rhythm (the relationships of notes in between the beats) is objectively undesirable. By “reliability,” I am referring to the ability of the player to play in such a way that the other members of the group feel comfortable and can predict the drummer’s playing. The idea of this three-legged stool is simple: if one removes any one of the legs, the entire stool falls, along with whoever is sitting atop it. None of the elements above these base-level requirements matter if the drummer cannot play in time, with correct rhythm, in a way that allows the other members to confidently perform their parts.
The lowest level of the pyramid is still mostly objective. Correct, easily understandable count-offs for each tune, burying the click track (if there is one), and leading the band through transitions inside and between songs are largely yes-or-no propositions that the player can hear when listening back to rehearsal recordings, and their bandmates can be expected to somewhat easily identify success or failure. Moving up the pyramid, we get to slightly more subjective territory: the ability to adapt the overall drum volume to each rehearsal and performance environment encountered on the tour and the ability to control the drummer’s own balance from behind the kit based on the acoustic environment, soundboard, and sound engineer at each venue. These are obviously important skills to have, but are somewhat more complicated to assess.
The next level up focuses on the drummer’s sound; drum tuning and cymbal choice are obvious examples, beating spots and velocity are additional variables among many others. This is a highly subjective element because many drum sounds are acceptable at a professional level, but the player must achieve one that matches this particular band’s aesthetic and must achieve it consistently.
The final point at the very top of the pyramid, command, is the hardest to define, but one that most of us who’ve spent time in this business understand. It refers to the drummer’s ability to own the show and control it, shepherding the band through its ups and downs, twists and turns, so that performers and audience alike have a stable experience and are able to enjoy whatever music is being presented without marring from the musical disconcertment that inevitably comes from a drummer who is not quite in command of the show.
So as this drummer is preparing for the tour, and listening to recordings from shows on the road between dates, this structure can not only inform practice time allocation, but also guide listening. Depending on time available, a useful strategy is to take multiple listening passes at a single recording, each pass focusing on a different level of the pyramid to be able to most effectively zero in on what needs improvement, and to feed that information back into the deliberate practice machine as examined in the previous installments.
EXAMPLE TWO: ORCHESTRAL PERCUSSIONIST
For the second example, consider an orchestral percussionist preparing the cymbal excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture. This famous section, ubiquitously seen as emblematic of the sword duel in Shakespeare’s legendary tragedy, is frequently asked on audition lists from college and conservatory chair placement through ICSOM orchestra jobs. Time and rhythm remain foundational for this application just as they were for our intrepid drummer above, but for this domain I have replaced reliability with crash quality. Since the fundamental activity is simply playing the notes as Tchaikovsky wrote them, deciding what to play and when is not a concern for this player as it was for the previous one. However, avoiding air pockets, double hits, glancing blows, and sizzles is crucial. In this way, despite the somewhat extreme difference between what the touring drummer and the orchestral auditioner are performing, their pyramids have similar structure, simply filled in with differing priorities.
The bottom level of the pyramid itself is, once again, made up of mostly objective characteristics. Type of attack for each crash, length of note, and effectiveness of dampening can each be easily heard if focused upon, and for this excerpt these are largely non-interpretive decisions. Up the next level, dynamic consistency is similarly easy to observe and judge, but reasonable musicians may disagree on whether each crash of the excerpt should be exactly the same or whether there should be a shape to this phrase. Regardless of the player’s interpretive choice, determining what is happening on the recording is a simple task.
Decisions about cymbal choice and phrasing are less objective. The previous rung is where players can evaluate effectiveness at creating the phrase they’ve decided to craft. This higher one is the point at which the player evaluates the effectiveness of the subjective phrasing decision itself, through lessons and mock auditions as discussed in last month’s installment.
Finally, the capstone of this pyramid is storytelling: does this excerpt performance feel like the clashing of swords between Mercutio, Tybalt, and Romeo? For some hearers it may, for some it may not; these highest pyramid points are the most subjective, but they represent audience connection. Systematizing its pursuit is both frustrating and illuminating, and ultimately leads to being able to make more informed musical decisions. Those better decisions then increase the likelihood of achieving that connection and make our performances more meaningful, more often.
EXAMPLE THREE: HIGH SCHOOL DRUMLINE STUDENT
Finally, consider the process of students auditioning for their high school drumline, as tens of thousands of teenagers do each year. This goal can often carry with it deep emotional significance and relevance within an individual’s friend group, adding weight and pressure on top of what is likely already a difficult and competitive endeavor. Clear understanding of which points on which to focus is an aid not only to practice efficiency, but also for clarity of intent. In this way the priority pyramid helps our daring young marching percussionists center their thoughts and process and harness the ever-important feeling of autonomy as discussed in the motivation article.
The three-legged stool retains the importance of time —a common foundation for almost any percussive pursuit — but replaces rhythm with feet. The importance of being able to march and play while keeping feet in step is self-evident and obvious in the marching arts, and requires no elaboration for this audience. Likewise is the importance of memorization; music stands do not follow drill charts, so the auditioner must prove the ability to play the correct music from memory, while marching in step with correct time. In the absence of any of these three skills, nothing above them will matter in the eyes of the staff determining drumline roster and instrument assignments.
The initial rung of this pyramid includes technique: can the player use the technique being taught by this group? Are snare drum auditioners proficient with traditional grip, are tenor hopefuls able to consistently strike the correct zones, are prospective bass drummers using this school’s choice between the rotation or wrist-break techniques?
Rhythm, usually a foundational element of the stool, here finds itself moved into the pyramid. This is certainly not because rhythm is unimportant in this scenario, but simply because other elements are more fundamental to this application. A student playing the correct part, from memory, with feet and hands in time but slight failures of rhythmic interpretation is miles ahead of players with greater rhythmic precision who didn’t take the time to learn their notes or work out the relationship with the feet. This is the nature of this particular activity; its ordering differs from the other two scenarios presented.
The next rung up begins to deal with the player’s ability to match the other members of the ensemble. Can this player use the correct touch and weight in his or her stroke as defined by the percussion staff? Is this player’s velocity too fast or slow for the sound and look being crafted? Can the player meld the sound from his or her instrument into that of the other players in their section and the drumline as a whole? Every staff in marching percussion asks these questions when arranging personnel for a season, so it follows that players hoping to join the ensemble should interrogate their own playing with them as well. Again, self-recording, analysis, lessons, and mock auditions are helpful.
Another step up this structure brings our focus to confidence. This is clearly a valuable element for any musician in any scenario, but the visual nature of the marching arts adds even greater weight to it. Self-assuredness and the ability to “sell” the performance to the audience is crucial in this activity, whether that audience is a Friday-night homecoming crowd, competition judges, or the percussion staff in an abandoned August parking lot who are deciding on who will fill the last snare drum spot.
These higher-order subjective elements are helped by the players’ knowledge of their own success at the lower elements. Confidence is difficult to fake, and it has a tendency to emerge naturally as a result of hours of work and earned improvement, experienced again and again through analysis of self-recording. Witnessing one’s own increasing capability is a powerful tool for enhancing expectation of performance.
With all these elements in place — confidence earned from knowledge of competence, built atop the ability to fit into the drumline concept and perform the required music well on the move from memory — the player begins to look the part, just as generations of young drummers before. The marching arts are steeped in tradition and there is a look expected of performers in the idiom. While the touring drummer and orchestral player have more autonomy in choosing how to connect with their audience, the marching percussionist voluntarily gives up some of this individual persona to be a part of the group, and effectiveness at the total pyramid leads to effective presence, connecting first to the audition judges, then the eventual audiences.
As I stated above, these structures are not exhaustive. Your band, your orchestral tradition, or your drumline may have wildly different orderings and elements of focus than I have included in these examples. The point of this article is not the three structures above, but the concept of ordering your musical priorities, and then analyzing your recordings and feedback to be able to most effectively allocate the precious hours, minutes, and seconds of practice you have available, to whittle away at the most important things to fix.
This is musical triage; the more time you have, the more you can fix. Yet being informed about the most glaring flaws at any given time is the key to being most efficient in that improvement.
Sean Millman is a Ph.D. Candidate in Percussion Performance, ABD at NYU Steinhardt and freelance drummer/percussionist in New York City. Learn more at millmanpercussion.com. This series examines and applies elements from the author's forthcoming dissertation "A Deliberate Practice Loop for Music Performance.