One of the most important facets of any player’s continued improvement is the cultivation of a consistent routine of technique development work. Unfortunately — and I find this especially true of developing players — the kind of repetitive stroke-production focus that would be the most beneficial is also the type of work that some players are least likely to sit down and do, and the prospect of five to ten minutes with full strokes and the Dr. Beat doesn’t hold the same attraction as working through the latest solo assignment.
Numerous established play-along resources on the market help address this issue by providing short, singularly-focused exercises through a variety of tempi, but one of my favorite strategies is still to fire up a playlist of favorite songs, open up the George Lawrence Stone Stick Control book (or any other favorite similar resource), and simply work down the page.
A common game that I play with Stick Control goes something like this: “Let’s play number one as eighth notes through the intro and the first verse, then as sixteenth notes when we hit the chorus. We’ll transition to number two as eighth notes through the bridge and second verse, then number two as sixteenth notes through the second chorus, and so on.” We can modify the subdivisions depending on the technical development level of the student or the tempo of the track to which we’re playing along.
When I work this way with students, I find that a few things happen. First, students are quicker to incorporate natural phrasing and movement instead of robotic motions and sounds. Second, students can play repetitive patterns for longer periods of time. Rather than relying on a tool like a timer or stopwatch app — which itself is still more palatable to some students than Stone’s admonition to “Practice each exercise 20 times without stopping” — we can move through multiple three- and four-minute song structures before the onset of any mental or aural fatigue that might come from metronome alone. Third, students are engaged with something more akin to ensemble listening skills. Listening for form involves finding chord changes, melody, and a bass line in addition to the rhythmic accuracy developed by playing with metronome alone. I have had a few developing students who can master metronome playing but struggle in the live ensemble environment, and utilizing this approach serves as a bridge to help them focus their attention when moving between those two disparate environments.
Playing along with a playlist of favorite songs cannot completely substitute for disciplined, strategic metronome usage, but it can serve as an enjoyable and pedagogically sound way for students to augment their daily routine of focused work on their core strokes.
Aaron Ragsdale is Professor of Music and Director of Percussion at South Dakota State University, where he teaches applied percussion and percussion pedagogy, conducts the SDSU Percussion Ensemble, and serves as Assistant Director with the Pride of the Dakotas Marching Band. He is an active performer as a soloist, chamber musician, and member of the South Dakota Symphony. Aaron holds a DMA from Rutgers University, a Master of Music degree from the University of Arkansas, and a BME from the University of Oklahoma.