One of the most common things that I have ran into over my years of recording musicians is that so few people actually know how to practice. This little tidbit qualifies for any instrument, and is so simple and rudimentary that you would think that it seems foolish to write about it. However, you would be surprised how many people have no idea how to practice their instrument.
Let me say this first before we go any further: All of your practicing MUST be done to a source that keeps true time. I highly recommend a metronome. There are tons of free software based metronomes for your computer (which you clearly own if you are reading this).
There is a difference between practicing and playing. If you have 1 hour of guitar time each day to play you need to sit aside 15-30 minutes of that time for actual practice. Now, what does practice mean? Well… the definition of the word is "repeated performance or systematic exercise for the purpose of acquiring skill or proficiency" however, when I observe guitar players or drummers practicing they are often "noodling" on their instruments. There definitely can be a point made that this will enhance your playing over time. But, if you are looking for actual improvement that you can see, then you need to focus on your goals and work at them. Practice (to me at least) is playing what we can't play until we eventually can. I know that it's not as glamorous to sit down and play a C Major scale to a metronome for 15 minutes as it is to be shredding as fast as you possibly can. But, the challenge is here, and patience is truly a virtue in terms of instrumentation.
So here is my proposal to you; let's try doing 1 month of real practicing and see what it does for your playing…
What do I require?
1. Your instrument
2. 15-30 minutes of your time a day
Seriously, that's it! Everything you need to be a better musician YOU ALREADY HAVE!
Let's do this!
For guitar & bass let's take the C Major Scale: C D E F G A B C
For drums let's do a simple rudiment: RRLLRRLL RLLRRLLR LLRRLLRR LRRLLRRL
Now, get your metronome and start off at a slower speed. Let's say for the sake of argument 80bpm.
If you can breeze through 80 with no problem raise it to 90. If 90 is too easy then move to 100.. and so on until you find a moment where you are uncomfortable. Once you find that point… you are well on your way to owning your instrument. That is your practice tempo.
Now that you've established what tempo you are struggling at spend 15-30 minutes (The longer you spend the easier it is going to get) mastering that tempo. I don't care if 15 minutes in you feel like it's gotten easier.. FINISH OUT THE WHOLE PRACTICE TIME AT THAT SPEED. Make every note sing, concentrate on your technique. Watch your hands as you are playing. Throw in variables [see below for variables]. Just remember the way you practice is the way you are going to perform. So make it count even if you are just playing to a song on the radio. It's completely natural to shun away from doing this, because we have not trained ourselves to think this way. We are so used to being sporadic in our playing that once we try to introduce structure to it our minds are going to try to default back to our old ways. Finish out that practice session.
The next time you practice take the metronome speed up 10bpm. So if I'm at 180 on Tuesday and I get comfortable with it, Wednesday I will try 190bpm. If I can't keep up with 190 then I will go back to 180 and practice that speed again for that day. Your goal is to always push yourself to get faster, but speed is NOT our number 1 concern here. The major thing that we are trying to achieve is comfort of our instrument and timing. I have seen some guitar players who are very fast but, inaccurate… and inversely I have seen some players who can play the simplest things and make them sound like gold. It's all about technique.
I say that variables are somewhat important in practice. For example, as a drummer you should try leading with your weak hand instead of your strong hand all the time. We are only as good as our weakest link and it's important that we recognize what they are and try to strengthen them. As a guitar player try playing your scale ascending, decending, with all upstrokes, all downstrokes, alternate picking…etc. But, the key here is make sure that you are consistent. Do NOT perform one thing, fail and then go back to the thing you do well. If I can't play a scale using all upstrokes fast I have two choices 1) JUST practice upstrokes until it gets up to speed with my downstrokes or 2) set up a completely separate practice time for upstrokes. So Tuesday I could be playing downstrokes, and Wednesday will be my upstrokes day, and on that day I would go through the same exact procedures that I went through for my downstroke. Find the tempo where your breaking point is and push it as far as you can.
For drummers your variables will be different. Because the fact of the matter remains that you probably want to get your bass drum speed up to par as well (and don't forget the HI HAT PEDAL!!!!!!!!) Let's face facts having a nice double stroke roll is a nice tool to have in the toolbox but, you're going to need to focus on independence and velocity as well. You should be keeping time with your hi-hat pedal while doing these exercises.
I will often set a metronome and do:
RLK RLK RLKK RR LL RR LL
But, your variables should also be with things like ghost notes.
So maybe you'll accent more like this
RlK RlK RlKK Rr Ll Rr Ll
You may find that keeping a steady beat with the hi hat is challenging for you. If that's the case… find a speed where you can accomplish it and work up from there. I would rather have proper practice than sloppy practice. Remember… as I said earlier.. HOW YOU PRACTICE IS HOW YOU'LL PERFORM! Practice doesn't make perfect, Practice makes permanent…
The goal of this blog is (above everything else) to encourage you to try something new. We live in an age where all of this information is at your fingertips. You have resources available with just a few clicks of a mouse. Take some time and REALLY practice your instrument if you want results.
I hope this helps some people even if it's just to open your mind to what practicing should be.