Practicing with Your Brain
By Zack Hall, Drum Instructor, The Rock and Pop Music Academy of Boulder
In today’s drum lessons we’ll talk about an oft overlooked component of playing.
What is our most important tool as drummers? There are so many essentials to keep in our tool belt. We need chops to play fast, creativity to play unique and cool licks, patience and determination to practice, or even the time to practice all of the things we need to work on. Every time I sit down to drum, I have to choose which of these tools I’m going to refine, and I’ve found the most important muscle to work is actually my brain.
A drummer might spend all day working his chops to play the fastest, loudest, most technical thing imaginable, but none of that would matter without the brain. Buddy Rich without Buddy Rich’s brain is just a man who can move his hands really fast. Our minds need to be involved in every step of practicing and performing. We should constantly consider ways to improve how our mind is assisting us in making music. Here are a few things that I think about while I drum:
Visualize the rhythm in your head.
Oftentimes as drummers we’re focused on playing rhythms in time. It may be putting feet with hands, or rhythms with a metronome, but it’s a common thing to work on. I’ve found that every time I relax and think to myself, “Oh I know how to play eighth notes by now.”, that I don’t actually play eighth notes in time. But if I picture the eighth notes, sheet music and all, my rhythm and timing improve drastically.
Focus on the sound you want, not the method by which to get it.
Sometimes I think that musicians get too caught up in the mechanics of playing, the how of playing. Wiggle your fingers this way, turn your wrist more, these are all great things to work on and to understand, but I think they get in our way at times. When I find myself with a really difficult passage I’m trying to master, it helps me to hear the sound I want in my mind. I push out all other information and just focus on the sounds I’m attempting to create. Frequently this method of picturing what I want results in the sound that I want. Our brains are so much smarter than we realize, our training will kick in and just make the magic happen. If you find yourself struggling with difficult music, try this method out. It may surprise you!
Instead of trying to play something right, just play it right.
When we say that we will try to play something well, we put up this barrier in our minds. There’s now an option for failure, and we’re accepting that failure. We’ve already decided that we may not play this excerpt correctly and have settled for less than our best.
What I prefer instead, is to tell myself that I will play this right. Like I said before, our brains are smart. Simply by making that choice mentally, and pursuing success with focus and confidence, we are much more likely to succeed in creating the music that we’re imagining.
Now of course this method is not foolproof. One cannot simply decide to play everything perfectly and expect it to happen. I have just found that this approach gives both myself and my students the confidence and focus to pull something off that we may have doubted we could do.
These three techniques of involving my brain in my playing help considerably. I think about these often when I drum, and they always improve my practice sessions, performances, and drum lessons. They are skills that can be practiced and improved upon, and I hope they help you as much as they help me.