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What To Practice? That Is The Question.

Back when I was doing lots of private lessons, I remember telling my students that deciding exactly what to practice got more and more difficult the longer you played music. Most non-musicians would assume that I meant that it was difficult to find things to practice because you’ve already mastered everything.   But the truth is that the more you study, the more you realize how many things you don’t know as well as you should, and how many things you have to work on.  There are only so many hours in a day. So I realized long ago that it was important to set objectives and priorities when it came to my musical development. Otherwise I wouldn’t make any measurable progress in the direction I wanted to go.

Recently I started practicing the piano quite a bit. This isn’t because I have any delusions about being a jazz pianist. But I have discovered, as have many jazz musicians through the years, that this is the best instrument for learning new tunes and musical concepts, as well as the best instrument to compose on. This is because you can play chords and melody at the same time, and therefore hear what a song actually sounds like. It also makes it easy to switch quickly to pencil and manuscript paper as you think of things you want to write down. So it’s a great tool, and I’ve been spending time learning new chords and songs, daily after I finish practicing the drum-set.

On the drums I’m working on a variety of things, some technical and some more musical. I’ve  decided to develop my traditional grip some more. I’ve always played both matched grip and traditional grip.  Lately I’ve decided that I really want to focus on straight-ahead jazz drumming.  I just think that traditional grip is a better tool for this style of music. I’m therefore working on exercises to develop more speed and facility when  playing around the kit with this grip. I’m also working on smoother and stronger buzz rolls, as well as moeller stick techniques.

I’m working on my bass drum technique as well. I’ve always felt that I had good foot technique. I can play very clean fast double strokes with no effort. However, after watching one of Joe Morello’s instructional videos, I realized that my single strokes were not as fast or strong as I’d like them to be. So I’m working on that as well.

Lately I’ve also felt that my drum-set practicing was kind of one-sided. I’ve heard several percussion teachers talk about this over the years, including Gary Burton, John Riley and Alan Dawson. They said it was a mistake as a jazz musician to spend all your practice time playing repetitive technical exercises. As an improviser,  a jazz musician has to create music on the spur of the moment. Ideally, every time you solo you want to play new ideas. What you put into your head is what tends to come out when you improvise. These teachers warned that if you put nothing in but technical exercises, nothing musical will come out when it’s time to take a solo. You then tend to just rely on the same comfortable licks you’ve always played. The audience might not know the difference, but you know. You’re band mates that you play with all the time also probably know.

So lately I’ve been making a point to divide my drum-set practicing into technical and musical exercises. I’m listening and playing along with some of the jazz standards that I should know, but don’t. I’m studying some of my favorite jazz drummers again, and learning some of their solos in an effort to expand my vocabulary. I’m not deliberately trying to play like these drummers, but I’m learning different ways of approaching tunes and developing new solo ideas by studying other players. Hopefully these ideas will come out when it’s time for me to solo.

After this many years of playing I suppose most people would think I’d be bored with music. But for me, learning new tunes and musical concepts makes it constantly interesting and exciting.

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