A few years ago I made a resolution to learn the piano. The plan was to start a daily routine of practice and self improvement until after X number of years I would become a competent/excellent/world changing pianist.
As is the norm with the early stages of any such pursuit my schedule of practice and self improvement began well. The novelty of gaining the basic coordination skills required to play a simple tune drove me on to spend numerous hours in front of the keyboard. As I loaded my microKORG onto the luggage belt at the airport for the family holiday it was fairly clear…the obsession was in full flight.
Six months later and the keyboard was back under the bed gathering dust. Sound familiar? After numerous such instances I started reflecting on how to go about applying myself properly when a new interest came, and inevitably, went. The best place to look would seemingly be the one thing I have stuck at over the years. The drum kit.
So at 13, watching enviously as my brother unpacked his new Premier kit, why did I pick up a pair of sticks and (vitally) not put them down? What was the difference in my approach when it came to the drums when so many other interests had fallen by the wayside?
A Question of Scale
On reflection, one of the solutions here seems to be about the scale of the approach. Giving proper attention to the micro rather than the big picture or the macro. The big picture, whilst also being the very thing that inspires at the beginning, can stifle progress and eventually become fatal to the whole pursuit. The sheer size of the journey ahead seems insurmountable. Addressing the task in small (or even microscopic) chunks, whilst less instantly gratifying, can lead to real progress. So far, so glaringly obvious. Right? No pain, no gain and all that. Well actually the point here is about how specific and exacting you’re willing to be. It’s the difference between spending an hour a day working on your ‘jazz’ playing, or an hour a day on left foot independence with a right hand ostinato. Applying the requisite levels of patience, commitment and diligence that this method requires can set you on the path to tangible improvement.
So what does this mean for your day-to-day practice plan? Identifying where your weaknesses lay is the first port of call. These may be broad issues such as ‘I don’t have a good feel’ or a more specific concern: ‘I dont have enough control over my ghost notes’. However large or small the problem, it should be addressed in a precise way. An hour working on ‘feel’ might be fun but is essentially just an estimation of the problem. Try and find an exercise that addresses the issue head-on and practically. If your ‘feel’ isn’t right, record yourself playing along to a classic drum groove then listen back. If you hear any flams or inconsistencies from the original recording, adjust your playing accordingly. If ghost notes are the problem write out permutations of paradiddles, split the hands between snare and hats and keep the accents on 2 + 4.
Time to spare
Dedicating the necessary amount of time and effort to each problem is also a key requirement. I’ve been working on an
Alan Dawson single-stoke roll exercise for over 2 years! The aim not being completion of the exercise but instead maximising the benefits you garner along the way.
Applied in the correct way over a long enough period, this ethos can bring real improvement. Maybe next time I sit down at the piano i’ll try and remember to find enjoyment in the small challenges. Then the big picture will take care of itself.