Interpreting musical compositions with the drum set is not only about playing grooves, fills and solos. You must know the music – the melody, harmony, rhythm and the overall tone color – in order to decide what to play.
Whether you’re practicing a snare drum etude, a drum set coordination exercise, a rudiment, or a big band chart, always ask yourself: “Is this grooving as hard as it could?”
Look up from the drums. Look at the singer, the soloist, or whomever you’re playing with. You need to communicate with the rest of the band, and connect with the audience. Don’t be afraid to get out of your bubble.
One of the most valuable things you can work on is your tempo. To do this, you must first analyze and identify the spots where the tempo is inconsistent. If you rush or drag, find out where you tend to rush and drag. Knowing yourself is the first step.
If you’re trying to figure out the direction of the clave (2-3 or not 2-3?) in any song, listen to the harmonic rhythm. One chord for 2 measures or more (a slow harmonic rhythm) will usually work best in 3-2 clave. “Footprints” is a good example. When there are more chords, or a faster harmonic rhythm, you’ll find mostly 2-3. May the clave be with you.
If you want to improve your soloing, make it conversational. People tend to be attracted to an interesting exchange of words (or even a fight). Think of your solo phrases like sentences, and create a dialogue.
Think in terms of density, or activity, and keep listening to the entire group. If everyone is playing too busy, try subtracting some notes and hear the effect. Sometimes playing less means a bigger sound.
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Count-offs are more important that we think; they set the groove before the downbeat. Unless you have a pickup, don’t start playing your hi hat (or anything else) before the music starts. If someone else is counting off the tune, watch their feet first; this where they get the tempo. As you determine the tempo, begin playing the groove in your mind. Nail the downbeat, and make sure the groove is settled from beat one. If you’re counting off a tune, use the same method, and give a solid, strong count-off in the correct time value.
Remember that playing interactive music with other musicians uses a unique set of skills. You could practice all day, but it might not prepare you to have a musical conversation.