“What Should I Practice?”

“What Should I Practice?”

By Mark Walker

My drum set students often ask me what they should practice. Because we’re all unique, with different levels of skill and experience, there’s no easy answer. Sometimes we don’t realize what we need to practice, or that we need it at all. Eventually, reality will hit us, say, when we lose control of the time, the volume, or the tempo – or perhaps when we’re just feeling like we need an upgrade.

So, what should you practice, anyway? Let’s look at the overall goal here. No matter where you are on your musical journey, just remember that making music is the end result. In order to make music, you have to develop a solid foundation on your instrument. If you work on fundamental skills, your drumming and your musicianship will be stronger. In order to help you make real progress, I’ve outlined some general concepts:

Listen and remember your role the music. What does the music need from you? Most of the music you’ll play needs a solid groove, as well as sensitivity and dynamics. Whether it’s static or more improvised, the grooves, fills and solos need to move people. Be sure to do some listening before your practice session, in order to stay inspired. Remember not to play “on top” of the music, but listen to the overall sound – and blend your sound with the music.

Think long term. What do you want to be able to do? Set goals, action steps needed to reach them and due dates of completion. For example, if you want to play a tune in a certain style by next week, you must practice it every day from now until next week. If you have an assignment, don’t put it off. Our subconscious needs time to process new material.

Make sure to work on the basics. Fundamentals are your foundation. Work on the rudiments, or at least singes, doubles, flams and ruffs every day. You will probably find that working on the rudiments will make you more relaxed and helped your time feels. Ask yourself the following questions: Am I breathing? Am I sitting up straight? Am I using my body in the most effective way possible? Am I balancing my drum and cymbal sounds properly? Is what I’m practicing grooving as hard as the music I love?

Get coaching. Find out what your weaknesses are. A good teacher will get you to where you want to go, but will also give you what you need. They will spot your habits and show you how to correct them. If you know yourself, then you know what you need to work on. A good teacher will get you there. I recommend the interactive lesson site www.markwalkerlessons.com.

Pace yourself. Do you tend to rush through things? Then it’s time to develop some patience. You have to remind yourself that the journey is more important than the destination. Transform whatever you’re working on into a mini-vacation, with a seat on the beach and a nice cold drink (umbrella optional). As the legend Bernard “Pretty” Purdie once said, “practice slower and you’ll learn faster.”

Practice something you can’t do. If you just sit down and play, that’s not necessarily practicing. You’re not advancing as a player if you’re doing something you can already do. The legendary Tony Williams used to instruct students to “practice something you can’t do for a hour a day.” That could be applied to just about anything.

Kick your own ass (but don’t overdo it). You have to push yourself to achieve, because no one else will. Be disciplined enough to practice every day, even if it’s for 15 minutes.
Some days you’ll be able to play faster, stronger, and more inspired than others. Don’t try to push yourself too much on the “off” days, or you may wind up straining something. Injuries could derail your drumming for a long time.

Keep your head in the right place. I went through many years as a lazy drummer, paying little attention to the fundamentals, but most of the time, my ear and ability was good enough to get me through the gig – most of the time. I learned many painful lessons in rehearsals, onstage and in the studio with some of my musical heroes. Some of those lessons crushed my ego. Occasionally, I just thought I would never be good enough, and felt like quitting. But I kept at it. Now, I’m grateful for all those tough lessons, because they made me stronger, and taught me about myself.

Don’t forget – we’re here to move people!

Please feel free to share your thoughts and experiences. I’m learning from you, too!


Mark Walker is the instructor at the online drum lesson membership site www.markwalkerlessons.com, the author of the instructional book/CD “World Jazz Drumming,” a professor at Berklee College of Music and Grammy Award winning drummer, percussionist and composer. He can be reached at mwalker@berklee.edu.

If you’re currently a member at www.markwalkerlessons.com, be sure to take advantage of the interactive part of the site. You can upload a video to YouTube and get personalized feedback on your performance. You’ll get clear instruction on you what you need to work on, and steps you can take to deal with any issue.