How to Practice Music Effectively

November 25, 2020

Drumeo is a very established online drum school. I seriously recommend you check them out.

I recently watched a video of theirs where they interview Matt Garska, an absolute beast of a drummer. He brought to light some really timeless and simple principles for efficient practice, from a drummer's perspective. The video is a good hour or so long, so I thought I'd summarise it for you here.

Much of the content is stuff we already teach, and on the surface – bleeding obvious – but Matt was really good at 1. explaining it super simply – and 2. going deeper with the principles. I had to share.

1. The Troubleshooting Practice Method

  • (a) Start jamming.
  • (b) Stop when you hit a mistake.
  • (c) Correct the mistake.

‘Gee… thanks, that's really insightful, as if I didn't know that already.' Seems obvious doesn't it? But how many times do we skip over mistakes and go right on jamming? We're so anxious to get the bigger picture under our belts, we miss the constituent parts. If we are not in the right mindset when engaged in practice, we are too desperate to get better and therefore miss/ignore the mistakes that teach us. Teach us!

One of the biggest concerns any serious practicing musician often has is ‘am I working on the right thing?'. It's so hard to know! You could be practicing so many things at any one time. Sometimes it's hard to know what that is the most important.

I often say that if you are really mindful when you are practicing, it will be like having a teacher beside you telling you what to work on at every moment. Can you imagine how useful that would be? The mistakes, if you listen and watch carefully enough, will teach you. However, it takes honesty – you have to be authentic with yourself about where you are at right now.

2. Slow it Down.

Matt spoke really strongly about the importance of full awareness of what is happening in practice, and how if you practice anything too fast – you are literally practicing it wrong. This is so important to get into our heads, in fact I know it's scientifically proven, although I don't have a source for you right now!

Have you ever heard that your brain absorbs everything that happens to you? It's a theory, but I think it's pretty close to the truth. As such, in practice, the more conscious you are, the better the programming you can do.

People often say that they are bored in practice. If you are practicing something that isn't right at the edge of your technical and intellectual limits, but rather is an area of your playing you are just tidying up – like fingering, rudiments or inversions – sometimes it's easy to feel that it's boring. What is boredom though?!

Boredom is when one portion of your brain is on one task but a larger portion has not been allocated to another task and so is wondering what to do. By ‘task', I mean anything – enjoying the sun on your face, washing up, running, speaking to a ‘dull' person at a party. All of these things have the potential to become all-consumingly interesting and developmental for you, but you'l never get there without awareness and inquisitive focus. In practice it is just the same. You can, and should be absorbing yourself 100% in what you are doing.

So the process for slow practice is as follows:

  1. Slow down – simples.
  2. As soon as you notice your mind ‘bored', impatient etc – realise this is because you are not focussing all your attention on the task at hand. The idea is to fill your conscious awareness with everything about that musical task; the feeling of your fingers, the air's vibration on your skin, the relationship between the notes, what the harmony is saying, groove, what any accompaniment might sound like if it was playing along… Ultimately you are the only person inside your head, and therefore making it an exciting, challenging and engaging place to be is only and entirely up to you.

*note. Don't do ‘boring' work for the sake of it. The above practice principle must be used in conjunction with an astute awareness of what is material you have mastered (completely unconscious) and what has not been mastered (you still have to think about).

3. Repetition

Seriously!? ‘Correct mistakes', ‘Slow Down', and ‘Repeat stuff'?! Is this supposed to be informative?‘ I know… But do we do it fully? Do we really, really do these things fully? I personally have spent years skimping through practice and not fully engaging with these timeless and ‘obvious' principles.

How often do you move on after having played something correct 3/4 times? What constitutes mastery for you? I had a teacher at the Guildhall who said something so important that it needs to be in big quotes…:

“Don't practice until you get it right, practice until you can't get it wrong”.

That's mastery. Mastery is not something that you'l get when you are 40/50 years into playing an instrument – it's a journey you can and should be making with your material today.

Practicing repetitiously does a number of other things:

  • It keeps you centred on groove. You can spend time working on the subtlest nuances of the same rhythm.
  • It shows your mind that you can recreate stuff. You genuinely build up subconscious confidence internally and your sense of reliability on your own knowledge and ability becomes more solid.
  • You can then play with the material slowly, and subtly. Rhythmic displacement (particularly for drummers) is something that can only happen from a centred place. I.e – you can't go getting really out there with your crazy displaced patterns and cross rhythms if you don't have a solid base of groove.  This applies to all musicians and all music. 

4. Plan Your Practice

Whilst troubleshooting practice is a really viable way of doing stuff – particularly when tackling your current practice material – longer sessions, i.e. over 2 hours will take some planning, as well as some breaks!

As Matt put it; “You wouldn't go to the grocery store hungry and without a list”, you'd be all over the shop – literally.

The danger with this process though is expectation. I can't imagine how many times I have written an amazing revision/practice/exercise plan and found the expectation of completing it perfectly really damaging to the practice process. You have to be flexible and realistic in these plans.

I can't say much about how you structure your planning as it is such a personal thing that will develop for you. As you make plans, you'l realise new things about it that are personal to you, and make adjustments that fit your own journey.