Design an Effective Practice Plan

In 10+ years of teaching 30-50 weekly students I have taught 15,000+ individual private lessons. This has been an opportunity to test what works best for each student’s learning style, ability level, goals and personal taste.

Ideally an aspiring drummer will work with a teacher to design a practice plan. Nevertheless, most people learning on the internet are doing so for a reason. Either they don’t have access to a teacher, the funds to pay for lessons or they simply prefer to go it alone. If this is you, it will help to think of yourself as your own teacher.

This is my thought process when meeting with a student.

The Short Version

Three general categories and a fourth rotating category—
  1. Independence
  2. Hands
  3. Repertoire
  4. Rotating
Example 1. Beginning jazz drummer—
  1. Independence: Comping
  2. Hands: Soloing
  3. Repertoire: Music
  4. Rotating: Technique -> What demands does the music introduce?
Example 2. Beginning rock drummer—
  1. Independence: Beats
  2. Hands: Fills
  3. Repertoire: Music
  4. Rotating: Technique -> What demands does the music introduce?
Each category can include—
  1. Independence: This is the study of four way coordination between limbs. It can include basic rock beats, jazz comping phrases, A Funky Primer for the Rock Drummer by Charles Dowd, Time Functioning Patterns by Gary Chaffee, comping exercises from The Art of Bop Drumming by John Riley, Alan Dawson’s eleven ways of interpreting Syncopation by Ted Reed.
  2. Hands: This is the study of stick control. It can include hand technique, rudiments, Stick Control by George Stone, Syncopation by Ted Reed, fills, snare drum solos, jazz solo phrases, solo exercises from The Art of Bop Drumming, Alan Dawson’s triplet roll exercises and Rudimental Ritual.
  3. Repertoire: This is the study of musical performance. It can include popular songs, music for school band, solo transcriptions, compositions, jazz standards.
  4. Rotating: The many aspects of musicianship that contribute to performance. They will include transcription, sight reading, accent studies, dynamics, polyrhythms, time keeping drills, linear patterns, roots rhythms, phrase development, subdivision studies, form keeping exercises, creativity, idea development, target point improvisation, foot technique drills, tuning, specific demands of performance repertoire.

The fourth category will feed and improve the first three. Each of the first three will benefit the other two. All categories overlap and relate to create one organism.

The third category, repertoire, will guide the other three categories. When in doubt, let the music determine the practice plan.

Daily Practice Time

The time spent practicing will depend on the student’s schedule and goals. Divide time evenly among the four categories above. Students practicing 3+ hours per day will have more than three static general categories and will most likely be working with a teacher. The goals, practice plan and time commitment must all work together.

15 Minutes/Day: Minimum to gain rewards.
30 Minutes/Day: Great target for an otherwise busy student.
1-2 Hours/Day: Good base level for a serious student.
3 Hours/Day: Serious student, considering music school/career.
6-12 Hours/Day: Typical professional work day.

That’s the end of the short version. If you’d like to step into the back of my mind while I teach, read on.

The Long Version

  1. What is the goal? Get the big picture here. Is this a hobby, a career or just exploration? What genres of music? At what level?
  2. Given the goal, what are the skills needed to achieve it? A career freelance drummer will need a different skill set from a hobbyist who enjoys playing popular music and recording drum covers. This is critical. If the skills needed do not match the goals and the practice plan does not develop those skills, the destination will be a surprise and the journey will be unfulfilling.
  3. How much time will the student dedicate to practice? How does that work out with the time frame to achieve goals?
  4. What is the student’s relationship with self discipline? Are they willing to spend hours practicing things they can’t do, or do they enjoy learning through playing songs with a small amount of disciplined technical practice? Does the level of dedication match the goals? Is the student mature enough to have learned that taking care of business yields more pleasurable results than simply avoiding hard work at all costs? Can I help them discover this in a kind and supportive way? Piling on technical practice can kill a student’s inspiration. On the other hand, pampering can ruin the challenge. What’s it worth? For a hard working teacher, it can be difficult to understand if a student just wants to have fun. Greater results will be achieved by working with the desire to enjoy the instrument than against it. Use kindling to build a fire. Find the right balance. Be clear and honest.
  5. What are the student’s current strengths and weaknesses? Having identified goals and the skills required to meet them, what are the areas for improvement? How are those areas reflected in self discipline and time management?  Practicing strengths and avoiding weak areas can lead to a lack of versatility that makes it difficult to play with other musicians. Students who experience learning as knowing rather than doing can overwhelm themselves with information not relevant to their current playing level. This can create a disconnect where the student’s knowledge extends in many directions far beyond their playing ability leaving them feeling lost wondering what they need to know next in order to improve. Identifying strengths and weaknesses in the context of realistic playing situations will help the student improve their musicianship and experience the rewards of doing so.
  6. Identify the most effective learning style. Some students are great at reading, some benefit from listening and repeating and some benefit from visual, physical demonstration. Identify and apply the most effective combination of approaches. Musicianship ultimately requires all of these learning styles. Use strong areas to support weak areas. For example—train the eye through auditory cues. Train the ear through visual cues. Students that demonstrate strong auditory learning capablilities will benefit from learning to read music they already know by ear.
  7. What are the time killers? Does the student put their cell phone on the music stand while practicing? Do they spend time between lessons online shopping for skills rather than practicing? Social media and web browsing can be an inspiration but they can also waste time with no results. In a lesson context, I insist young students stow their cell phones.
  8. Look at past routine, habits and approach to learning. What worked and what did not work? Identify, utilize and eliminate. If a past routine failed, why? Was it a discipline issue, a learning style issue or a failure to select the appropriate teaching tool to help the student? On the other hand, if the student is inspired to practice, understand why. Maintain and transfer the motivators to new tasks.
  9. How does accountability play into the plan? Is the student motivated by a weekly lesson schedule? Will keeping a goal and practice journal help? Music and art can be a highly personal experience. Identify healthy and unhealthy pressures. Utilize and eliminate.
  10. Readjust weekly. Start the process over. Run it down from the top. Have goals evolved? Has inspiration grown or is the student losing steam? Look at these things and ask questions. How, why?

Mechanics

These are the things I’m looking for when I watch a student play. Often there are a handful of areas for improvement. Identify them. Prioritize, order and address them one at a time. Start by bringing them to light. Resolve them by utilizing available teaching tools, repertoire and exercises. Try to make the technical process as musically engaging as possible. The approach will depend on the understanding gained by going through the process above. While three hours of mundane drills may be the most effective, hard facts are not always the most direct path to achieving goals. Music is only black and white on paper. Consider the student.

If you are designing your own practice plan, you will benefit from recording or filming yourself, sitting down with a notebook and going over this list while you listen back.

  1. Timing: micro, macro, feel
  2. Dynamics: micro, macro, feel
  3. Physical tension or relaxation
  4. Mental tension or relaxation
  5. Hand technique
  6. Foot technique
  7. Posture
  8. Focus: directed, abstracted, distracted
  9. Musicality: counting or singing, connection to the music
  10. Form: awareness, consistency
  11. If reading: counting, looking ahead
  12. If performing: communication and lock with other musicians
Example

The student is performing a song from popular music. There is a passing drum fill that includes a roll on the snare drum. When the student plays the roll, the left hand wobbles and is uneven.

Mechanics

The right hand is stronger and more coordinated. The left hand is limiting speed and fluidity.

Desired Outcome

The roll will sound even.

Practical Solution
  1. Address right vs left hand technique.
  2. Develop a practice plan utilizing exercises suited to the student.
  3. Reincorporate into musical performance.

Know Your Toolbox

The Role of Books

A well designed practice plan will include a combination of method books and drills from mechanics specific books. For example, a beginning jazz student may study from an overall method such as John Riley’s The Art of Bop Drumming. However, this book does not include technique drills or teach how to read. Include in the practice plan a rotating set of technique drills from p5-7 of Stick Control by George Stone and one basic reading lesson per week from Syncopation by Ted Reed. Aside from those three categories, a fourth rotating category may be introduced where each week the student learns a new subset of skills such as polyrhythms, transcription, timing drills, dynamic control exercises, etc.

The Role of Music
  1. Listening at every opportunity. Live and recorded.
  2. Playing along as a stepping stone performance goal and skill check. Three ways: Imitate the drummer, replace the drummer, as a backdrop/metronome for drills.
  3. Transcription as a deep study in language, style and musicianship.
The Role of a Band
  1. Other musicians create an interactive, social element that can be a great practice motivator.
  2. May provide performance opportunities.
  3. Tests the student’s skill set in real time. Too much time working on the car in the garage and not enough time driving can lead to an unrealistic perception of abilities. Playing with other musicians reveals mechanics in a way isolated practice does not.
The Role of Performance
  1. This may be the ultimate goal guiding all practice.
  2. There are a variety of types of performance: Live, studio recording, video, intimate family setting, public stage setting.
  3. Some musicians are motivated by performance, while others see the art as a personal experience. This may be a complex and evolving relationship. Understand the role of performance in the student’s musical life. Utilize it as a motivator, eliminate it as a negative pressure.
The Role of an Idea Journal
  1. Cataloging new ideas
  2. Identifying and keeping track of areas for development
  3. Developing new innovations and establishing a personal style

The Big Picture

New students want a simple answer to “What do I need to know?” That depends as much on the student as it does on the available information. You may have noticed, browsing the internet, there is more information than one human being can learn in one lifetime. You must choose and design a path suited to your goals. Whether you use a teacher as a guide to aid in this design, or create a plan yourself will be up to you. The key is to understand there is no “one size fits all” practice plan or method.

Consider an RPG. (Role Playing Game—type of pen and paper game that spurred the growth of a massively popular video game genre.) In these games, you have a maximum number of levels you can achieve. At each level you are awarded talent points you can spend on abilities. You can specialize in one ability or spread your talent points out between a few abilities to create a hybrid. Most successful players will have a few points in each ability but specialize in one or two areas. Particularly creative players will invent a niche for themselves but allocating their talent points to a unique blend of abilities. You have a limited number of ability points and a limited number of levels you can achieve in one lifetime. How will you spend them?

Questions, comments or feedback? Join the discussion here.

Interactive, Goal Oriented