How Successful Musicians Practice: Drums & Percussion

Joe Dyson on the drums.
Joe Dyson on the drums.

Along the road to becoming a successful musician, one encounters quite a few “P” words: patience, perseverance, posture, pain, etc. However, the most important of these words is undeniably and frustratingly, “practice.

I’ve personally had a love/hate relationship with practice since 2002. I can remember quite clearly my mother insisting that I practice my drums on a Friday night instead of going out to play with my friends. I remember thinking how cruel it was of her to insist I do something so mundane when I had video games to play and friends to attend to. She calmly insisted that she would stop paying for private lessons if I didn’t take practicing seriously. There were some tears, and ultimately I ended up giving in. It would take me a few years to realize that my mother was simply trying to instill in me the timeless dictum, “practice makes perfect.”

This phrase can often mislead, but may always be called upon to inspire. The quest for technical and artistic proficiency on an instrument is a life long process that always seems attainable… until you actually start practicing. So in recent years, I’ve made an addendum to this timeless phrase in order to adjust to the realities of being a working musician. In my opinion, “practice makes money and maintains proficiency.”

A musician goes through four stages of practice throughout their career:

  1. Practicing to learn an instrument and gain technical facility
  2. Practicing to learn musical repertoire, harmonic and melodic concepts, and rhythmic dexterity
  3. Practicing to be a professional, i.e. “Gig Chops”
  4. Practicing to maintain proficiency on the instrument

Number 1 is a prerequisite to playing in general. It’s really hard to take this music thing seriously without some technical ability on an instrument, with your voice, or in a DAW. However many musicians just stop there and never learn the necessary skills to ever get called for a gig, which is why, in fact, numbers 2 and 3 are probably the most important on this list. Once you learn the basics of music theory and can play some common tunes, an entire world of opportunity begins to open up. You may find yourself lost in all the permutations of the 7th mode of the melodic minor scale, or tangled deep in a web of analog synthesizer patch cables; none of which matter if you haven’t spent some time with number 3.

+ Learn more on Soundfly: Need to brush up on your theory? Check out our free series of courses Music Theory for Producers, today!

“Gig chops,” the goal of practicing to be a professional, are those simple but not so simple musical abilities that get you hired. But your musical journey does not just stop once you’re able to get gigs, which is why number 4 is deceptively the most difficult stage of practicing. Every musician needs a routine, or a method for continuing to push oneself and develop one’s skills, and this takes time! The truth is that there are “different strokes for different folks.” So we’ve asked some of our favorite internationally touring musicians to share and break down their personal practice routines, what rituals they’ve built into their rehearsals (coffee, tea, smoking, etc.), and what their personal practice philosophies (PPPs) are. We hope these interviews can serve as a reference and a source of inspiration for aspiring and career musicians.

With that, here’s the first in our series on How Successful Musicians Practice. This edition focuses solely on percussionists and drummers, enjoy!

Warren Wolf

An accomplished bandleader, Warren also performs with The SF Jazz Collective, Christian McBride, Karriem Riggins, Wynton Marsalis, and Bobby Watson.

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These days, I only physically practice maybe thirty minutes to a hour per week. Most of my practicing is done mentally. When I do practice, it’s always in my music room in my house. What I’m working on the majority of the time is timing, reading, breathing, playing steadily, and scales.

No rituals for me. As long as I have a quiet house without disturbance, practice sessions will be up and running.

My biggest challenge right now is dividing time between family and practicing. I have two young children in the house who like to play with Mommy and Daddy all day and night. So that time when they’re asleep, I can’t really practice because, well, they’re asleep. So what I decided to do a few years ago was to mentally practice all day. I imagine what I’m going to play on different songs as they run through my mind on a daily basis.

Lately, one of my greatest breakthroughs in practicing was being able to practice for 90 minutes in one day. It felt really awesome to do that again.

My PPP

Don’t practice the same stuff over and over again. Practicing time is when you want to work on new things; you might sound a mess but that’s what practice is for. Make mistakes and perfect them.

+ Read more on Flypaper: “This Psycologist Wants You to Stop Wasting Your Practice Time”

Jonathan Pinson

Jonathan performs with George Benson, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Mark De Clive Lowe.

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It varies with my schedule, but I try to get in a couple of hours in each day at my apartment; or when I’m on the road, I bring my practice pad and practice wherever I’m staying. I need to practice my rudiments everyday, it’s a must. I try to incorporate dynamics with my rudiment exercises. I also work on independence on the drum set and am constantly trying to expand my knowledge of different types of grooves in music so that I can apply that to my playing.

The only ritual I guess I have is that I work on something before I leave the house. I do have rituals before I perform though, I usually pray and meditate before a performance.

The biggest obstacle for me is always time when it comes to practice, but the way my mind works, I can’t finish the day unless I make an attempt to be productive musically. My greatest breakthrough is always noticing a change in my playing when I’m performing. I sometimes catch myself applying something I’ve been working to figure out for hours, and then suddenly it will just show in my playing freely. That’s always a great feeling.

My PPP

My philosophy is that you should strive for perfection. Although nobody is perfect, and I’m definitely not, this mindset allows you to be the best you can be and you will continue to grow because of it.

Joe Dyson

Joe Performs with Dr. Lonnie Smith, Nick Payton, Christian Scott, Donald Harrison, and Jacky Terrasson.

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On average, my practice is a done as a daily devotion of meditation and critical listening.

I don’t think I’m physically able to practice consistently, therefore, I make a point to sit at the instrument 5 days per month. When I physically touch the instrument, it is usually in a practice room for limited time. However, my mind is consistently active and chasing ideas, growth, and imagination.

Usually, when I sit at the drums, I love to go over maintenance. This basically ensures my level of ease to approach and achieve my ideas as they come. I try to organize my maintenance by first stretching. This is most important for drummers, in my opinion, because the instrument is extremely physical. After stretching, I rigorously move around the drums in the most acute and obtuse angles I can. Once this has become second nature, I move on to mental stamina exercises. I’ll take simple rhythmic figures and displace them over time or song forms.

In regards to rituals, I have no set ritual except to clear my mind. Playing music for me is a gift and a blessing. Every time I touch the instrument, it is a form of communion with the Most High Creator. The biggest challenge I face when I consistently practice at the instrument is to not be caged in by my repetitious behavior. I always want to make sure I make the best musical decisions, and not block my choices based on my ability. It is this type of behavior that leads to empty statements. My life usually consist of disciplining myself to control my thoughts and desires, which allows me to express myself better in the moment. I’d rather be in tune with all that is around me.

My most recent breakthrough that I have found within myself is the balance of independence. It shows the true power one gains over the mind, body, and spirit.

My PPP

My Personal Practice Philosophy is a combination of many things. I, for one, believe in focusing your energy in all that you do. For me, this philosophy is the foundation to “critical” listening used as a tool for practice. When I have the time to physically sit at the drums, I am reminded that practice makes permanent. I try to pay attention to my actions in order to build positive growth. Lastly, in the art world of music, I try remember that it is a process. There is no arrival. The only destination, if any, is to be “better.”

+ Read more on Flypaper: “5 Easy Ear Training Techniques You Can Work on Every Day”

Zach Para

Zach plays in City of the Sun.

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I typically try to get in at least an hour on my own when not on the road. Usually an hour a day, four or five days a week. I mostly practice at home but often I engage in more mobile practicing while on the subway, on the road, or backstage warming up before a show.

I had a much more diligent and structured practice schedule when I was in school and was working mainly on the drum set alone. I would split up my time between snare drum technique, stick control, different groove exercises, independence, and overall solo language. Now I devote most practice time to shedding new percussion instruments and technique or playing grooves on the kit. I also have been trying to find more time to play piano, work on vocal exercises, or try to sing while playing piano or drums.

Typically, I like to start my day off with some yoga, meditation, a little reading, and a good meal. If I can get all of these things in and still have an hour or so to practice — I’m a happy man. My biggest challenge is time management. I get so excited to practice but often run out of time. One way I overcome it is to wake up earlier and make time for it . But if that isn’t an option I’ll try to make up for it the next day.

My greatest breakthrough has been when I arrive at a point where I can flow and float over an idea I’ve been working on. That moment where you arrive at a sort of meditative, relaxed state, where the metronome disappears and the music makes itself. That’s what I live for in the practice room.

My PPP

I practice to ensure that I can play the music I hear in the most relaxed and controlled way so I have no physical or mental factors limiting the depth in which I can play the groove/idea. Once you reach a certain level of relaxation playing a groove, it’s almost as if everything gets lighter and you can flow with ease. To me, that feeling is priceless and I believe that’s what makes a great musician.

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