One of the most frequent questions I get from beginning drummers is “How many hours a day did you practice?” There’s too much heat and too little light thrown on this topic, so I thought I’d try to stand back and offer a more considered view.
The dictionary has a ‘technique’ as a way of doing an activity that needs skill. Technique addresses the ‘how’ to do something. When drummers talk about technique they typically refer to sticks and feet going faster, louder and higher than the next guy; a somewhat reduced view of the concept. In this view, virtuoso proponents start with Webb, Krupa and Rich and on up to Grebb, Minneman and Lang.
Such musicians tend to work alone or as band leader, the better to construct an environment that displays their wares to the best advantage. The music of the Royal Marines or the High School Drum Corps, or the YouTube drum soloist, is contrived to display said technique. Most drum lessons helping you to acquire a better technique are generally referring to this type of technique.
The trouble here is the man who balances eggs. He who can juggle two eggs only has a gig until the guy who can juggle three eggs comes along. These overt skills may have been essential to a drummer-led ensemble in the 1930s swing era, but tend to be less in demand now. Anecdotally, most drummers will never perform a drum solo in public, but the type of technique required to stun an audience into submission remains the overt goal of much drum practice and tuition. That knowledge, it seems, is what the end-user wants, but as the nice man on YouTube said: “It’s not about speed, kids, otherwise my washing machine would be raking in music awards”.
There are arguably two further types of technical ability that might better be referred to a suite of skills; one ‘on-instrument’, one ‘off-instrument’.
[A] On-instrument skills: Knowing what to play when and how to play it comes from the experience that informs the appropriateness of any course of action. It requires the encyclopaedic knowledge of a Steve Gadd, derived usually from having been there before and done it. The Holy Grail here is the marriage of knowledge and technical capacity that is needed to make the music work.
In and of itself, technique doesn’t provide the knowledge. It provides the ‘how to’ bit. The knowing ‘what and when’ comes from experience. Technical ability is rightly employed in the service of an idea. Without an idea, technique remains a series of études. So: idea first, technique second.
Can you have too much technique? If you spend a lot of time wondering what to do with it all, you probably have too much (or you’re not listening). If you’re hearing things in the music or your head that you would like to execute but can’t, you probably have too little. I adopted a very pragmatic approach: if I wanted to play something but was unable to, I practised it until I could.
[B] Off-instrument skills: by which I mean the skills that come into play when hands and body are still and the instrument is at rest. When you’re playing with others, music-making doesn’t stop just because your instrument is silent. It may be so for a few seconds in a passage of music on stage or for several hours on the tour bus or green-room. These skills gather around musicianship, something that all musicians have, or lack, to some degree or other. Chief among these is listening to others on and off-stage, perhaps empathising with others, being continually aware of how the music moment may be made better.
Another skill is transferability: the ability to transfer your skill set across genres, styles, and music environments. Is drummer A ‘better’ than drummer B at doing this? The answer depends on the context and the criteria for judgment. Bill Bruford was probably better than Buddy Rich would have been in Earthworks or King Crimson; Buddy Rich was unquestionably better than Bill Bruford in the Buddy Rich Orchestra. However, it might be argued that I’d do at least as well in the Buddy Rich Orchestra (for which we have evidence) as Rich would do in King Crimson, for which we have no evidence at all but it doesn’t bear thinking about! Whether any player wants or needs to have that level of transferability of skills is a matter governed by what he or she wants to achieve as a performer.
Neurologists argue that music makes use of general brain mechanisms that encode the past, predict the future, and make adjustments to the recent past if the predictions are faulty. Evaluation of the success of the prediction provides a learning signal by which neural networks can change in order to more accurately and usefully encode the sensory input. This is a dead accurate description of my experience of practice at the instrument. There is a moment when ‘it can be played’, before which ‘it could not be played’, the moment between the two perhaps reflecting a change in neural encoding, a spark in which a connection is made and the impossible becomes possible. A bit like the moment you learn to ride a bike.
Anyway, back to the original question. From about age 15 to 25 I probably managed a couple of hours a day and put in my 10,000 hours*. Then it all got too busy and I grabbed time when I could, but I always prioritised the musical idea and its execution above the gratuitous development of the proverbial ever-faster paradiddle. Good luck with it all.
*The lengthy period of knowledge and skill acquisition without which some maintain that it is difficult or impossible to make a contribution to any field of endeavour is variously expressed as the ten year rule or the 10,000 hour rule.