Monday, January 21, 2019

The leap to playing

I feel like this
A big problem for many students is how to get from practicing exercises in a book to real playing.
It's actually an issue for everyone, but in this post we're just concerned with intermediate players who can do a few things, but can't quite make the connection between practicing things from a book, and actual playing— maybe they're not sure what actual playing is yet.

Here are some things to think about as you figure it out, and help others figure it out:

Play with people
This is the most important thing— read this paragraph and then throw away your computer. Break your monitor. Everything happens through playing with people; being in an uncontrolled environment where you don't know what you're doing, but you have to do something. You figure it out what to do because you have to, and you can't stop.

Listen to music
To play a thing musically, you first have to hear it. To do that, you need to put musical ideas in your ears, which comes from listening to a lot of music. Everything good you will play comes from your educated ear.

OK, now you can break your computer, or keep reading...

Have a context
Participating in some kind of scene will help you know what you want to do, and get you thinking about how you will fit in with the people you will play with. If you're in school, you should take band classes, have musician friends, and start a band. If you're studying on your own, you should go hear other people play, and see how music is done in your town, so you can be getting ideas about gigs you would like to have, bands you would like to join.

Practice like you play
How to do this productively is much of what we deal with on this site. It means framing all of your practicing in realistic musical terms. You try to play everything like it's a part of a song, tune, piece, performance.

when I want to be doing this
Practice realistic vocabulary
A lot of current practice materials and philosophies, especially on the internet, are based on learning technique in the abstract— imagine playing the first thirteen exercises from Stick Control at an even volume on a rubber pad, infinitely. Or “8 to a hand.”

Whatever the benefits of that way of practicing, you can get the same thing by practicing actual musical content... with the added benefit that you're learning actual musical content.

Realistic volume and touch
Practice as loud as you're going to play, on a real acoustic instrument. See how other drummers around you are playing— that will give you a direct impression of how dynamics work, and you will begin adding them to your playing instinctively. And you will learn how loud other musicians will expect you to play. 

No stopping
In music, the time never stops for somebody to go back and fix something they think they did wrong. That doesn't happen. There's never a gig where a group plays one pattern for a few measures, takes a breather for a minute, then does another thing for a few measures, takes another breather, and so on. As much as possible, don't stop for mistakes, and don't stop between exercises. If you do need to stop, try to make it an actual rest by counting through it; or you can keep the time going with one limb while you figure out the next thing.

No speeding up
However slow the nursery school tempo at which you are practicing an idea, treat it like it's a real performance tempo, and maintain it. Pretend you're in the Melvins and hold it steady like a professional.

Make a phrase
Play in four or eight measure phrases. Or two measure phrases. If you're playing one- or two-beat patterns, play them in 4/4.

All you have to do to make a phrase is count a phrase— be aware of the passage of 2/4/8 measures. There are also familiar formats, like playing 3/7 measures of a groove, then playing some kind of fill (or putting in a stop) in the 4th/8th measure. You can also trade 2s/4s/8s— play 2/4/8 measures of a time feel, alternating with 2/4/8 measures of soloing. Another easy format is to play alternating measures of a groove, and an improvised variation on it. If you practice out of Syncopation, you will automatically play 4-measure or longer phrases, because that is the way the book is written.

Playalong tracks are useful, within certain limitations— they are not a substitute for playing with people. I like my own sampled practice loops for working on technical exercises on the drumset; it creates a context so you can hear the exercises as music, rather than as a lot of Rs and Ls. A really good loop can help you play a thing much longer than you otherwise would have.

So: this is a larger process than just “how can I do my hot lick when I'm playing”, but most of these things can be done simultaneously with each other, and you'll want/need to do them for other reasons anyway. It's a ongoing process you will deal with, in different ways, for your entire career.

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