Thursday, February 28, 2013

Faster, faster

There haven’t been many times when I wished I could play faster. On those few occasions when speed was necessary, it was usually a tempo issue: playing straight jazz swing with brushes at 360 bpi, for example. But lately, hand (and foot) speed seems to have taken centre stage in the drum world. I’m afraid I'm a bit jaded and tend to think that raw speed is impressive only to other drummers -- usually the most you’ll get from other musicians for that blazing flourish is polite amusement -- but I have nothing against improving overall ability in terms of a useful amount of speed. So here’s a simple method that should give you fairly quick results for developing good hand speed.

Set your metronome at a modest speed, say 120 bpi. Set a timer for 5 minutes. Then play 1/8th notes with one hand exclusively for a full 5 minutes. Then repeat with the other hand for five minutes. The bottom line is that you can’t play alternating strokes any faster than you can move your slower hand. This exercise focuses your full effort and attention on one hand at a time. Concentrating on one hand at a manageable tempo lets you see more clearly how that hand is working, how the stick feels, how the bounce feels, how your fingers and wrist react, and more. This helps you define your technique and develop better control.

Wrap it up with 5 minutes of alternating 16th notes at the same tempo. (Add another 5 minutes leading with your other hand if you wish.) Do this every day for a full week.

Now the fun part. Begin week 2 by moving your metronome up one notch, and repeat the process for another week. Each week thereafter, move the metronome up one slot, remembering to stay relaxed as you practice. At some point, one of your hands (or perhaps both) will say “Too fast!” Not to worry: that’s exactly what we’re looking for. You’ve finally found a speed that doesn’t come so easily.

The solution? Keep at it.

Do the exercise for as long as it takes to feel reasonably competent with all three parts. It may take a week, it may take two weeks, it may take more. Give your hands -- and your brain -- the time they need to nearly master that tempo. Notice that I said ‘nearly’. If you find that at the end of the week you can get to 4 minutes with all three exercises without too much distress, then it’s time to bump it up again. This way you’re challenging yourself to always push your personal speed limit.

Should you reach the top rung of your metronome and hunger for still more speed, go back to 120 bpm and replace the eighth notes with triplets and the sixteenths with sixteenth-note with triplets and repeat the entire process.

(Note: You can also do the routine with your feet or with brushes or with any manner of stickings.)


I don’t believe that forcing your hands to go too fast for too long is a good idea. ‘No pain no gain’ is not a good or even a safe philosophy. It’s too easy to ignore serious pain and end up with physical problems that can put you on the sidelines. However, if you find that 5 minutes isn’t challenging enough, it’s OK to increase the time, provided you don’t push your hands beyond ‘moderate discomfort’. Billy Cobham had a clever practice technique when he was younger. He would go to the bar where he was playing and he’d bet some of the afternoon crowd that he could keep up a roll for a half hour! The payoff, I believe, was a well-deserved glass of beer. There’s no reason you can’t practice more. Just be sure to add the extra time gradually -- 5 minutes the first week, 10 minutes the second week, etc. -- until you reach your goal.

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