The 30-minute RuleJust about anything can be mastered in a half-hour -- i.e. 30 minutes of solid, concentrated practice. Here’s how.
Take something you want to accomplish, and practice it non-stop for a full 5 minutes. Don't skimp. If it seems too hard or falls apart, don’t worry; just keep at it until the bitter end. Then move on to something else. The next day, put in another 5 minutes on that pattern. After just three 5-minute sessions, you’ll have a pretty good handle on it. After six sessions, you’ll probably have it. Of course more is even better, but at minimum, practice something new at least six times using this method.
Count to FiveI find that if I practice routine stickings (singles, doubles, etc.) and count in 4/4, I inevitably fall into a rhythm. Normally this is a good thing, but to develop even articulation, four-to-the-bar can work against you. So sometimes I count in 5. And not even 5/4 -- just five with no groupings (i.e. no 3 + 2 and no 2 + 3). This helps prevent me from introducing any rhythm or dynamics and to play the strokes more evenly. Interestingly, it also helps me keep in time. (And it certainly can’t hurt to spend some time counting in fives.)
One Thing at a TimeSimplify, modify and generally do whatever it takes to help you understand a figure. I was working on some advanced funk studies (though I don't seem to have a funky molecule in me) and in order to hear the rhythms, sometimes I started by playing the snare part with one hand and the bass drum pattern with the other. So no cymbal, no hi-hat and no actual bass drum -- just the basic rhythm plus the side-to-side feel of the right/left/right motion. Once I began to hear the rhythm, I then moved it to the set and added the other parts. Sometimes it’s easier to begin with a rhythm and apply the sticking later rather than approaching it the other way around.
Play the RhythmAlways try to hear the rhythm. I practice many things very slowly (40 bpm and sometimes even less) but at very slow tempos the rhythm isn't always evident. In a case like this, I'll play the figure at a more normal speed until I can hear and feel it. Then, when I slow it down, I'm better able to hear and understand the figure despite the dirge-like tempo.
Dazed and ConfusingSticking patterns are a mixed blessing. Sometimes they revolutionize your playing; other times they just complicate and confuse. For example, playing multiple strokes with each hand (e.g. RRRR LLLL etc.) has limited use and limited benefit. More complex exercises may be good for warm-ups, but they too are limited in what they can do for you. But I have discovered one exception (this one comes from Joe Morello). I call it the 'Dazed & Confused' technique.
At the close of this Led Zeppelin song in 6/8 time, the band finishes with a staccato statement in the form: 1-and 2-and 3 / 1-and 2-and 3 / 1-and 2-and 3 etc. It turns out that this is a wonderful sticking exercise that has a lot of benefits, and if you're curious about the Moeller technique, here's a good way to work on it.
Play the 5-stroke figure with one hand. Strike on the down stroke, bounce on the next three strokes, and lift on the last stroke.
So: Strike, tap, tap, tap, lift / Strike, tap, tap, tap, lift
This gives you a wrist stroke on the down beat, three controlled bounces, and a 'pick up' stroke to get ready for the next sequence. Done correctly, you'll find yourself carefully working those bounced strokes for feel and consistency. Try this exercise slowly with each hand singly, as alternating strokes, and with both hands together.
How to Listen and AnalyzeWhen you encounter a new tune that grabs your attention, find your place in it by first figuring out the tempo and finding ‘1’. Then start counting to find the time signature. Finally, count bars to determine the structure and to locate the beginning. (Melodic instrument players follow this procedure, also deciphering the key once they’ve found ‘1’).
Once More, Without FeelingSimilar to the ‘One thing at a time’ approach, this one removes all semblance of nuance from a figure. To master a new figure AND make it swing is sometimes a tall order. So, play it as mechanically as possible so you can concentrate on the sticking and co-ordination. Once it begins to feel comfortable, then go ahead and play it ‘with feeling’.
Creating Visual Clues to Simplify SetupHere’s a simple trick that makes drum setup just a bit easier.
When putting top heads on drums, I always align the drumhead logo with a useful reference point on the drum. For floor toms, I place the logo over the drum’s logo. This way I know where the ‘front’ of the drum is without having to look. The drumhead logo marks it for me, making it easy to place the floor tom(s) without having to look.
For mounted toms, I place the logo above the mounting attachment. A quick glance at the drum tells me instantly where to find the mount, making it a snap to orient.
For the snare drum I put the logo over the snare release. That way I always know where the release is, which makes for easier setup and fool-proof playing.
Lighten UpMany drummers hold their sticks too tightly. There is a long-running debate about whether to use wrists or fingers. Fingers win, hands down (sorry for the obvious pun). My favourite example is the king of heavy hitters, John Bonham. Despite his reputation for ‘bringing the thunder’, Bonham plays in a wonderfully loose and relaxed manner. Another great example is Buddy Rich, who sometimes looked as relaxed as you can get, despite the ferocity of his playing.
Sometimes you need to work with solid wrist strokes, but most top players go for as relaxed a grip as possible.