Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Turning Coal into Diamonds, or How To Turbo-Charge Your Practice Routine

A study conducted at Duke University of Texas at Austen (see below) uncovered some interesting things about practicing. While raw quantity remains important, the quality of practice can have a dramatic impact on results. Here are the main points the researchers pulled from the study.

Start out slowly
The study reinforces what some of us already know: Slow down if you want to speed up your progress. Then work steadily towards performance tempo.

Play it with feeling
The players who made the best progress adopted a musical approach as soon as possible during the learning process. It may help to play mechanically at first, but as soon as the kinks are worked out, start playing music.

Mindfulness is the single biggest factor
The study found that the students who intensified their focus during the challenging bits did better overall. They remained aware of the parts that presented a challenge, anticipated them, and slowed down and played them more intentionally.

Prepare for and polish the boo-boos
The top students prepared for the boo-boos and they also learned from them. This suggests that, when you encounter a trouble spot, the best reaction is, "Aha, there's something I can work on". Isolate the problem, analyze what might (or did) happen, slow it down and work it through applying mindfulness and musical sensitivity. Seize the mistake as opportunities. It will be time well spent.

It’s Not How Much; It’s How/Characteristics of Practice Behavior and Retention of Performance Skills; Robert A. Duke, The University of Texas at Austin, Amy L. Simmons, The University of Texas at San Antonio, Carla Davis Cash, Texas Tech University, Lubbock. Journal of Research in Music Education Volume 56 Number 4, January 2009 310-321.

For the original report, visit

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

"Umm, it's still a bit loud"

It's a well-meaning bit of feedback, and it can be one of the most difficult to accommodate. We musicians are a noisy bunch. Some of us can't get enough of it (I once played with a fellow who said he couldn't sleep unless his ears were ringing). And we drummers are so used to making noise that we've spend virtually no time being quiet. 
Aside from practicing low-volume techniques, there are a number of things you can do to help lower the volume when the occasion requires it.

Start with the sticks. Go lighter ... as light as you can stand. If skinny sticks are too much of a turn-off, try maple. Maple is lighter and softer and produces a softer tone. Worn-out maple is quieter still. As for the bass drum, play flat foot and pick up a lambs-wool beater.

Brush up on brushes. There are also brush-like products and 'bundles' available that aim to give you lower volume while providing a variety of tonal options. Besides, playing with brushes is ultra-cool.

Big drums are louder than small drums. The difference can be minor, but a 13 or 14 inch floor tom will definitely put out less sound than a 16 inch one. Maybe a micro-kit would suit your style.

Tune for sensitivity. Gut wrenching low sounds are great, but they require you to hit hard. You want your drums to respond to a light touch. That means tune higher -- and perhaps use thinner heads.

Cymbals are the worst culprit. In general, you want smaller, thinner cymbals. Look for smaller crash cymbals, medium-thin hi-hats, and perhaps a low-volume ride such as a flat ride. Sometimes a broken cymbal fits the bill.

Here's a technical option: Mic your drums. Wha-a-a-a? Place a microphone near your drums so it will pick up the entire band. Feed that into headphones that you control. This will give you a better idea of the front-of-house mix and in real time.

Of course you could just get an electronic set and let the house set the level while you crank up your headphones.