Most drummers learn how to play because they have an interest in music already. When I ask a new student “What made you decide to take drum lessons for the first time?”, they usually respond with something like: “I dunno. When I listen to music, my attention goes straight to the beat.” It is pretty rare that someone begins drum lessons without any prior interest in music. Most beginners don’t know how to practice with music that they listen to.
We often spend all our practice time on the drums, without putting on our headphones and making music a part of it. Yes, there is a bit of a gap between learning some new drumming skill and playing music. The only way to bridge that gap however, is to do practice with music on a regular basis. That’s why we have a Song Library. These are lessons you can go to, to learn a song and all of its parts.
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Why Practicing With Music Is Important
Playing music with people is all about synchronizing what you play with what they play. This means that your listening and awareness must be divided between yourself and others at all times. Too often we are solely focused on what we are playing and often not listening enough. There are ways to practice dividing your attention between your part and other musical parts. The other aspect to consider is our attention to the music itself. We have to listen to the song and always know where we are in the structure of the music we play. This means that playing music requires some multi-tasking and dividing our attention.
Some of us get so used to practicing alone and plugging away at beats, fills and other skills. While it’s good to be focused, we don’t usually listen to anything but ourselves. Until we are shown how, there usually isn’t much in our practice dedicated to musical listening. There are however, a lot of things that you can do in your practicing to help you strengthen your listening skills. I’ll also tell you a few ways that you can train yourself to split your attention between your drumming and something else. Working these concepts into your practice routine will make you a better listener in a musical situation with other people.
Grow Your Repertoire
Learn tunes on a regular basis. That is key, especially if you want to play paid gigs. When you actively learn a song, you must learn the beats, fills and other parts. You must also learn the structure of the song. The only way to make it through a song and play it correctly is if you always know what part comes next. Some of us already do this and if that’s you, then great! But most of my students, especially beginners, tend to spend too much time buried in the notes. They usually only attempt learning a song if I guide them through it, but never on their own. There are a ton of simple songs that you can learn with only a few basic skills under your belt. If you are a beginner, check out any of the Level 1 song lessons in our Song Library.
Learning a song is not about getting all the right answers all at once. When you listen to a song, you must use your listening to isolate the drums and analyze the parts. When you can hear the rhythm on the Bass Drum for example, then you can use your counting to figure out the rhythm. The more you do this, the better you get at listening to and analyzing what you hear. That is important yes, but now I’m talking about breaking a song down into parts: Verse, Chorus, Bridge, Solos, Intro/Outro etc. You must identify the parts of the song not just the drumming. You must know the order of these parts as well as the drumming in order to play a song entirely from start to finish. The same goes for real live playing with people.
The trick is to make learning a song an ongoing project in your practice and not to expect to complete it in one day. If you are an experienced drummer, it may only take you a day or two to learn a song. Intermediate drummers usually take a week or two and beginners sometimes take up to a month to learn a song. This of course can vary depending on the skills required. Start a playlist of the songs you have learned so that you can practice with music anytime. It is very motivating to see that list grow over time and even more when you get to play it with other people who know the song.
Let Music Be Your Metronome
You likely practice with a metronome to improve your timing and steadiness, but it makes you hyper listen to yourself and the click with no musical reference at all. Try making a list of simple songs that have a repeating beat throughout most of the song. There are lots and they are not hard to find. I’ll leave a short list of some classic songs below so you can practice with music today.
Take any exercise you have been practicing. It could be a fill rhythm, crash exercise or maybe a Hi-Hat rhythm. Practice playing whatever you’re working on along to a song you’ve chosen that has a similar rhythm. Don’t worry if what you are practicing isn’t part of the original beat. It doesn’t matter. When you do this, let your listening drift away from yourself and more towards the other instruments in the song. Listen to the bass line throughout the entire song while you practice whatever it is you have decided to play. Then play the song again and listen to the guitar the whole way through. Finally play the song again and focus on the vocals if there are any. Can you listen to them closely enough to understand the lyrics without messing up your playing? That’s a fun exercise and is guaranteed to strengthen your musical listening.
Keep in mind that this approach to playing songs isn’t about copying the drums that might be on the recording. This is about being inventive and applying your own ideas over the song. For example, you might practice fills along to songs that have no fills in them at all. That’s perfectly ok. The more you practice with music, the stronger your listening skills become.
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