Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Mastery Part 2: Mindful Practice

Today I'll delve further into my concept of 'Mastery' by explaining a concept I call "Mindful Practice". This is a concept I first considered after reading a brilliant book by Kenny Werner called "Effortless Mastery" (check out his concepts here). I'll break down the concept into 2 basic areas:

1. How to Practice in the moment.

2. How to determine when mastery is achieved through practice.

First I would like to talk a moment about practicing. I always tell students that the best method is to develop a regimen and stick to it. To do this, 3 things that must be considered: planning, goal setting, and time management.

First you have to ask yourself, what do I want to learn/improve during my practice sessions? This can depend largely on your level of development. For beginners this is usually determined by a teacher. As one improves and masters the fundamentals, different paths can be taken. Perhaps a person has an interest to learn more about a specific style, so her practice regimen would accommodate that. Working professionals who have been playing for significant amounts of time also have a specific regimen style.

Whatever the specific material may be, it must relate to the person's development level AND interests. This is key. I remember when I was 10 years old I had a school band teacher who railed my technique and insisted that I only work on that and nothing else. I spent 6 months playing rudiments to a metronome. Sure my technique improved, but I also began to hate my teacher AND my instrument. When school finished my drums gathered dust for the entire summer.

This was ultimately counterproductive as my technique got sloppy due to no practice and when I got back to school the following year I sucked! Luckily I had a new band teacher though, and he kept things much more interesting by catering to my interests.

The moral of the story is that whether you're just starting out on the instrument or a touring pro, your practice sessions need to strike a balance between skill sharpening and new, interesting material.

One you determine the proper material to practice, you must develop goals and a plan for achieving them. Your goals should be set-up so that larger goals are broken down into smaller goals. For instance, one of my larger goals is to develop my double-kick technique such that my feet are as loose and fluid as my hands. I have broken down this goal into smaller goals: learn rudiments with my feet, play grooves left-footed, etc.

On top of it all there needs to be a strong element of time management. We all have busy lives and most of us can't afford the luxury of spending 10 hours a day in the practice space, so we must use our time to the maximum efficiency. I recommend a strict schedule to any practice regimen. Again, this can be determined by your level of development and the included material.

For example, I have had students in the past whom could only practice an hour a day, so we would devise a schedule that managed everything right down to the minute. Other people who have more time might prefer a schedule that is a little more relaxed. Sometimes there's too much to fit into a single session so I'll spread it out over 2 sessions.

There are many ways to do this. Just remember that the end goal is to get at all the material you want to work on, and in a consistent manner.

To end my diatribe on proper practice regimens, here's a nice example: my current regimen.

Technique: 1-2 Hours
1. Stone Killer - trips @ 155bpm, 16th's at 125bpm
2. Various rudiments @ 120bpm
3. AOB Graph
4. Triple & Quadruple stroke rolls @ 100bpm
5. Dbl. strokes, 5-minutes nonstop @ varying volumes
6. Rudiments w/feet: para's, flams, dbl. strokes

Grooves: 1 hour
1. Rock, jazz, funk, latin @ 50bpm
2. Rock, jazz, funk, latin @ 100bpm
3. Rock, jazz, funk, latin @ 200bpm
4. Odd-time feels
5. Dbl. bass feels

Book Work: 1-2 hours
1. Portraits In Rhythm
2. Wilcoxon
3. Syncopation

Miscellany: 1-2 hours
1. Tunes to learn for upcoming gigs
2. Soloing
3. Record and analyze

I normally spend 4-5 hours in each session. Sometimes, depending on my schedule, I have to break this up between 2 sessions.

Ok, so you've got your regimen, a set plan, and your schedule. Time to hit the practice room and play, right?

That depends. When you're ready to start practicing, the first thing to do is clear your mind of all distractions. Mindful practice means focused practice. If you're stressed out or scattered mentally, you need to figure out how to calm yourself before beginning your practice session. There are several methods I use - meditation, exercise, rest. Whatever it takes to calm your mind and your body (WITHOUT the use of drugs or alcohol), I strongly suggest you do so before practicing. Otherwise you'll struggle to make progress and retain what you've worked on. Physically it will be a challenge to execute if your body is tense and stiff. Mentally you'll continue to lose focus and eventually you'll get frustrated and end your session without making any progress.

Another thing on distractions - your practice location needs to be free of them as well. Turn off your cell phone. Cover the windows. Remove anything that can interrupt your focus.

Once you start actually playing, always strive to be mindful. What that means to me is to be in the moment and pay attention to how things feel, sound and look. I'll pay attention to how my body feels noting any tension and altering my technique accordingly. I'll listen to how things sound and make small adjustments. I'll even watch myself play in a mirror and note my posture. If I could taste and smell my playing, I'd use those senses too. The point is that mindfulness equals being in the moment and taking it all in. The best way to do this is to use your senses to your advantage.

You'll take in a lot of information if you practice mindfully. Make sure to take notes and keep a journal.

So now that you've got hundreds of hours of mindful practice under your belt, how do you know that all of this stuff is working? How can you tell when you've mastered that crazy David Garibaldi groove in 7/8?

As I explained in my intro article, one of the characteristics of Mastery is when the conscious mind is not engaged to perform the psychological and/or physiological functions required to complete a task. Translating this into drumming, you're not consciously 'thinking' about the rhythmic executions performed around the drumkit.

Obviously one cannot consciously determine whether or not she is using her conscious mind to perform her instrument. It is possible to determine how 'easy' it is to execute something after a period of mindful practice but in my opinion this isn't precise enough to declare Mastery. In order to accurately determine whether or not you've attained this, a test must be performed.

I like to use a technique I created that's called the "Novel Test", named as such because of the steps involved as well as the fact that it's quite a novelty to watch someone do. You'll need several things to perform this test:

1. A tape recorder or other method of recording yourself
2. A novel that you've never read before
3. Your drumkit
4. Material you've mindfully practiced and feel may be Mastered

First, set up the recorder so that you can hear yourself talk while playing your drumkit. You might need to play at a softer volume to achieve this. Next, position the novel somewhere where it is easy to read while you play (I always place my music stand above my hi-hat so I just prop the book there). Ok, ready? Hit record and play through your material repeating it 5 times. Stop. Now start playing again, but this time start reading a paragraph in the book at the same time. Again, repeat the material 5 times and then stop.

Once finished, see how much of the book you remember. Try writing down character names, story details, etc. Also try and remember if you made any mistakes while playing through your material. Then, listen back to the recording. Pay close attention to your vocalizing of the words in the book. Follow along and see if you made any mistakes. Once the recording has finished, rewind it and listen back again, only this time pay attention to your execution on the drumset.

If you've performed the material and read the book precisely, this is as close an indication as you'll get that you've attained Mastery.

What exactly did this test do? In a nutshell, it distracted your conscious mind. Remember how I specified that the novel be something you've never read before? This is to ensure that none of it is memorized, thus requiring full conscious attention. As you perform this test several times you'll begin to notice that you'll remember less about playing the drums and more about reading the novel. This is a clear indicator that your conscious mind is engaged in reading, not drumming, which is exactly what we want.

Experiment with the concepts I've explained here. Everyone finds a slightly different approach and that's fine. Just remember that some of these techniques are difficult to execute at first but give it time. I challenge you to try this stuff out for a month. Keep a journal and record your progress. Once it becomes part of your practice style, these techniques will change the way you learn and progress.

Also, please get in touch and let me know how it is going for you!

Monday, July 7, 2008

Mastery Part 1: What is Mastery?

Over the next weeks I'll be writing a series of articles that talk about how to "master" the drumset. Today I'll be defining what I consider true mastery to be.

We've all witnessed someone do something incredibly difficult...they "made it look easy".

Athletes do it all the time. Having lived in Boston for over 10 years, I'm an avid Red Sox fan and I love to watch Manny Ramirez hit home runs. His swing is fluid, easy, balanced, and seemingly effortless. I'm also a lifelong tennis fan. Andy Roddick, a worldwide top 10 player, currently holds the world record of fastest recorded serve (155mph).

Sports aside, master musicians also "make it look easy" every night. I remember the first time I saw Dennis Chambers in concert. His first solo of the night was a short one over a vamp to end the first song, but it floored me. His ferocious, precise technique was unlike anything I had ever seen before. It was literally a blur of drumsticks. Later on in the concert he played a free solo and really killed it. At one point he put his left stick down, grabbed a towel, and wiped the sweat from his head while continuing to solo with his right hand!! You might say 'so what, I've done that before'. Well so have I, but the licks he played with one hand were as fast and precise as the stuff most drummers can play with both hands.

And all the while, he made it look easy.

Buddy Rich is another drummer who plays the most incredible licks while looking relaxed.

(FYI - it is speculated by Buddy's daughter Cathy that he suffered a heart attack while playing this solo. It didn't seem to slow him down though did it?)

I often compare athletes with drummers because of my belief that the performance of our instrument is an athletic experience. That aside, I do believe that master musicians and master athletes use similar methods for achieving the level of mastery exhibited when they perform at their peak:

-Mindful Practice

-Self Analysis

-Mental Clarity

-Lifestyle Commitment

I'll soon post articles that go into each of these methods in great detail. For today I'll offer my definition of what mastery means to me:

Mastery of a skill or vocation, attained through mindful practice, self analysis, mental clarity and lifestyle commitment, is the state when the conscious mind is not engaged to carry out the physiological or psychological tasks required by said skill or vocation.

The best example I can think of is walking. When I walk down the street I don't think about putting one foot in front of the other (at least not on most days). My conscious mind isn't focused on moving my legs and bending my knees. It "just happens".

Another explanation that I like to use is by my longtime friend and mentor Kenwood Dennard. He separates his mind into different 'brains' - the ear brain, the eye brain, the arm brain, etc. Each 'brain' controls the function for which that body part is responsible. For example, consider performing with an ensemble. You're reading music while listening to the rest of the group while performing your instrument. A lot is going on that you must keep track of. Kenwood's theory is your brain separates each task and controls them individually on a conscious/subconscious level. Your 'eye brain' reads the music, 'ear brain' listens to the other musicians, etc. The key to this however is you must 'allow' your brain to do this. If you consciously over-concentrate on one thing, the other 'brains' can't maintain control of their respective functions.

People sometimes say they are in 'the zone' when they perform at their peak. My belief is that 'zone' is a state of mind that is achieved through the 4 methods mentioned previously. I guess one could simplify my definition of mastery into this:

Mastery is the ability to consistently perform 'in the zone'.

Stay tuned; I will be delving into all 4 of the methods I previously mentioned in future articles. For now, I wish you ultimate mastery in every drumset performance.

Thursday, July 3, 2008


I saw Brian McPherson last night at Johnny D's in Somerville. He was great - his songs were well written with heartfelt lyrics and extreme emotional delivery. But in my opinion, his drummer stole the show when she was onstage.

Her name is Penny Larson (check her out here). She had a great feel, excellent dynamics, and her musical interpretation of Brian's songs was tasteful and supportive. But aside from all that, the most obvious thing about her playing was that she was standing.

Aside from the occasional percussionist, it's rare to see a "drumset" player stand consistently while playing her instrument. Sure, there are times when drummers may stand temporarily in times of extreme emotional expression during a solo or song ending (I do this occasionally). But to stand during the entire gig?

Very cool to watch indeed.

Penny's set was configured to comfortably accommodate her choice to remain standing throughout the night. Her cymbals and snare were mounted high. Her kick was up close so she didn't have to lean into it and alter her posture. She seemed relaxed and comfortable and her execution exemplified this.

I was reminded of the old school 'cocktail' kits:


I still fantasize about owning one someday and playing a metal gig on it.

Anyways, watching Penny play inspired me to consider proper posture for playing the drumset. In my conversations with students and fellow peers, it seems a lot of drummers overlook this. Over the years I have done lots of experimentation with posture and I have come to some simple conclusions.

Seat Height

First off, ask yourself the following questions:

1. Do I ever experience lower back pain?
2. Do I ever experience tension and/or pain in my pelvic areas (the front of your hips/pelvis)?
3. Do I ever suffer from leg or foot fatigue?

If the answer is yes to any of these, seat height is the first thing to consider. I know many drummers who have bad backs and they have to be very careful with how they sit. Experimentation is required; there's no right or wrong height as it depends on your physiology.

One thing I try to notice is the angle of my legs while I'm sitting at my drumkit with my feet on the pedals. I try to get it as close to 90 degrees as possible. If seated too high, your legs are overly extended to reach the pedals and this defeats the purpose of utilizing gravity to provide some assistance in generating power. On the other hand if you sit too low you will be using more energy to raise your legs when working the pedals.

This is assuming 'heels-up' technique (i.e. heels are off of the pedals). If using 'heels-down' technique (i.e. heels on pedals), the angle of your legs is just as important since the ankle joints are doing all the work. If sitting too high, your feet are over-extended and the range of motion for your ankles is limited. Sitting too low angles your feet up and more movement is needed to work the pedals requiring more energy.

Throne Design

There's a plethora of throne designs these days. It may be worth your time to experiment with some of them if you're still using the good old "round stool" model.

First thing: thrones that have a back rest.

This essentially turns the throne into a chair which is why I personally avoid them. When sitting in a chair it allows one to lean back and utilize 'lazy' posture as the core muscles (i.e. your abs) aren't engaged to stabilize the body. As a result, the shoulders droop over and the back follows an irregular arc. When playing a drumset for long periods of time, poor posture will cause you back problems. I always strive to hold my back straight and my shoulders back. Think about how you would sit in a job interview...hopefully you're sitting up straight, not leaning back in the chair and slouching. Now translate that into your posture behind the drumkit.

Another thing to consider is cushion shape. I prefer a bicycle-style seat as I used to suffer from pelvic discomfort and changing to a bicycle-style throne really helped:

Other people (namely Steve Gadd) prefer the square 'piano bench' style throne:

If you are still using the standard round cushion, I suggest you pay a visit to your local music store and sit on some of the newer designs. You never know...it might help that nagging back spasm you've been dealing with for years!

Foot Placement

Up until recently I never considered the placement of my kick drum and hi-hat with regard to my legs. As long as my arm reach felt comfortable, I was happy. Then I started to get leg fatigue as well as odd cramps throughout my body, and my drumset configuration approach changed dramatically. Nowadays I find a happy medium between the distances that my arms and legs reach.

I notice a lot of drummers that place their kick far away from their bodies. This can cause leg fatigue because you'll be using more energy to generate power. As mentioned above, a good way to gauge appropriate location is the angle of your legs. If I sit in my throne before anything else is set-up, I find the proper height that forms my legs into a 90 degree angle. I note where on the floor my feet are resting. This is where my pedals will be located.

If my feet are pushed out away from my body and the angle of my legs is greater than 90 degrees, I lose leverage. Conversely, if they are pushed in close such that my feet are underneath my legs, I get hamstring cramps when playing fast patterns.

The distance that my legs spread out also makes a difference in my general body balance. I've noticed that if they are too far apart I depend more on my center of gravity for balance. Too close together and I feel 'wobbly'. The goal here is to feel balanced between your seat and your two feet.

Arm Placement

Don't forget about your arms!!

The farther you need to reach to get to everything, the more you're going to tend to lean into your kit, altering your center of gravity and throwing off your balance.

On the other hand, I find that if everything is real close, I can't use the full capacity of all the joints in my arm when generating power and volume. I also feel cramped.

Check out this video 'tour' of Vinnie Colaitua's kit. Notice how he's found a nice balance between locating everything close but not cramped:

Here's a picture of Terry Bozzio's monster kit. It's huge, but you can see how he's managed to (somehow) locate everything within reasonable distance:


Did you ever stop to consider how much we rely on our bodies to perform our instrument? Think about it. We use all 4 limbs. How many times did you finish a song out of breath? How many gigs have you done that ended in a sweaty mess?

Our instrument is physical. Dare I say athletic. Doesn't it make sense then that the physical shape of our bodies affects our performance?

When I was a student at Berklee, I was an out-of-shape mess (as most college students are). I remember how little endurance I had. After I graduated, I started working out and running. Eventually I got into decent shape. The result? I can play for 5 hours or more and still have enough energy to hit the after party. More importantly though is that my balance is solid, so my technique is solid. This equates into less exertion which in turn results into precise execution.

I find regular cardiovascular exercise as well as core muscle training to be most relevant to increased drumset technique. Also, stretching and yoga has helped me feel more relaxed physically and mentally.

The bottom line is this: in addition to helping you lead a more enjoyable and health-conscious life, eating right and exercising regularly will help you become a better drummer.


We will only be able to perform at our best when we feel comfortable at our instrument, and we can control this through our choice of available equipment and a good awareness of body location. Whether we're standing up all night behind a tiny 'cocktail' style drumkit like Penny Larson or sitting behind a behemoth 100+ piece kit like Terry Bozzio, we need to experiment with all of the options at our disposal and be mindful of how our bodies feel when we play.

If you suffer from a nagging physical ailment, don't let it hold you back from finding your true potential on the drumset, or worse let it turn into a chronic condition that can threaten your career. Take the time to experiment. Take notes. Keep track of how your body responds to performances. Unlike most other musicians, we need our entire bodies to perform our instrument. Take care of it and your career will take care of you.


Hi everyone and welcome to my new blog. I plan to post articles I've written, gig reports, pictures, videos, and anything else I can conjure up so please check back often.

For now, happy 4th of July!