Learning to Play Drums by Practicing, Playing & Listening

From our first lesson to our last performance, a subject that all drummers share an interest in is musical self-improvement. Implicit in this desire is a fundamental question that is rarely considered consciously and whose answer is far from self-evident: by what means does one achieve the end of musical excellence?

A dangerous assumption, particularly among students, is that the practicing and mastering of technical patterns is the primary means of musical self-improvement. Although developing technical skills on one’s instrument is an essential means to becoming a musician, it is not the only means nor even necessarily the primary one, and when pursued in isolation from other means, it can produce as much musical harm as good.

Similarly, it is sometimes claimed by relatively unschooled, “natural” drummers that one improves primarily through doing rather than analyzing, or playing rather than practicing. Others put their primary emphasis on assimilating musical traditions, i.e., on listening to and learning from what has been created by the great drummers of the past.

The problem with all three of these approaches is that, in isolation from each other, they either attempt to deny theoretical knowledge or to sever it from its application to music. In contrast, the proper method of learning to become a great musician involves an integration of each these three approaches, i.e., an integration of theory and practice. It involves an equal and simultaneous devotion to practicing, playing and listening.


To illustrate this idea graphically, I have used the figure of a triangle to help convey that these activities are (1) equal in importance, and (2) interrelated—the level of skill attained in each area directly affects the level of skill attainable in the others.

Although each of these activities are equal in importance, the first which should be considered is listening, because (1) before we can set our goals (which will determine what we will practice), we must first be aware of all the musical options from which we will be choosing, and (2) music is an aural art form, the subtleties of which can only be grasped first hand, i.e. aurally, through listening. As students, listening directly to music—not practicing—should both set our goals and provide the main source of information about music and our instrument. Furthermore, for the purpose of learning, it is important that we learn to listen analytically, i.e., to fully grasp both what we are hearing and how it is being produced. When attending live performances, the visual element is helpful in this respect. Recordings, on the other hand, offer the opportunity to listen to a single passage repeatedly to memorize it or transcribe it.

To develop the ability to execute what we would like to play, most of us need to do an extensive amount of practicing. In drumming, the material we practice can be divided into three general areas. The first area involves the purely technical patterns which we must learn to physically play our instruments, sources of which include Stick Control, the rudiments, or Drumming Patterns. (It is essential, however, that one always chooses the technical patterns one practices in order to achieve a consciously chosen musical end, i.e., that one never treats the mastery of a particular technical pattern as an end in itself.)

The second area of practice involves learning both the specific vocabularies of the musical styles we enjoy, such as the ostinato patterns associated with styles such as jazz, rock, bossa-nova, etc., and the specific vocabularies of the particular drummers we admire (which may be grasped through a combination of analytical listening, the study of live performances, and transcription).

The third area of practice involves developing music reading skills, sources for which include Ted Reed’s Syncopation, the various classical and rudimental snare drum etudes available, and the interpretative reading of drum “charts” for large groups or intricate compositions or arrangements.

The third means of musical development, playing, may at first seem to be the final goal. It is, however, both the end and an essential part of the means of achieving that end. Playing provides both a barometer of our progress and develops the essential skill of integrating all of our knowledge into a personal style. Most professional drummers consider their playing to be a process as well as a product, and the bandstand to be their main learning ground. Many famous musicians developed their innovative styles as a creative response to the musical ideas initiated on the bandstand by their bandmates. The earlier in a musician’s development this process begins, the better.

In summary, the integration of theory with practice should be every drummer’s constant goal: to analyze and synthesize the differences and similarities among technical patterns, rhythmic patterns, and musical styles. By interrelating the knowledge and skills gained from listening, practicing and playing, each activity will not only bring about its own direct results but will reinforce and make possible the results achievable in the others, and in combination will lead inevitably to our final goal: the making of the best music of which we are capable.