The Right Way to Learn a Drum Set Beat.

As a musician, I can attest to the level of frustration that comes from being "stuck" in your practicing. I've spent countless hours struggling through scales, beats, melodies, chords, and more. It can feel like you're trying to run a mile with your shoes tied together; you get a few steps in, and you fall on your face. This can be discouraging for students, especially when their practice hours don't seem to be giving them the results they're looking for.

In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell convincingly asserts that, "Ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness." Many of us have heard this concept before: in order to reach a world-class level of expertise in a given field, you have to spend 10,000 hours working on it. There is one majorly overlooked caveat, though, that Gladwell writes about in his book: Not all practice time is created equal. This is huge for the growing musician. There are techniques, strategies, and thought processes that can help you master what you are working on, faster. And who wouldn't want that?

So today we're going to focus on applying two very efficient practicing techniques on the drum set. If your student doesn't play the drums, that's ok! These techniques can be applied to any instrument and can help you advance quickly during your practice time. As an application, I'm going to explain and demonstrate (via the provided videos) how a student might use these two strategies to learn the following basic drum set beat:

In this drum set beat, the hi-hat cymbal (played with the right hand) is represented by the X's above the staff, the bass drum (played with the foot) is represented by the notes in the bottom space of the staff, and the snare drum (played with the left hand) is represented by the notes in the middle space.

In this drum set beat, the hi-hat cymbal (played with the right hand) is represented by the X's above the staff, the bass drum (played with the foot) is represented by the notes in the bottom space of the staff, and the snare drum (played with the left hand) is represented by the notes in the middle space.


Practice Technique #1: Put it together Piece by Piece.

How to learn a drum set beat using the "Piece by Piece" approach.

As you can imagine, it takes a large amount of limb coordination to play even the simplest drum set beats. The "Piece by Piece" technique adds each limb in, one by one, until the whole beat is being played. Start off with just one limb playing its part alone for a period of time. I usually recommend starting with a limb that plays a part that is steady and constant. In the video, I started with the bass drum. The next step is to add a second limb. Repeat these parts together until you feel comfortable with the way the two limbs relate to each other, and until you can perform them indefinitely without mistakes. Then add another limb, and so on, until you can play the whole beat comfortably. See the video above for a demonstration of this technique.

This approach is used quite frequently by drum set teachers during lessons and classes, but far too often students do not utilize it in their own practice time. Instead they try to tackle the whole beat at once, and it either works over a strenuously long period of time, or they never actually accomplish learning the beat. So make sure your student is practicing with this technique, and you will notice that their frustration will be greatly minimized!


Practice Technique #2: Put it together Note by Note.

How to learn a drum set beat using the "Note by Note" approach.

This approach is a bit less common than the first, but it is still extremely effective and helps the student understand the music from a different angle than the "Piece by Piece" technique. Instead of starting off with one limb at a time playing all of its notes, this time we are going to start off with all the limbs playing one note at a time. So, every limb will first play what they have on "beat 1." Then they will all play what they have on "beat 1" and the "& of 1." Then they will all play what they have on "beat 1," the "& of 1," and "beat 2." And so on, until they are playing every note in the drum beat. Get it? In other words, they're playing a musical game of Simon (that memory game with the four colored lights that light up in a certain order, adding one light for every sequence. Remember playing that?). See the video above for a demonstration of this technique.


It's not hard to see how you can apply these two great practicing approaches to any instrument! For example, pianists can use the first technique by playing a four-measure phrase repeatedly with one hand, and then they can layer in the second hand after that. And violinists can work on a melody using Practice Technique #2 by playing just the first note, and then the first two notes, and then the first three, and so on. Can you see how much quicker your student will achieve their practicing goals with these approaches? The old adage, "Work smarter, not harder," is a resonating truth when it comes to practicing music. So go try it!

- John Gotsis, Owner and Music Instructor at Vibe Music Academy