1. Decide what you want to do.
2. Find out how to do that thing.
3. Train yourself to do it.
That's it. Simple, but not easy. Most of what we do in drum lessons revolves around #2 and #3, but both are pointless without #1. And the whole thing is pointless without a focus (although I don't think "pointless" necessarily means "bad').
In his book "Talent Is Overrated," author Geoff Colvin studies high achievers across different disciplines to see what makes them stand out. His conclusion: "deliberate practice." He found that the top achievers were not necessarily the people who put the most time in; they were the people who had a clear goal and worked very intentionally toward achieving it.
When people start out on the drums, goals are often vague ("to learn"..... "to get better"... "to be able to go crazy".........). I like to ask students why they think I'd make them practice something as boring or annoying as a paradiddle. I often get answers like "..........to do it right?" Not wrong exactly, but the reason you practice the paradiddles is: to develop your hands! And your mind! But if there's no clear connection between the task you're given and your own goal, there's not a lot of motivation to do that task well, or even at all. Paradiddles are boring and annoying.
Mostly, our education is: here's a task (or idea). Learn it. Complete a test. If you pass, congrats, you know that thing. That doesn't really work long-term with music. There are skills and styles you can learn, but you need listeners and for them it's mostly about feeling. Great technical players often make boring music, "poor" technical players are among the most celebrated musicians of all time. Of course it's all subjective and there are lots of examples of the opposites being true. That's the point. Everyone plays and experiences music differently. Creativity is an essential part, and creativity, by definition, can't be taught.
It's easy to sit down with an instrument, play it for a while and tell yourself you're practicing. You're definitely putting time in. It's probably fun. Nothing wrong with it. HOWEVER, if you're not working toward something specific, you're also probably not improving your skills; you are maintaining them. If you want to improve something, the more specific the better, because then you can really dial in what you need to do in order to get there.
For best results:
- Decide exactly what you want to be able to do. This can mean a long-term goal broken down into steps, or it can just be "what do I want to improve this week?" but in either case the point is to stick with a task until you nail it.
- Find out how that thing is done, make sure you understand it, set aside some time to train yourself to do it.
- Get a metronome. People (self included, sometimes) like to think it's a torture device designed to suck the fun out of music. It's just a tool that helps you focus.
- Set a timer. Play your thing with the metronome for one minute, then stop. See how it feels.
- Figure out how much time you can consistently devote over several days. Doesn't have to be much. Each time you practice, work on your thing for a set amount of time, then give yourself permission to be done.
- Repeat, as often as possible. Take breaks. If you have a bunch of things you want to accomplish, divide the amount of time you have by the number of things you want to do and practice accordingly - let's say you have 20 minutes, 3 days a week and 4 things you want to learn. That gives you five minutes on each one, then you're done. But it's a much more focused five minutes than most people actually get around to. You're probably not going to master your task in one week at this rate, but you will make actual progress. And in the end you'll get there faster.
- Feel good about having put in the time and energy, and about accompishing something.
The best thing about this approach is that it's addictive. You don't get burnt out or frustrated because it's not drudgery. You may get to the end of your time limit and decide you want to do more. Great! Do it! Also please remember: exercises don't have to be boring. You're in complete control of how you play things - when things seem boring it's often because we're taking a very limited view of how we're supposed to (or allowed to) approach it, and as a result, play boringly. Please don't do that to yourself or others. Make it sound great! Have fun!