When you’re taking drum lessons it’s important to develop your time-keeping skills in addition to your technique. Here, Saint Paul, MN drum instructor John S. shares his practice techniques to help you improve your time keeping…
Time keeping is an essential element of modern music, for both live and recorded songs. It’s very important to develop a strong sense of time. The drummer is often looked to, more than any other musician, to provide a solid, consistent pulse in a musical performance.
For the beginners, let’s talk about what time keeping really means. Time keeping refers to a drummer’s ability to play in time with the pulse of the music. In contrast, timing (which is often confused with time keeping) refers to the drummer’s coordination of his own limbs, as well as his playing relative to the rest of the band.
It’s possible to be good at one and struggle at the other. For example, a drummer may be able to play extremely complex rhythms using all four limbs (good timing), yet he may be unable to play those rhythms at a consistent tempo over a period of time (poor time keeping). Timing and time keeping are both critical skills to develop as a drummer.
Here are three ways to improve your time keeping.
1) Practice With a Metronome / Click Track
In this day and age, all drummers are expected to be able to play along to a steady click track. The vast majority of studio recording is done to a click track, and more and more musical groups are using click tracks in the realm of live performance.
Even if you don’t find yourself required to play along to a click track, practicing with a click/metronome will drastically improve your time keeping which, in turn, will attract fellow musicians to your steady sense of pulse, and, down the road, will help you get more gigs.
All musicians should have a metronome, and luckily, metronomes are extremely easy to find. Almost all electronic drum sets come with a built-in metronome, and if you have an acoustic drum set, there are countless metronome apps and websites.
Acquiring a metronome is the easy part, but using the metronome effectively is a bit more challenging. There are many different ways to use a metronome, but here are a few healthy practice habits to keep in mind when practicing with a click:
Practice at Different Tempos
I encourage my students to alternate between faster and slower tempos. For example, repeat an exercise 15 to 20 times at a tempo of 70 BPM (beats per minute). Then, increase the tempo by 5 to 75 BPM and repeat the exercise another 15 to 20 times.
Next, lower the tempo to 65 BPM and repeat the exercise another 15 to 20 times. Then switch to 80 BPM and repeat the exercise, adding and subtracting 5 BPM from each tempo as you work on an exercise.
Whether you use this technique or make up your own, I always recommend alternating between faster and slower tempos because simply increasing the metronome by a few BPMs with each exercise may subconsciously train the drummer to speed up when playing without the click.
TIP: Remember to start with a slow, comfortable tempo before trying faster and slower variations.
Alternate Playing and Stopping
This tip is especially important when learning a new, challenging concept that’s too difficult to play in time for 10+ measures in a row. Play a rhythm for one measure and then rest for one measure, letting the click continue while you take that measure to analyze your performance.
Inserting a measure or more of rest quickly reveals if you’re rushing or dragging. This technique forces you to lock into a steady tempo. I find it often takes a few measures to get into a solid groove with the click, but this practice technique will strengthen your ability to feel the pulse from your very first note.
Drummers are notorious for speeding up or slowing down while performing drum fills. It’s common to rush fills at slower tempos and speed up during faster tempos. Challenging fills are also very difficult to keep in time.
When you practice fills with a metronome, make sure you’re playing them in the context of a groove, just like you would if you were playing with a live band. I always encourage my students to practice in groups of four measures (alternating three bars time with one bar fill, or two bars of time with two bars of fill).
2. Play Along to Recordings
Most of my students find it easier and more exciting to play along to a recording because it’s much more interactive when there are other instruments involved. Playing along with the rhythms of other musicians presents a whole different set of challenges than playing to a metronome, yet both techniques strengthen your time keeping.
Playing along to a recording allows you to lock into the groove of another drummer, or it can free you up to play in response to the music, whereas playing to a simple click is much more challenging from a creative standpoint.
Practice playing along with recordings that simply have the drums removed. There are a number of websites, CDs, and YouTube videos that allow you to play along to songs from any genre or tempo. Here are a few free options that I use with my students:
TIP: Don’t rely solely on practicing along with recordings. It’s easy to use the recordings as a crutch, but that often makes playing alone or with a live band much more challenging. Make sure you’re comfortable both playing to a simple click, and playing with no metronome at all!
3. Record Yourself
Playing along to a click track is great, but sometimes it’s hard to determine which areas need improvement unless you listen to your own performance. There are countless ways to record yourself, but I recommend choosing a method that allows you to monitor both the click track and your own playing, so you can accurately analyze your playing relative to a steady tempo. Most of my students use GarageBand or other free recording applications that allow you to record yourself and then play the click track with the recordings.
There are several different ways to work on your time keeping, and you’ll discover which method works best for you. Remember to practice a variety of techniques with varying tempos and rhythms to develop the most well-rounded sense of time.
Need help with your time keeping? Search for a private drum instructor near you!
Photo by Jamie Bernstein