Be present in your practice




“Learn the rules like a pro so that you can break them like an artist.” – Pablo Picasso.


Learning “the rules” can be a tedious and even an overwhelming task. 

Most of us fall in love with an instrument and want to be a musician because of the allure of the unknown.

In the beginning, we sit behind the kit, perhaps trying each sound individually to get a sense of what we have to "paint" with. We try a tom, then a cymbal, then a couple of bass drum hits, followed by closing the hi-hat with the left foot a few times. The magic of the instrument is pulling us in. The fascination with doing something that requires all the limbs takes over our entire being.

Maybe, in the beginning, you wanted to play a beat. Something from the music that you listened to that made you fall in love with the instrument in the first place. Maybe you just wanted to experiment with the sounds, textures, and colors. The joy of invention, the wonder of creativity, and the thrill of a blank canvas to make your mark all rush to the foreground of your priorities. 

All you want to do is sit behind the kit and figure out how to become a musician. You decide to take lessons, and the first thing the teacher tells you is “you’re holding the sticks wrong,” or “you need to focus on reading quarter notes and quarter note rests before you play a drumset,” or “let’s play the first two lines of stick control 20 times each in a row.”

The butterflies, the smiles, and the excitement start to turn into challenging assignments that don’t sound or feel anything like they are ever going to transform into the musician you have created in your imagination. The instrument has become a chore. Every reading assignment, every sticking warm-up, every new thing you are told to work on can feel like it is sucking the soul out of your real passion for the instrument.  

You want to express yourself! You want to play what you feel. You want to be free to be your own artist. You think, “just give me the paints and a canvas and let me do my thing!” 

This is the point that the majority of people quit; when play becomes work. When freedom becomes rules, the magician’s veil is lifted, and all that is left are seemingly infinite things to work on. 

Some stick it out by choosing practice over playing with friends, going to music lessons instead of baseball practice, or recitals instead of watching tv. But it was not easy, and sometimes it was downright painful. If this was you, you probably remember thinking that it will take years before you will sound great, and it may never happen at all, even after all the hard work. 

The kids who start when they are very young start to see some minor proof of their sacrifices by being invited to be in an “all-city” band or maybe play in the city youth orchestra on the weekends. In high school, you may be one of a handful of people the band director thinks should continue studying music in college. And now, after 6 or 7 years under your belt, you’re still not good enough to be a professional.

More kids quit before college. Some continue. The best of each high school in the country is going to the top music schools where they are now no better than anyone else, or maybe they are way beneath everyone else. More people quit because they start to realize what it takes to become a professional and actually “make it” as a musician is daunting beyond belief.

Hours upon hours are spent in the practice room. 4-8 hours a day every day just to keep up with the assignments. Competition at every turn starts to eat away at the confidence of almost everyone. They begin retracing the steps they took from the beginning to now. “Did I study with the right people as a kid? Did I go to a good enough high school? Did I take it seriously enough to have trained well enough to be here at all?” More people quit.

College is now over, and it’s time to become a professional musician. Ha! Where are the gigs? How do I join a band? What do I do now? Bills are due on the car, apartment, etc. And suddenly, a highly trained musician is working a full-time job with hopes of eventually doing something with music on the side on the weekends. Maybe get a church gig.

The dream, the excitement, the creativity, and the freedom to express are gone from the soul even though you are equipped to “be a pro.”  Drums remain in closets, storage spaces or get sold.  

I paint this picture because I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen unbelievable players quit because there is no work. I’ve seen incredibly talented musicians turn down gigs because it will interfere with their day job. I’ve also seen people who can’t play and didn’t go to school for music be in bands that work every weekend or even tour the country and have large followings.  

Where, then, is the balance? What is the secret formula for making everything work out just right? How could anyone ever know exactly what to do to eventually be an actual professional player? How could Picasso say that first, you have to learn the rules before breaking them to become a real artist? How long? How much work? When will transcendence happen?? 

Well, my friends, here it is. This paradox of mastery before freedom is a conundrum that will lead almost everyone to the point of quitting without deeper contemplation and investigation.

The missing piece of the puzzle is time, or more specifically, the absence of time.

When we practice becoming something else, we have created a here and a there. I am here, and I want to be there. Keep your eye on the prize. Work hard now so that later you will be great. These concepts are great motivators to keep going, but when is the payoff? When do we experience the fruits of our labor in tangible form? 

Well, maybe never.

Being the principal percussionist in a symphony orchestra, being the first call drummer on the world’s biggest tours, being the drummer on every hit song is something only a small handful of drummers will experience. It’s the same as being on a professional sports team. How many kids in this country played t-ball? A few less play little league, even less for high school, fewer still in college, and finally just a handful make it to a pro team. And which pro team?! A world-series winning team? Or just a regular team? 

Why am I saying all of this? 

I believe that the real secret to happiness is to learn that every moment is the only moment. Our minds race ahead of our actual life. We know we need to practice, but our mind wants us to be on the cover of Modern Drummer. Sometimes the mind surrenders, and we can practice; sometimes, the mind would rather watch drummers on social media or flip through the pages of Modern Drummer, continuing to fantasize about being in a famous band.

Even more than becoming masters of the rudiments, groove styles, reading, coordination, and other skills, we need to learn to become masters of our minds. The mind has captivated our attention and has put us somewhere else.

The mind likes to imagine things. It wants to place us in imaginary scenarios in the future. It likes to jump us ahead of where we are so it can feel like it has accomplished something.

So what does this mean?

We need to start TRAINING ourselves to be present in each moment with WHATEVER we are doing at that moment. If you are washing dishes, try your hardest to focus on just that. If you are practicing rudiments, stay in that moment. Stay focused. Stay present. This is a PRACTICE. In fact, I would say that this is THE practice. 

The practice of life. Staying present in each moment. As the Zen saying goes, “chop wood, carry water.” When we practice being present in each moment, each moment becomes much more fulfilling. Rather than doing things as a means to an end, we do things because we are doing things. 

We practice our drum lesson because we are practicing our drum lesson. Period. We are not trying to become something. We just are in the moment. Practicing. A lot of beauty arises when we are in the moment. A lot of inspiration appears. Sometimes the inspiration is overwhelming, and it moves us to create. In those moments of creation, honor it with a lightness of thought. Try to be the observer of your creativity why you are also the creator. 

I say this because I believe that you can be a master at every level of your development as a player. A seventh-grader can be a master of the paradiddle and can perform that rudiment with complete control, and they can also be thrilled and at peace with where they are now.

People sometimes equate being happy and at peace with complacency or apathy. “If I am satisfied with what I am doing, I will lose the drive to continue.” UNTRUE. And believe me, I am just as guilty of thinking this untruth as anyone.

All of this is for me to say that we are ALL students for our entire lives. There is never an endpoint. There is never an arrival. The quicker we can eliminate the idea of this activity is a means to an end and instead think of each exercise as all that matters in that particular moment, we will be much happier, more at peace, and more connected to what we are doing. 

So today, I challenge you to be present in your practice. And practice the practice of practice.

Today’s presence exercise is to play the following 4-measure phrase 32 times in a row. Place close attention to the clave sound, as it is acting as a “moving click.” Every four bars the click moves to the next position in the sixteenth note field. Downbeats for 4 bars, E’s for 4 bars, And’s for 4 bars, and Uh’s for 4 bars:

Stay the course with the written exercise and don’t be influenced by the clave. The goal is to keep your place. Stay present, stay focused. Make sure you only play the exercise 32 times. No more, no less.


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