Advice for Drummers: Practicing versus Play-Alongs
September 23, 2011; James Nagy
Being a young and relatively new drummer (almost 7 years), I tend to be gullible about new methods
of practice to becoming a better drummer. However, I recently just overcame a method that I believe
has become a detriment to new and rising drummers: play-alongs (sometimes known as "music minus
one"). I can't even begin to tell you how many times I have read or been told by someone that
their entire practice sessions consist of playing along to their favorite songs for a couple of
hours. In the long run, I feel that these "practice sessions" will put an end to their progression
as drummers and musicians.
What is practicing?
I learned not too long ago that practicing isn't just playing on an instrument for any amount of time just to say you did it and got better. There is more to practicing than just simply sitting down and playing till you are bored or have spent a certain amount of time on your instrument. When one practices, you must refurbish recently acquired skills, but more importantly, learn new skills and build upon what you know. Start with your basics, whether it is scales or rudiments, and progress to learning that rumba groove you've been listening to, or work on new technique that you just learned about. Practicing is a great tool for all musicians. Once you learn how to practice (and develop a practice schedule), you'll not only improve on what you do know, but you will ascend to greater heights doing things you couldn't do before.
What's wrong with practicing with play-alongs?
For those who don't know, play-alongs are songs with a particular instrument missing from the music so that a musician can "play along" with the rest of the band. The benefit of it is that one doesn't have to worry about the instrument they are playing conflicting with the instrument in the recording. It leaves the opportunity to play anything the musician desires instead of the original part. Other reasons for using play-alongs for practice is that the tempo doesn't change and they give the musician the chance to use their skills in a "real-life" application. Play-alongs do give us a chance to apply our skills in a musical situation. I even admit that I improved my chops after continuously attempting to play a song that was too fast for me.
That being said, it isn't beneficial for practice. Firstly, you don't learn more than you already know. For instance, let's say there is a complicated Latin piece that you come across. It sounds interesting and you want to play a groove that compliments it, but you don't know how to play any groove that works. So, the only things you can do since you haven't taken the time to practice independence or improve your chops, is ditch the song or play a very simplistic, watered-down version of a groove. While there is nothing necessarily wrong with such a groove, you are giving up an opportunity to develop skills that can be utilized later on. Another reason that play-alongs are a bad idea for practice is that you pick up bad habits. In order to keep up with that super-fast tempo or to do that amazing groove you heard one time, you do anything you can think of to achieve your goal. When you don't take your time to learn a more proper or efficient technique, you will end up hurting your playing in the long-run.
Poor posture or wrong technique can be harmful to your health and you could end up with something detrimental, such as carpal tunnel syndrome. Many drummers who only practice with play-alongs are the ones who have poor and sloppy technique.
The final reason the play-alongs are not for practice is that you become too dependent on practicing with music. Once you spend a certain amount of time with play-alongs, you find it more difficult to play without it. There is no doubt that it is fun to play with. However, if you were to not have any music available to play with one day, that is a day without playing. Also, if you decide to practice without music, you will almost certainly find practicing incredibly boring because you are used to having something to play with. Thus, you will go back to play-alongs, and deprive your weak-spots of the attention and focus they require to improve.
No more play-alongs?
Despite everything that has just been said, I am all for play-alongs. Play-alongs give musicians the opportunity to have fun with the skills they have acquired, and to play along with their favorite artist without clashing with their instrument's counterpart. To this day, I still spend a small amount of time to play with some music. That being said, play-alongs should be for recreational time, not for practice. Practice time is to be set aside to improve and learn new things. Play-alongs are to be used afterwards, in order to play with "other musicians" and to have fun with the new things you learned. They are an application tool that gives musicians a chance to enjoy the instrument they play. I hope that after reading this article, you will understand the difference between practice time and fun time. Practice when it is the right time, and your skills will be off the charts in no time.
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