What to Practice: The Paralysis of Too Many Options

The “to do” list is long, right?

Speed drills, independence, booking gigs, editing videos, adding photos to your website, fixing gear, replacing heads, learning songs…

And even beyond Drum Land:

Do the dishes, call your mother, pay the bills, fix that leak, follow up with a friend, fold the laundry, mow the lawn…

There’s a LOT to do. All the time.

Every minute of every day there’s something that could use your time and attention – whether it’s for drums, your home life, your job, your family, your career… whatever. If you parsed out every last thing you need (or want) to get done, you end up with a list a mile long – and worse, a crippling feeling that you’ll never be able to get through it all (a feeling I know all too well).

That very problem is a mental pitfall called “analysis paralysis” – and it’s exactly what the name suggests: with too many choices, you overthink the decision to the point of not choosing anything – and do nothing instead.

Or, even when you do choose something, it’s tough to get the other options out of your head – and so you don’t fully focus on the task at hand.

Am I working on the right thing? Is this a waste of time? What am I forgetting?

Let’s dial it back to drums for a moment. Even within specific skill sets (say, ghost notes or linear 16th note patterns), the list is virtually endless. There’s another permutation or subdivision to try, there’s a new clave to master, there are troublesome tempos fast and slow…

And when you start looking at the wide world of general “things to learn” on the kit, it gets pretty overwhelming. The number of resources out there (particularly online) is just massive, and plenty of them are full of great information, wonderful instructors, and useful lessons. Hell, I’ve still got magazines on the shelf from a year ago that I’ve never dug into the sheet music in the back, a couple of different drum books that I never made it more than a few pages into…

How can we possibly keep up?

It may be an impossible question in the end…

Get Practical

The first way to tackle this problem is also the one that yields the most immediate rewards.

Instead of staring out into the vastness of all there is to learn, take a look in the mirror, and then take a look at the calendar…

What’s a weakness of yours that actually impacts the music you make? What do you have coming up (not matter how big or small) that some skill improvements could make even better?

For example, if you play in a metal band, and two of your “areas to improve” are Songo and double kick stamina… I bet you can imagine which is going to come in more handy for your current situation.

Not that we can’t draw lessons or gain insights from learning things outside of our current mode of playing, or from expanding into new styles, but practically speaking, you’ll be able to get a lot more immediate results out of practicing what applies to how you already play.

For me, it’s been ghost notes. The majority of my playing is in a funk/jam kind of scenario, and to fatten up my grooves and find new textures, that particular area of focus just made sense.

In real time, it means that a new pattern (but in a vein I’m already familiar with) can find its way into my playing sooner – that improvements to my dynamics and stick control at a low volume are IMMEDIATELY applicable to what I’m going to play TODAY.

For you, it could be working on time keeping, getting comfortable with a click, swinging your shuffles harder… All the way the most advanced modulation or odd time groove… But to find out what you “should” be working on in a practical sense, you have to first be honest with yourself, and then be realistic about what the other musicians around you are expecting.

This isn’t the only way to practice, of course, but if you’re feeling lost among the myriad of online lessons or different angles of approach, start with something practical. It will build your momentum. It will give you a direct, actionable reward… And best of all, it’ll get you practicing something, instead of worrying about what to practice.

Determine Intent

What do you want to learn?

When you imagine yourself in a year, what has improved about your playing?

It’s easy to set arbitrary, undefined goals like “get better” or “play faster” – but those hardly set a course of action for practice. To get yourself in motion, you’ve got to pin something to the wall and start working at it. For a rudiment you’re working on, it might be getting it to a certain tempo, or if rudiments are relatively new to you, memorizing the 40 Standard Rudiments to begin with.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be the most practical goal (unlike the approach above), but it does need to have a direction. Like my own ghost note work, the intent was to add texture to grooves, and also to get my hands doing more than just singles… deciding what to practice, then, can be as easy as breaking down that intent into it’s reasonable pieces.

For me, that’s left hand dynamics and independence – which makes paradiddle inversions a GREAT (and applicable) exercise for the pad. It makes delving into Clyde Stubblefield grooves an obvious choice. It makes practicing 16th notes between my right foot and left hand a practical thing to work on…

And even if it’s slow going, or if I’m not learning things that I can immediately incorporate into my playing, it’s still all related to that overall intent.

Decide where you want to be in the future, and start to break it down into it’s essential components. What to practice will show itself!

Blinders

Sometimes imposing some restrictions is just the ticket for more focus and more productivity. This is where that paralysis really comes into play – if you’re thinking about ALL the stuff you want to try, all of the sticking variations, the vast range of styles there are to invest your time and effort into…

You’ll never choose.

So, a little bit of strategic ignoring can go a very long way. If you’re practicing an independence exercise, don’t play that lick you learned last week. Don’t even let your mind wander toward it – it’s only going to distract you from the task at hand.

If you’re working on Garibaldi funk, then uptempo swing might as well not exist in that moment… Push it right to the side.

Sure there’s value in seeing the interconnectedness of different drum set disciplines, but if the point is to get down to business (and over the hump of too many options), pick ONE thing and do everything in your power to keep it front and center.

Decide Beforehand

I’m still getting the hang of this one, but the advice bears repeating:

Decide what you’re going to practice tomorrow… TODAY. 

Instead of saving the question of “what am I going to work on?” for the moment you sit down at the kit, make your selection the night before. Even better, spend some time on Sunday afternoon (for example) laying out what you’re going to work on all week.

This way, you’ll already have a game plan by the time you’re ready to practice, and even better, you’ll be thinking about your intended plans even when you’re away from the kit.

Routines

With things like intent in mind, many drummers find benefit in developing routines to stick to and track. Full disclosure, I haven’t made it to this point yet in the least – I’m still fighting against that ADD so many of experience when it comes practice time… But I’m working on it.

That said, I’ve heard of a whole slew of methods: multiple stages of creative and non-creative aspects, tempo regimens (gradually increasing based on criteria or time frame), focusing on core principles for certain portions of a practice period (independence, dynamics, technique, etc.), and so on…

I’m sure they all have their various benefits – but doesn’t that bring us back to more of the same problem? A dozen different systems to choose from… Before we we even decide what to practice!

I don’t mean to say that practice routines are bad, but at the risk of putting the cart before the horse… You gotta pick what you want to work on before you decide how to work on it.

These systems are great for maintaining momentum and maximizing limited time, but they won’t do a thing if you don’t have material or exercises to put through them.

Once you do pick, though, give some thought to how you can keep it up day after day.

Themes

My most recent attempt to solve this problem has come in the way of setting themes for my practice. Instead of pinning down a certain exercise or routine, I give myself a theme for the month.

January was paradiddles… which is a damn broad topic.

To stay on track, my practice was filled with paradiddles – but when the ADD kicked in, I only allowed myself to wander into other paradiddle territory. The same for pad or kit… As many paradiddles as possible, all month long.

The options are endless – kick and snare patterns, accent grid, inversions, tom orchestration, different subdivisions… And all along I was working on the same basic sticking AND increasing my overall understanding of how that particular rudiment works in context.

A month wasn’t long enough. There was plenty I didn’t get to, and still more that I touched on but didn’t spend enough time with. Still, my paradiddles are better in more ways than one. It’s an experiment in progress, but seems effective!

This month (February) is good ol’ Singles.

Welp…

Soooo… This is just more information, right? More to process, more to consider the next time you practice – precisely the problem.

With all of this, I guess the point is LESS.

Stick to one thing for longer. Play it slower. Plan ahead so your mind doesn’t wander so much. Take. Your. Time.

I’ll do my best to do the same.

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