Thoughts On Practice

This is an email I wrote to a friend while brainstorming ideas about creating a practice routine. I may come back and edit it into a better blog article at some point but I thought it was worth posting in this form in case anybody ever still comes here looking for new articles.


I think the shortest route to improving is to practice and make sure you do it every day.  Of course, that requires discipline which might not come easily.  So then you start asking questions about will power and all the rest of it.  There’s no easy answer, and we’re always looking for the shortcut.

I think a big part of it is having achievable goals and reasons for them.  For example, I just met a German drummer who got offered the gig with a big metal band.  He’s more of a jazz guy, but he was the drum tech on their last tour so they asked if he thought he’d be able to take over drum duties.  He’s been practicing his ass off working on double kick chops and fast singles.

If I was offered that gig (and it was something I wanted) I’d be doing the same.  I don’t work on any of that stuff because there seems little point.  I’ve done it in the past just for fun, but there then comes a point at which you wonder why you’re bothering.  My motivation was just “because it seems like fun”, but eventually you start to question that.

I’ve found that I put more time and effort in when I’m doing things like trying to learn a Chris Coleman solo.  Having that fixed end point allows me to see much more clearly whether or not I’m making progress.  Because I can see my progress I’m essentially rewarded with each practice session and this provides the motivation for the next one.  When I eventually get there (usually more quickly than I’d expected) it feels like I’ve conquered something new.

I can see why it’s a common suggestion to write goals down.  If they’re just in your head then they don’t necessarily have to be very concrete.  It might just be something like “I want to be able to play faster”.  It may be that you’re practicing a lot and getting faster, but it’s gradual so you’re not going to notice.  There’s a huge difference between that and figuring out what your current maximum speed is, then picking a specific tempo to aim for.

What we need is the same formula and tools given to body builders or people aiming to lose weight.  It seems to me that when you’re trying to do either of those you give up too quickly unless you keep meticulous records about your progress.  Sometimes it’s barely visible and when it seems like you’ve stopped improving it feels like there’s no point in continuing along the path.  At that point you either need to make changes, or understand that it’s a common plateau and that if you continue you’ll start to see gains again.

I’ve tried working out to get muscly numerous times in the past.  The conclusion I’ve usually arrived at is that I’d need to eat a lot more, eat the right stuff, be in the gym more, etc.  What always starts out as me thinking I’ll just do X pushups a day and over time that’ll make the difference ends up with me realising what’s actually required.  When I balance what’s required with my desire to be muscly I realise I’m actually not willing to to commit that much to it. I only wanted it if it was easy.

 there aren’t really any short cuts

I always start out thinking there’s a short cut and, in reality, there aren’t really any short cuts.  It comes down to putting in the reps.

The hard problem is figuring out what your true desires are.  The ones that you’re willing to put in the work for.  Since we only have so much time in a day we can only really commit to a few things to work on at a time.  If you reach the point where it feels like you’re not progressing, or you get to a stage where you realise that goal wasn’t really important then you fall off the treadmill.

I think a useful tool would be an algorithm for creating a practice plan in the form of questions and forms where each stage is so easy that it almost completes itself.

I’m aware of similar things in self help books which I’ve never really bothered to do because they always had questions that seemed to open.  The questions in this need to have self evident answers in order for it to work for the most people.

Here’s a framework off the top of my head…

Part 1

Stage 1

Brain dump of all the goals floating around in your head as single sentences.  Eg. play faster double kick. Be good at jazz. Be able to play a really cool drum solo at will.

The goal is to just get down on paper anything you’ve ever thought you’d like to be able to do.  Doesn’t require details.  It should be an easy task.

Stage 2

Rate each one on a scale of 1-5 where 5 is “I really want this” and 1 is “I’m not really bothered about this”.  Again, it shouldn’t take too much thought – just go through the list and assign whatever your gut feeling is.

Stage 3

Reduce the list to 3 things.  First you’d get rid of anything that wasn’t 5 stars (or 4 stars if you didn’t give any 5s).  Then you’d need a way of figuring out which the most important 3 were.  If you can’t decide then a random 3 will do.

Stage 4

Write down how much time every day you can guarantee that you’ll practice.  Don’t make it too long or you’ll find days where you just can’t find the time.  If, for example, you make it 2 hours then it’s probable that there will be days where you’re just too busy.  On the other hand, if you make it 30 mins then even if you get back at 1am you could potentially put in 30 mins (assuming you have a quiet enough way to do it).

Stage 5

Give each it’s own page and work the next algorithm…

Part 2

Stage 1

The bullet point “play faster double kick” needs to be expanded into something useful.  We need a specific goal that fits into this category that would give us pleasure if we reached it.  For example, “increase the speed at which I can play a double kick singles groove by 50bpm”.

At the time of writing this goal we don’t know how long it would take to get there, or if it’s even possible, but at least we have something specific that would seem like an achievement.  The kind of thing you might get a “badge” for on a computer game.

The details can be tweaked later if it turns out you set your sights too high (or too low).

Stage 2

Figure out what level you’re currently at and record it.  In this case you need to know how fast you can play a double kick singles groove (and for how long).  So maybe you can manage to play for a minute at 90bpm.  So your goal is now to be able to play for a minute at 140bpm.  Record yourself doing your current best so you’ll have something to look back on.

Stage 3

Make an estimate of how much practice time you think you’ll have to put in in order to achieve this and write it down.  Maybe you think it’ll take 4 hours of practice in total.  It doesn’t matter what you write, it’s just a case of putting a gut feeling figure on it so we can see the bigger picture later.

Stage 4

Come up with an exercise or two that you think will help you towards this goal.  For example, if you can currently play for a minute at 90bpm that probably means you can also play faster for a shorter time.  Figure out what that is.  Then perhaps come up with a routine that mixes up longer periods at 90 with shorter periods at the faster tempo.  If you think it’s possible to push up the tempo marking on this exercise by 1bpm each time you do it then, in theory, it would take 50 days to get to your goal.

In reality, you’ll probably find that it doesn’t work so easily.  For example, if you take this to an extreme you could say “My practice time each day is 10 seconds” so you’re essentially saying that if you play 10 seconds at 90 then the next day you can do 10 secs at 91, etc. Which means you’d get to your goal in 500 seconds which you could just do right away.

Of course it doesn’t work like that.  You need to build muscle and stamina so you’re going to have to push yourself for longer periods.  You want to get to the stage where you’re working at your max for 10 mins – probably with breaks.  Basically, it’s a boot camp thing.  You need to be pushing yourself.

Usually, when I get to this stage, I start looking for shortcuts.  I start finding all sorts of details that I could tweak or work on that I think might help in the long run.  Usually it’s a realisation that I have a lack of control even at slow tempos so I start focussing on control exercises.  Eventually I lose sight of what it was I was originally trying to do.  So, even if you go off track, it’s good to stick to the plan at least to some degree and note your progress.

Part 3

Practice.  Do your 10 mins a day. Write down how you feel working on each exercise. Whether you feel like your making progress, or if you think you need to make adjustments to your goals or the exercises you’re working on.

I like to use PolyNome for this. A big part of the reason I wrote it was to make it easy for me to log my practice, keep notes, see how long I’d worked on various exercises at different tempos etc. It’s really inspiring to see that you’ve logged 3 hours on a certain thing and have accompanying notes that showed you the points that you thought it wasn’t working and where there were breakthroughs.

Being realistic

Let’s say you gave yourself 30 mins a day that you could definitely practice.  Then you estimated that it might take 4 hours of practice to increase your speed by 50 bpm.  And you have 3 things you want to improve at.  That means you can give yourself 10 mins a day for the double kick workout.  That means it would take 24 days of practice to get your 4 hours in.

It doesn’t sound like a lot, but I’ll bet that most people would give up on it way before that if they hadn’t set out with a realistic idea.

Personally, I often go through the process of picking something I want to work on and the topic might be too broad – get better at playing double kick.

Then I set about practicing it for a while – maybe 15 or 20 mins.  Maybe an hour if I’m feeling really into it.

Then I question whether I feel like I’m any better at it than I was when I started.  I ask this question without really knowing how good I was when I started because I didn’t figure that out.

Maybe I work on these exercises and variations for 2 or 3 days of practice.  5 mins here. 10 mins there.  Then I start to get bored because I’m not seeing any progress (again, because I didn’t measure where I started or how long I’ve worked on it).

I finally start to question whether it’s worth me spending all this time on it and I get distracted and start to focus on something else.

Rarely, if ever, have I worked on the same thing for anywhere close to 24 days in a row.

My gut feeling is that this needs to be tested and, if it works, then it can become a road map for improving at anything.  You’d only have to go through the process once to know if it works for you.  If it does, then you have essentially adjusted your mind to realise that progress is slow but continuous. If we don’t use external tools to measure it then we quickly become distracted.

Having written all of this down I’d even think that it would be best to start with a single thing and give it 10 minutes a day of your practice time.  Then do what you’d normally do with the rest of it.  That way it’s a 10 min/day experiment.

If 10 mins a day doesn’t seem like enough to do all the exercises you come up with then reduce the complexity of the goal rather than forcing yourself to practice longer.



  • Rainer Schnelle

    I really like this article. I can relate to a lot of Joe’s thoughts and it inspires me to start getting a bit more methodical in my practicing