Give it some muscle – Physical Momentum.
How do you feel when I mention the word technique?
Many top educators and professional musicians promote the idea that consistent and repetitive practice in key areas is the only way to advance technically on the drum set. This approach has worked for many drummers; however, this particular meme has also generated a glut of excess guilt among us lesser mortals. Could our creative scope be suffering as a consequence of this demanding approach; forcing us to push the boundaries of physical capacity to the max? Is it possible that this athletic approach to practicing could eventually lead to a diminished sense of creative progress? Perhaps there is another way to compliment your ‘drum-er-cise’ that will allow for an effective and more relaxed approach to technical mastery, while allowing for creativity to flow from the outset.
Muscle memory (an integral component in musical competence), is largely determined by a complex interplay between the nervous system and the individual’s muscular skeletal form. Communications between neurons and the resulting ideomotor response is so quick and intuitive that it is no wonder we spend little time thinking about it in more detail. However, without acquired neural pathway, muscle is but a mass of largely passive tissue. So, it is no surprise that an intensive approach to practice has been advocated and adopted by many musicians. However, even top athletes have the limits as to their bodies’ capacity for muscular exertion. How then, do they manage to achieve a more effective and powerful neural-muscular connection that is a perquisite for advanced performance?
In recent years, sports men and women have been complimenting their physical training with a more holistic approach to the mind and body; encouraging the formation of stronger neurological pathways designed to enhance their muscular responses. Evidence has shown that by actively listening to what our bodies are telling us, we can strengthen the bond between mental agility and physical output. In short, it is asserted that ‘brain training’ is an essential component for actualising enhanced physical prowess.
So, as we marvel at their agility on the field or track, perhaps we could look to adopt a similar holistic training program to reinforce our practice, reducing guilt and further advancing our creative scope.
Athletes are renowned for their perseverance and determination to better themselves. They strive to become more efficient, shortening times, increasing heights and distances, by mere fractions. When we watch them outperform fellow competitors, it is easy to think that the winning combination is greater determination and enhanced physical strength. This may be part of the story, but it is not all of it. Further gains, complimenting their natural athletic prowess, are made further away, hidden deep within the brain. A ‘fitter’ brain does in effect encourage muscle growth, muscle memory and stronger neural pathways. Drummers today are aware of the important link between muscle memory and performance; however, without SMART techniques to strengthen this innate ability, we could be underestimating just how far we could improve individual performance. Perhaps we can take some cues from our athletic contemporaries.
Say, for example, a swimmer is practicing their flip turns; with each new move, deemed by the brain to be an improvement, in turn leads to a release of performance enhancing of hormones. These very hormones or endorphins then help strengthen the associated neural pathways, involved in building the coordination and movement pathways associated with this part of their performance. Learning to drive a car is no different and involves the same neuro-physiological pathways leading to faster automatic response times behind the wheel (in most drivers’ cases anyway!)
Apply this technique to learning a tricky manoeuvre on the drum set or a new stick control technique, and your brain is primed to reinforce your ability, in part absolving you of the tendency to endlessly criticise your performance. In fact, being overly critical while practicing is likely to encourage a negative response in the brain, building a feedback loop where the associated mistake becomes a habit.
Many drummers get stuck in a trap of self-deprecation unhappy with themselves if they are not actively forcing themselves to practice over and over until it feels right. This approach is fine, unless you are causing yourself or your body un-due distress. It is believed that when learning something new, it is better to learn the most efficient muscle movements and reflexes before building stamina or power.
An interesting fact
In the unfortunate event that you were to be electrocuted by touching a faulty mains point, you would be thrown across the room. This is not however, due to an explosion or even the power of the electricity propelling you. What propelled you across the room would be the result of a release of energy from your muscles. We have huge amounts of energy stored within our muscles; part of developing better technique is to persuade our bodies to release just that little more than it’s used to.
The Bowen Technique
This is to date an unverified physio-therapeutic approach which has been quietly gaining popularity since its invention by Tom Bowen in the 1960s. It is used to alleviate many physical problems ranging from sports injuries through to tinnitus. In a nutshell, it involves the physiotherapist gently ‘resetting’ the patient’s nervous response (and therefore their muscle memory). The practice also involves making physical ‘suggestions’ to the body encouraging more helpful muscle responses with a view to easing the patient’s condition.
In a typical Bowen session, the therapist will apply mild to moderate pressure to various areas of the body, this is done in intervals where the therapist will leave the room for short periods of time to allow the body’s nervous system and muscle memory to adapt to what has been ‘suggested’. This quiet approach has helped many people recover from injuries and physical problems where other more traditional approaches have failed or in some cases has resulted in further physical discomfort.
I have personally experimented with this approach for my own development and have used similar practices during teaching sessions.
For example, when I was struggling to achieve the looseness, power and speed in my left hand, something I was managing easily with my right hand, I would practice movements in short bursts. Whenever I felt I had done four satisfactory rounds (in this case practicing traditional Moeller accents in 4s), I would stop playing and relax my hands sitting with the sticks resting in my hands and allowing my muscles to twitch and adapt to what I had been asking them to do. Then I would repeat the exercise again. If I found this technique to be effective, I would extend this to 6 or 8 rounds. This approach has worked for me, getting me out of a rut much quicker than if I had forced the muscles to adapt through persistent practice to something my body did not yet understand. Once this was achieved I could easily work on building the length of time and speed I could play the exercise and remain relaxed.
I often tell pupils that relaxation is the hardest technique to master.
It is well known that athletes will use visualisation techniques to imagine a course or race in detail beforehand. This technique helps boost their confidence, keep them focused and keep muscles primed for performance.
Again similar approaches to drumming can be beneficial.
I’m sure we have all experienced practice sessions where we want to learn something new but for whatever reason it never really fully comes together. Then you might go away and the next time you try, it comes into focus as if from nowhere. The subconscious mind has a way of working on problems we present to it in the background. Once a problem has been presented to the mind, in the form of a recognised series of muscle responses forming a pattern, it will continue to build associations and pathways long after we have stopped consciously thinking about it. This also works in reverse; a new idea for the drums can be practiced mentally as long as we have an awareness of what it would be like to play the pattern and how the different strands of coordination would come together best. This can make the performance of a new idea smoother when we come to apply it to the drum set for the first time. You may have experienced this sensation when playing a cover of a well-known song for the first time. Because you know the song and are already a drummer, you already have an understanding of the sort of dynamics, speed, beats, fills, song structure etc. even if you haven’t really ever thought about playing the song before.
Far from being elusive and difficult to control, muscle memory should be thought of as an extension of our natural movement. Rather than berating ourselves for not having worked ‘hard enough’, put in ‘enough’ time on the practice pad or built up ‘enough’ strength; we might remember that some of the most difficult muscle responses like walking and balance were achieved before we where really aware of our actions. Gentle guidance is the key to building good technique and mental reinforcement is the key to keeping and using the technical control we have achieved. Stamina is obviously an important factor but beware of building stamina on top of unnatural or forced muscle memory.
I hope this helps you to enjoy developing technically and removes some of the guilt you may feel for not doing ‘enough’ – as if there is such a thing as enough drumming?!