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Three Technical Exercises to Add to Your Practice Session

Valuable practice tips for any percussionist.

As a percussionist, there are three things that we should always be working on. I know it is naive to believe that these are the only things to be working on, but if you can continue to improve these areas, you will become more prepared for the future. Student performers tend to think only about the next thing they need to prepare for – an audition, a rehearsal or a performance. Believe it or not, this is also true for the professional musician. With my work, teaching, family and playing schedule, I don’t have as much time to spend in the practice room as I would like. But I have found that if I pick three areas to practice every day, I can continue to grow as a musician and maintain my chops.

That being said, the three things you should always be working on are:

  1. Reading
  2. Rolls
  3. Ear/Listening

Reading

All musicians should spend 15-30 minutes each day sight-reading. It doesn’t need to be melodic reading (although that it is probably weaker than your rhythmic reading), it just needs to be music you have never seen before.

Where can you get music? The number one source of free, public domain sheet music is IMSLP.org. For sight-reading, I would suggest starting with a Bach or Mozart violin or flute sonata. If you have someone else who wants to do some sight-reading, check out the Bach Inventions. There is so much music on the site, I promise you will never have a problem finding something new to read.

There are many beliefs about how you should sight-read something. Generally, once you play through it once, you aren’t sight-reading any more. Here are my steps:

  1. Scan through the music and see what the most difficult part is going to be. That section will determine my tempo. I always use a metronome when sight-reading because it keeps me “honest.”
  2. Depending on your level, you can use the metronome on every beat or just the down beat of the measure. Once I figure out my tempo, I make sure I check out the road map and key signature and then start reading.
  3. Read through the piece without stopping. Once I have read through the piece, I spend 30-60 seconds going over the most difficult passage and then I read it again. Sure, the second time is not “sight-reading,” but I think it’s important to improve upon my previous reading of the piece.

Once I have read it a second time, I put it away. Instead of printing all of these pieces, I use my laptop and/or iPad to view the PDF. It saves paper and I have material to share with my students. I also like sight-reading with other people to add a level of accountability. Vivaldi or Mozart string quartets are perfect for this.

Rolls

Rolls are universal on all percussion instruments and something we need to work on daily to maintain the skills. I do a regime of SD roll exercises that include single stroke, double stroke, triple stroke and multiple bounce rolls. Working on single stroke rolls helps me maintain my timpani and mallet rolls. I enjoy working on double and triple stroke rolls with different fulcrum to accurately execute the different roll types. Two great books for roll development are Developing Dexterity by Mitchell Peters and The Roll by Emil Scholle.

Here is an exercise to work on snare drum rolls:

Ear/Listening

In my opinion, developing your ear is one of the most underrated and under-practiced areas for most musicians. Working on your ear should be an ongoing daily activity. Work on listening and being more aware of what you are doing and what you are hearing.

Here are some suggestions to develop your ear:

  1. Practice singing intervals. You can use your smartphone and download a piano app and/or a tuning app and incorporate this into your daily practice.
  2. Play duets and chamber music. This will help you work on your ensemble listening skills.
  3. Listen to a lot of different music styles. It’s great to listen to your favorite group, but during the week try and listen to at least one artist you have never heard before. Practice playing with the recording and transcribing the grooves on the album.
  4. Practice with your metronome more often. 
  5. Go hear live performances and talk about what you heard with a friend or colleague. See if you are hearing the same things that other people are hearing.
  6. Videotape and/or record audio of your rehearsals and performances. When you are ready to run through something, record it. When you’re standing behind an instrument, you hear things a lot differently than you do from an audience’s point of view.

These are the three areas all musicians should continue to develop to be successful. They’re not the only techniques that you should be working on, but this works for me and I hope it will help you develop your musical skills.

“Every day you don’t practice, you’re one day further from being good.” — Ben Hogan



ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr. Dave Gerhart, Product Manager for Yamaha Percussion and advocate for all things percussion, is a nationally recognized performer, composer and educator. Dr. Gerhart holds a D.M.A. from the University of Southern California, an M.M. in Percussion Performance and Instrumental Conducting, and a B.M. in Music Education from California State University, Long Beach. Before joining Yamaha, Dr. Gerhart was a Yamaha Performing Artist. He now travels the U.S. talking percussion and sharing his passion for music education. In his free time, he teaches at the CSULB Steel Drum Orchestra and has published works for percussion and steel drum ensembles.

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