One Hand Alone
One practice technique that could be wasting your time…
Some aspects of music education are taken as gospel.
“You have to practice this many hours each day.”
“You should spend half of your practice time on scales.”
“You should do x , y , z…”
I have heard countless variations on these statements and I have made some myself. One of these I have always disagreed with is to practice one hand alone. While some musicians and teachers find this helpful I almost never practice this way, save a few moments to be updated later!
I understand the concept of simplifying a complex bit of music. However, I find benefit in simplifying in others ways and use alternative techniques to achieve results.
Any instrument that requires four-limb coordination will inevitably encounter complexities that require abundant practice. Drum set grooves are a perfect example of this.
If you ask a drummer to play a rock groove your expectation is to hear the drum set as one instrument. No drummer, when asked for a groove, will build in each part until completion. The interaction, flow, balance, and feel is only present when all the parts are being played.
Granted this groove doesn’t require much practice, but I chose it to illustrate how this problem can be avoided even from the beginning of a musician’s development. I choose to practice this way because I rarely need to practice the physical aspect of the part. If I or a student is able to play eighth notes in one hand at 100 bpm than the issue is not physicality but coordination. Building coordination has been most effective for me when I train all parts at once. Breaking down individual aspects of the coordination doesn’t solve any problems because I encounter a new coordination challenge when adding the next part. Building the complete part slowly (sometimes gruelingly) allows me to hear and feel what I’ll eventually play.
Mentally, it also benefits me to conceive of the groove as a single line or concept. When a pianist sees a chord symbol they instantaneously make choices about voicing, range, and duration. Simplifying the music in this way allows for your attention to go elsewhere. Later, when I see “Rock Groove” on a chart I don’t have to go through what each limb will play, but I can focus on my time, feel, and improvisation.
One way I practice simplifying drum set parts is singing. I and by extension my students always sing through a groove before picking up sticks to play. The voice is our first and most familiar instrument and I always use it as such. Also, I don’t need to focus on coordination because I am forced to refine the part into something singable.
Some may instantly take exception to this by pointing toward jazz drum set grooves. I would posit that the groove in jazz is from the ride cymbal and embellishing that groove with the interaction of the other parts. This same idea applies to other styles such as samba/bossa nova, Afro-Cuban drum set adaptations, and others. I still work on these styles slowly and building toward the groove before embellishing it with other limbs.
In short, if we accept that it is one instrument, we should practice and play it as one instrument.
“It is one instrument, and I would hasten to say that I take that single idea as the basis for my whole approach to the drums.”
-Elvin Jones, Down Beat, March 28th, 1963