The importance of playing slowly
Playing fast is fun. There’s no doubt about it. That feeling you get as the adrenaline kicks in, playing your newest pattern at warp speed! Sometimes it’s the only way to play the pattern; by playing faster, the feedback to your ears is quicker, so you know you’re playing it correctly. Try and slow it down and you’re likely to falter and lose it altogether. Playing slow is difficult, and boring. Why would you want to do that?
Whilst fast playing can be essential to understand a pattern at first, we only really start to master that pattern when we start to slow it down. Successful practice strikes a balance between playing the pattern quickly to check you are playing it correctly and then slowing it down to gain full control over all the elements. Such changes in speed are strictly for the practice room, we wouldn’t want to go out on stage and start speeding up or slowing down!
When we play a pattern slowly we are forced to listen more intently to the sounds, and the resulting groove, that we are creating. Certain beats may be pulling ahead, others may be lagging behind, perhaps due to a limb on our weaker side. We can’t possibly make such distinctions playing quickly, but slowly, it is impossible to hide from them.
A metronome really is a friend in disguise when approaching this type of exercise. That infuriating clicking sound may drive as mad, and likely result in the temptation to hurl it out of the window! But the metronome highlights all our problems and gives us a steady backbone against which to build our grooves. After all, no musician wants to play with a drummer that can’t keep time! Groove mechanics aren’t always as obvious as speeding up or slowing down, but the push and pull in a single bar of groove can be even more off-putting for others to play against.
The mental and physical demands of drumming can’t really be distinguished. We spend hours and hours programming our subconscious minds with coordinated limb movements. Our aim is to get to the point where we can ‘intend’ a pattern with the minimum amount of conscious attention and have our body and subconscious ‘perform’ it for us. If you are a drummer that has been playing for even just a short period of time, think back to the first groove you ever learned. Despite the complexity of this pattern (most likely involving three different limbs), we no longer have to think about the individual bodily movements anymore. We hear or see a ‘trigger’ to play this pattern and our body does it instinctively. This is the level of mastery we are aiming to achieve with all of the patterns that we learn.
Playing a pattern slowly is something we must endure to improve the fluidity and mastery of our rhythms. We may have already achieved a level of subconscious programming with a pattern (i.e. we don’t have to think about it), but when played, that pattern could be still be choppy and uneven. If we slow it down, we start to comprehend the problem: at a slower speed we can hear that the individual beats are not where they are supposed to be. When sped up, these minute inaccuracies are amplified and create the choppy groove. They can be caused by a weakness in the technique of a certain limb, excess tension being held in the muscles, or a mental ‘roadblock’ that prohibits a smooth delivery.
Just remember, a relaxed mind equals a relaxed body. Try not to hold tension in your body, or anxiety in your mind, and relaxation will naturally improve your sound.
Beyond the sonic improvements we can achieve through controlling our relaxation and physical movements at slow speeds, we can also gain greater comprehension of what we are actually trying to ‘say’ with the drums. Playing slower allows us to ‘intend’ each of our movements and focus on the individual sounds we are creating. A pattern can start to mean much more to us and by focussing on the individual beats, we can understand better when and where to play it. After all, the drum kit is several instruments combined. The bass drum, snare and hi hat all play very different roles in giving music momentum, and an understanding of them individually makes you a more creative, versatile and tasteful player.
Slow may be boring, but it is the key to control and mastery, both physically and mentally.