“Improvisation is too good to leave to chance” - Paul Simon
To say “I’m practicing improvisation” sounds like an oxymoron, but in fact a lot of preparation is required in order to improvise well. And by preparation, I don’t mean memorising a bank of perfectly formed riffs and fills that can be retrieved at random whenever someone points and shouts “drum solo!” - I mean getting comprehensively familiar with patterns, variations on those patterns and variations on ways in which those patterns and their variations can be applied to the kit and to the music.
When I started playing the drums, almost two years ago, I thought that I always needed a kit to be able to do meaningful practice, but recently - and following the wisdom of my tutors - I’ve realised that a lot of what I’m doing is actually just learning how to count, but using my whole body.
I’ve realised that it’s entirely possible to develop independence, coordination and the ability to count with each of my limbs (and my voice), using nothing but my body. And, I’m not for one moment discounting the importance of practicing stick and leg technique, for which you obviously DO need some sort of physical resistance from a practice pad, or pedals.
I’m just talking about the daily brain workout that (will hopefully) lead to becoming a thoughtful and creative improviser. I’m not there yet and I’m sure I’m not the only drummer who can say that I know how I want to sound, but the reality of what comes out of my sticks doesn’t quite live up to the dream…. Yet.
My current practice regime
involves sitting with a metronome, Ted Reed’s syncopation book and a whole load of patience, to go through each of the patterns, page by page, playing each pattern on different limbs, with the metronome on different beats, using different ostinato patterns, playing it straight, playing it swung etc…
Essentially playing the same thing in as many different ways as possible, until my brain becomes comfortable enough to enable each of my limbs to count their own way through the piece, with my voice keeping track of the base pulse and time signature.
Though, this alone isn’t going to make me a great improviser. I’m not practicing this stuff absent mindedly - I’m also trying to use these exercises to develop ideas, which I can only try out on a kit and with a band, in the moment.
The development of ideas and the application of these ideas to create something musical and interesting, is the real goal here - not the mental endurance test that I set myself (most days) with Ted Reed and the metronome. I’ve not been playing for long enough to know whether this is all going to pay off, but my tutors reassure me that it will and I trust them...
So to reiterate; the future is uncertain and no one is totally in control of the type of drummer that they will become, but it seems that it is possible to increase the chances of becoming an inventive improviser through… PRACTICE.