A tam player asked me this during The Big One – specifically about getting faster (which doesn’t mean better, but it can help) – and I thought it might be worth sharing some things I’ve found helpful.
With building any skill, it’s good to think where you want to get to. Do you want to play very loud and very fast? Play for a long time without getting tired? Play with really great feel? Be able to solo?
All-round development will likely cover most of these, but having a clear idea of what you specifically want will help motivate you.
Anyway, let’s get going.
Relax, relax, relax
Your first thought might be just going as fast as you can until you have to stop, and then trying again later. I don’t think that’s a good idea.
When you’re straining to break through that ceiling, everything’s going to be tense. Your timing will probably come and go as you hit walls, and your playing won’t sound as good because you’re locked rigid. Sounding worse is one thing, but getting into the habit of playing with tension really risks injuring yourself over the long term.
Instead: relax, relax, relax. Don’t try to break through the ceiling, try to build up the floor. Take a part or an exercise that you know really well, and slow it down. No, slower than that – imagine you’re in slow motion. Concentrate on getting exactly the sound you want while being as relaxed as possible. A good sign is when it feels like you’re just doing a little dance and your sticks (for example) just happen to be playing.
Go for flowing, relaxed motions – less about stiff movements with your wrists, elbows and shoulders, and more about waves that keep the stick bouncing without a lot of effort from you.
Striking a pose
Posture with your instrument is also important. One trick I like is saying, imagine your elbows are glued to your sides. Can you still play everything you need to? Another is saying, close your eyes and drop your arms, then bring them up (keeping your eyes closed) like someone’s going to give you a beach ball. That’s probably a good neutral position for your arms to be in. Knowing what it feels like to be free of strain means you can notice it creeping in.
Listen to your body. After you’ve played for a while, how does it feel? Do you have soreness or tightness in particular places? Some of that will just be a sign you need a rest (and a few stretches), but if you’re getting twinges or very specific aches, look at your technique and posture.
You’ll notice I don’t describe specific instrument techniques here, but working with the body is where good technique comes from. Find someone who sounds good and looks relaxed while they’re playing and see what they do, though don’t stop paying attention to how your body feels – what’s right for them might not be right for you, or take time to develop, or any number of things.
So to summarise: good technique feels very relaxed and sounds good, and you develop it by starting slow and working with your body and your ears.
What about speed, though?
Okay, yes, speed can be part of it. Once you’ve got everything comfortable and sounding good slow, your solid base will help you start to speed up. Only a little bit at a time, mind – it doesn’t happen overnight. Your motions will gradually, automatically get smaller as you go faster. As soon as it stops sounding good or you start feeling tension, stop and go slower.
Make friends with metronomes
The best way to do this is with a metronome, which will also improve your timing. (If you don’t have one, try Googling “metronome” – one appears built into the search results.)
Start at something gentle like 60bpm.
If you haven’t played with a metronome before, just playing in time with it will be a challenge. Try something like Progressive Karla (or just a stream of 8th notes, or any little phrase) and see how closely you can match it. Sometimes you’ll be right on the money, and sometimes you won’t – don’t worry about the times you miss, think of it like tuning into a radio station. I find constantly moving in a little dance helps.
When you feel ready, try your part or exercise. Is it still in time with the click? Listen to it solo on the XR Player to hear exactly how it lines up.
You might like to get a practice pad, or a drum mute if your instrument came from a drum kit (or you could make your own out of a rubber mat), because then you can stand up and the experience will be closer to playing in a band while still being quiet. If you’re a tam, you can get practice tam heads.
Here’s the secret to speed: practise slow and for a long time without stopping. I like to think of it like baking a loaf of bread.
You can use any kind of timer, but again if you Google “timer” one will pop up. Can you comfortably play your part for one minute without stopping? Two minutes? Five minutes?
My rule of thumb for a comfortable speed is that I can set a timer for five minutes, mindlessly play away while watching TV or something, and at the end of it feel like I could easily do it again.
If you start slow, relaxed and focusing on sounding good, the muscles will develop, sure, but more importantly your brain will streamline the process so it takes less and less effort.
Once you’re comfortable at one speed, see how going up by 10bpm feels. If it isn’t comfortable, drop back down again – as a great jazz drummer and technician once said, there’s no point racing the metronome.
XR Rhythms bands usually play from around 100bpm (relaxed) to 140bpm (frantic), so if you can comfortably bop along at 140 for long periods that should be all the speed you need.
To get a really good swinging time feel, halve the metronome speed and feel the click as beats 2 and 4. (The Google metronome bottoms out at 40bpm, so you’ll need to be doing 80bpm or above.)
For developing soloing, if you spend all that time playing one pattern round and round you’ll probably get some little variations popping into your head. Play one at the end of every fourth time round your part, and you’ve got a fill! String a few together with some shaping and space to breathe, and voilà, solo.
How much should I do this? Do I have to?
If you have to do homework to play in XR Rhythms bands, we’ve failed. Which is to say, don’t do any if you don’t want to! If you do fancy giving it a try every now and then, 10 minutes or so is great. If you really get into it, take a break every 30 minutes, but really, you just need to do enough for your body to know it’s a regular thing.
If you want to work at playing well and possibly fast, start slow and relaxed and use a metronome and timer to build stamina. Think raising the floor rather than breaking through the ceiling.
Have fun and see you in the streets!