Drum Kits are Our Friends Drum Kits Can Make Us Better on Our Instruments

Over time as I’ve gotten the opportunity to hang out and discuss music with people who have had very successful performance and recording careers, there is a common thread that they all emphasize in their own playing and admire in the playing of their peers. This common thread is rhythm. It can either be the commitment to and admiration of deep and individual time-feel, high levels of rhythmic accuracy, advanced rhythmic phrasing or to their ability to make the most basic musical parts feel so good.

Legendary jazz pianist Chick Corea jamming on the drums. (Click here if you can’t see the video)

Of course these things are not exclusive to rhythm. There are elements of touch, tone and technique that influence how our rhythms and time-feel come across. But at the core, the most advanced players tend to have the most advanced internal clocks. Capable of always landing the right thing at the right time. Even the “wrong” thing at the right time feels good when a master does it.

When we see iconic artists regularly say something like, “There is no such things as a mistake in music”; it often means – when we play something that feels great rhythmically, a ‘wrong’ note is no big deal. These players project such confidence in their time feel, rhythm and tone; they literally can make all harmonic and melodic mistakes sound intentional and sometimes better than the ‘correct’ notes.

How do we get our rhythms and time-feel as solid as the masters we look up to? I’d say by working on it constantly, in as many ways as possible. But a specific thing that has helped me and countless students develop more confidence rhythmically is to spend time on a drum kit.

There are many students who I’ve taught over the years who spend at least half of the lesson on the drums. They may feel confused and not into for a while because they’re not there to play drums. But once they begin to feel the rhythms differently on the piano, they need no convincing that it’s very beneficial – and fun.

First, they become aware of the rhythmic elements of the piece(s) like never before. They really start to experience the interplay between parts in a more personalized way… they start to feel the dance.

Second, they don’t get bogged down on information. By eliminating all the harmonic information as they sit at the drums, they really begin to do that one thing really well – the rhythmical elements.

If I were someone starting my own piano studio, I would have a drum kit in my studio before a second piano. Nothing like sending a message to everyone who comes for lessons that rhythm is really important. And as I said earlier, based on my experience of doing this, I simply think it will help them more.

Here are some things you can do with students (or yourself) on a drum kit to help develop rhythm in a structured way…

  • Take a rhythmic figure you want to learn and play it with one limb – for example, kick drum can play a dotted-quarter, eighth-note combination that keeps repeating every two beats. Once you/they have it, add quarter notes with another limb. Then add eighth notes with another limb. Do this without writing anything out. You want to be able to feel all of these combinations happening at once, even if it takes longer at the beginning.
  • Play melodies of your pieces on a drum kit. No need to overthink this, simply play the rhythms of the melody and experiment with different combinations of drums to see what helps it have a contour that you like. Phrasing, dynamics, articulation and range are all part of the equation in deciding what to play here.
  • Learn a popular song that you like to listen to by ear – don’t use any sheet music or lead sheet. Sing the melody and learn an accompaniment part on the piano. If you play a single-note instrument, simply learn the melody and play along with the recording. With your teacher or friend trade places between the drum-set and your instrument. You play piano and sing once while they play the drums. Once you make it through doing that, you play drums and sing the melody while they play the piano part. Try and match the exact beat from the song.

Make this all about playing music and pieces. There is no need to get to technical in the beginning. Once you get hooked, then take some drum lessons to learn basic techniques. And then you’ll be on your way a solid second (or more) instrument. You’ll start to sound way better on your primary instrument as well.