Learning to drum in time takes time...the slow journey to better drums
I found BeatBalance really hard at first, and I know that some of you will do too. If so this blog is for you, and it has one central message - stick at it. It works.
My name’s James, and I’m a drummer. Of sorts.
I was the sort of drummer who thought talent was enough - people told me I was pretty good, so I thought: “I’m pretty good. I don’t need to practise. I have talent.” Needless to say, my drumming career was short-lived. I played a lot of gigs in my early twenties, but I wasn’t getting invited back and I never really understood why.
So I moved on. Got a job. Got a mortgage, a couple of kids and a small but reliable hatchback. Until last year, when COVID hit and I found myself - in between homeschooling, but let’s not go there - with quite a bit of time on my hands. At the same time, Neil asked me to join BeatBalance so I had two new projects: starting the business, and learning how to play drums again.
I started using BeatBalance daily in September 2020. After all, if I was going to be telling people how great this product was, I needed to know it, really well, and I needed to be able to show that it worked.
It really foxed me at first. I just couldn’t make the metronome go silent, and for a while I thought it didn’t work. Then I realised that I just had a lot of work to do…
First three months - finding the silence
The first thing I knew about it was that if I played in time, then the metronome would go silent. It’s really helpful to understand what the silent metronome function is looking for:
There’s a time window around the beat: if your hits are all inside it, the metronome will go silent. If one hit is outside it, the metronome sound will return.
The size of the window - how early or late your hits can be while still counting as “in time” - is defined by the tightness setting when you create the exercise (beginner, normal or tight). The tighter the setting, the smaller the window.
I sat down and did my first exercise: it was probably single stroke rolls at 60bpm, on “beginner” setting. And the metronome didn’t go silent. Not at all. Not for a second.
“Oh well,” I thought. “I’m only just starting after not playing for a few years, and my timing was never great.”
I persevered - and if you’re at this stage, please do the same. At first I was doing about 30 minutes a day, every day. More practice than I had ever done before. I wasn’t feeling like I was getting any better but slowly, little by little, I started getting closer, I could hear those tempo tones counting me down until one day…
It had taken me around 6 weeks of playing almost every day to get the metronome to go silent, but what a moment.
From that point on, it was a case of building up my solidity - maintaining a steady enough beat to keep the metronome sound turned off. First for a full bar, then two….until eventually I could play for around 6-8 bars before I slipped enough for it to kick back in.
I’d found my first plateau after about 3 months of daily practice, and it was time for a new challenge.
Month 4 - tightening up
The first thing that I did to increase the challenge was to tighten up the settings. The length of the time window at beginner level is 6% of the inter-beat interval. At 60 BPM this is 60 milliseconds, meaning that each stroke needs to land within +/- 30ms of the metronome beat in order to silence the metronome. This will allow you to play audibly somewhat out of time and still silence the metronome, so it was time to move on to Normal mode, which has a smaller time window of 4%.
I created a new set of exercises, this time with the tightness set to "normal". If you haven't created your own exercises yet, have a look here for instructions.
At first this was really disheartening. It felt like all the progress I had made in the previous three months was gone, but once again I just had to stick with it, concentrating fully on what I was doing: after all, there were 35 years of bad habits to overcome here, and it wasn’t going to happen fast.
Over time, the numbers started to go up, bit by bit, and as I started to get the metronome silent for longer and longer, I was finally relaxed enough to unlock some of the other information that BeatBalance was giving me.
Months 5 and 6 - starting to feel the benefit
It was time for me to start to have a really good look at some of the other stats. I was curious as to how I could sometimes get low solidity scores, but really high consistency. At this point it’s really helpful to know what BeatBalance is measuring when it gives you a consistency score.
The consistency score is based on how tightly grouped the hits are. So I could be way ahead of or behind the beat - even to the point where I was outside of the time window and the metronome was never going silent - and as long as I was consistently doing so, I’d score highly here.
Clearly we wouldn’t really want that, but looking at the screenshot of the consistency graph I can see that the highest number of my hits (the highest peaks on the graph) were consistently slightly ahead of the beat, at around 4ms. If I could get all of my hits to be 4ms early, then I’d be playing ahead of the beat but it would still sound good.
In order to improve my consistency, I concentrated on making sure that my hits were all evenly spaced - which works when we’re using simple, regular subdivisions like sixteenth notes.
I found something really important at this point of the journey. Even though 60 BPM felt really slow, it wasn’t actually slow enough for me to hear and control the level of detail I was going to need in order to get my numbers up. So I stopped practising at 60, and created new exercises at 50 BPM, where I would be able to hear these tiny differences more easily.
Annoyingly, my solidity went down, but I was happy with that: after all I was concentrating on getting my exercises consistent, a different skill to getting my hits all within the window. Gradually that consistency score started to improve, moving from the 500s to the 600s to where it now sits, in the 7-800s, depending on which exercise I am doing.
From then until now - balance, and Speed Builder
There was still a major anomaly in my playing and in my stats - my consistency was rising, but I was still sitting (consistently) ahead of the beat, normally by about 10-12ms.
Because I’d spent so much time already on these exercises, I found that my perception of time had improved to the point where I’m now able to hear the problems as they happen, at low tempos anyway. So my current mission is to pull back - to feel like I am playing behind the beat in order to correct my natural tendency to play ahead of it. To that end I went into the settings and turned on the Balance Tones, which give me an ongoing indication of how my balance is doing.
I’ve also slowed down again, and started using the Speed Builder more and more. In this mode, BeatBalance doesn’t give you a silent metronome, but allows you to slowly increase the tempo of an exercise based on your consistency. If you score over 800 three times in a row, Speed Builder will add 1 BPM to the exercise. I took my core exercises - singles, doubles and paradiddles - down to 30 (yes, 30!) BPM, and I’ve been building up slowly, concentrating on consistency and balance and on actively listening to and correcting my mistakes. Note that Speed Builder is only available to subscribers.
There’s lots more to explore, and now that I’m really playing slowly enough to make a difference, I’m concentrating on things like finger technique, posture, breathing, accenting…..the list goes on.
I’ll let you know how I get on, but one thing I have found is that by concentrating, and by knowing what to concentrate on, you can improve. It’s not going to happen in a day, or even in a month. Playing in time takes time.
Let us know how you’ve been getting with the app, and don’t forget that when you’ve done something that you’re proud of: share it. Use the share button within the app to post to social media - there’s nothing wrong with a little brag when you’re meeting your goals!