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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Muscle Memory

posted by on June 24 at 12:10 PM


Down in darkened basements out there, and rehearsal space bins, there are drummers playing and practicing. There are no windows. It smells of earth and stale beer. A small fan points from a corner. A Dorito from two years ago is crushed into crusty carpet. Over and over these drummers repeat beats, runs, rolls, fills, and paradiddles. Brains send signals through spinal cords. Patterns are instilled. They are trying to get unconscious with it, to play the beat without having to think about playing it. They are trying to build muscle memory. Listen and you can hear them. Letting the beat be sloppy, but playing on.

Being loud and off, this is why the drummer must isolate. It’s not something they want everyone to hear. The cacophony is a necessary prelude, but fine lines are forged. Forty times through the cycle the beat gets tighter, the fill closes in, the mitochondria in the muscle cells are beginning to learn. A pause is taken, water is needed. Then monotony of repetition is entered again.

Muscle memory is a neuromuscular facilitation. It means that motor skills have been memorized. Through repetition, muscles slowly learn movements to a point where the brain no longer has to consciously control the movement.

The thing is, is that our hands and feet can already physically play the individual parts of the beat, but our brain has yet to coordinate the movements. Once the brain understands what we should be playing, our body can follow the signals. Through repetition, playing the passage will gradually become easier while we think less about it. At some point our mind makes the connection between our body movements and the sounds they produce. Be patient, be loud, be OK with being off. Effortlessness will come.

Break the beat down. Practice slowly. Once you’ve figured something out at a slow tempo, resist the urge to speed it up. Do ten minutes of repetitions at that slow tempo, then speed it up. Some beats come easier than others.

The younger someone is, the less repetitions they need. At age five or six, movements become muscle memory with fifty or sixty repetitions. For someone who’s fifty or sixty, they need to repeat something five hundred to five thousand times. If you’re sixty, be more OK with yourself being off. Your rock will come in time. If you’re sixty, bird watch less, play drums more.

It’s noon on a Tuesday. Somewhere a drummer is midway through a fill, and they are off. In an hour they’ll be closer.

RSS icon Comments


True. I would say muscle memory applies to the whole band. When watching live misic it's pretty easy to see who has spent more time in front of a mirror than in the dank confines of the jam space.

Posted by Jeff | June 24, 2008 12:19 PM

My right bicep sent me a postcard last week. It said, 'why did you have to put a drumstick in your hand? why couldn't it have been a dentistry tool, or a law book? thanks for the memories.'

Posted by drummer 647 | June 24, 2008 12:45 PM

The best practicing I've done has been letting myself just slam random drums at random intervals. Moonesque spurts of pounding that paid no attention to rhythm or timing. Once I could do that and make it sound good, it became a lot easier to throw fills into weird places and come out on the beat.

Posted by paulus | June 24, 2008 1:05 PM

The comments here have the makings of an Onion article title. "Drummer responds to article about how hard it is to stick a fill." Let's see if any non-drumma responds by end of day. If they do, I guarantee it will be a bass playa.

Posted by jon e. rock | June 24, 2008 2:20 PM

Bass player here.

I love that Nietzsche quote Oliver Sacks uses in his new book: "We listen to music with our muscles."

Posted by Chris Estey | June 24, 2008 2:38 PM

Nicely done.

I really love how the motor system is put together. Layers upon layers of reflexes.

Mostly, the brain's job is to selectively shut down reflex loops in the spinal cord that actually make things happen. Hence, if you have a disease of the upper motor neurons-ALS, MS, heroin, alcoholism--you eventually become hyper reflexive.

Posted by Jonathan Golob | June 24, 2008 2:44 PM

Love this.

I hear them, but they suck. From now on I will let them suck.

Posted by E | June 24, 2008 4:27 PM

I don't know if I can bird watch less though.

Posted by E | June 24, 2008 4:29 PM

something intelligent and interesting on lineout? written by a musician? and a drummer? so most of the writers on lineout are dumber than... drummers?

there is nothing worse than a bad drummer except a good drummer who has gone bad.


Posted by john | June 24, 2008 5:27 PM

Its true you really can tell which ones put in the time and which dont. And drummers... PLEASE remember to practice in all 12 keys. Starting with ba-doom pschtt of course.

Posted by C | June 24, 2008 7:29 PM

I want to hear some of that Thursday night!

(And rumor has it Friday as well - ?)

: )

Posted by Chris Estey | June 24, 2008 9:08 PM

Another winner Trent.. This seems an appropriate moment to shout out to all the parents/siblings/roommates who have endured the reverberations of the drummer's imperfect isolation. We may think no one can hear us in our drum caves, but really, what teen has perfect sound dampening? My poor sister, her bedroom directly above my basement drum set (which was of course a 10-piece monument to my obsession with Rush), is the patron saint of every solid beat I've managed the throw down.

Posted by Rick | June 25, 2008 9:44 AM

Agreed. I would like to apologize to all the sisters and brothers out there, and neighbors and parents and friends. I had a Rush Monument too. Given, it was jimmy-rigged with masking tape, but to me, that was the drumworld. Roto toms are a rite of passage.

Posted by trent moorman | June 25, 2008 11:09 AM

@7 & 8...

ahem, get a new blog name...there are 25 other letters to choose from. thanks.

Posted by E for reals | June 25, 2008 5:41 PM

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