Mental Techniques In Drumming - Part Two
By M. Rupert Walden. Originally published in Modern Drummer magazine in August 1987
I once had a Kung Fu instructor tell me there were masters who no longer needed to practice physically but did their practicing in their minds. That sounds pretty far- fetched, right? But consider this. Charles Garfield, a researcher and expert in opti- mal human performance, reports a study in his book Peak Performance, which involved several groups of world-class athletes. Various training methods were uti- lized, and the groups were tested prior to the 1980 Olympic games. The top group had used a combination of 25% physical and 75% mental training! Maybe there's something to this mental thing after all. Maybe we drummers can better learn to tap our own mental powers.
Mental attitude has long been cited as the deciding factor between champions and the rest of the pack. Gold medal decathlon champion Bruce Jenner has said, "I always felt that my greatest asset was not my physical ability; it was my mental ability.'' As far back as 1899, experts of the day were debating whether gymnasts could improve by practicing in their heads. Interest in the inner side of sports really began to mushroom in the 1960s. Today, findings and applications have spilled over into many other areas as well. Research on the mental component in such diverse fields as health care, business, sports, and the arts continues to grow. Biofeedback has proven that our thoughts, words, and inner images affect virtually every cell of the body. This relatively new knowledge has an important impact on drummers. The mental barriers that inhibit musicians are the same as those faced by performers in other disciplines. We can apply what they have learned!
One of the major mental techniques is called visualization, or mental rehearsal. It's been referred to as practicing in the mind's eye, creating movies of the mind, and projecting onto your own mental screen. Golfing legend Jack Nicklaus believes that his success is due to three major factors: 10% to his setup, 40% to his stance, and 50% to the mental imagery he practices before every shot. The concept is not entirely new to musicians. Drummer Herb Lovelle stated in an MD interview, "I practice every day. I practice mentally, which is something Max [Roach] im- planted in my head. If you don't have the opportunity to physically practice, then mental exercises are necessary. You can think of what you want to play and how you're going to do it."
James Loehr, in his book Mental Toughness Training For Sports, refers to visualization as "one of the most powerful mental training strategies available." Gar- field calls it "the master skill,'' and stresses that it can strengthen our present skill level, as well as help us develop new skills. He feels the term visualization is mislead- ing as it implies using only the sense of sight. He's found that musicians often report hearing in their imagery. So it's important to use all the senses—sight, smell, taste, hearing, and touch—to get a complete mental picture.
Why and how does mental practice work? In 1960, Dr. Maxwell Maltz pub- lished a remarkable book called Psychocy- bernetics, in which he wrote, "The brain and nervous system cannot tell the differ- ence between an actual event and one that is vividly imagined." There were many skeptics at the time, but research since then has systematically confirmed the truth of his ideas. (As an aside, I heartily recom- mend this book! Charley Perry and Jack DeJohnette discussed it in an article sev- eral years ago. One college football coach thought it was so good that he gave every member of his team a copy.) New York City movement therapist Irene Dowd explains that there are two parts in learning any movement skill: physical conditioning for the muscles, and neurological pattern- ing or the sequence of a move. According to Irene, "You have to learn the complex patterns or nerve signals that are needed to produce movement." Repetition of the movement is one way to learn the skill; using imagery is another.
In a series of experiments, monitoring instruments were attached to downhill ski- ers during their mental practices. It was found that the nerve and muscle fibers used in the various movements actually fired up. It was like a scaled down version of a real run down the slopes—"proof," says Dorothy Harris, Ph. D., director of a grad- uate program in sports psychology, "that, when you imagine something, there's more going on than just between the ears." "According to researchers," writes Gar- field, "we enhance and accelerate our physical learning process by combining mental imagery and physical training."
Visualisation is now an essential component for many programs and performers. Its applications are most observable in sports but are equally dramatic in other fields. In the last Winter Olympics, U.S. downhill skier Phil Mayer was seen by mil- lions as he mentally rehearsed his race prior to winning the gold medal. Concert cellist Pablo Casals mentally practices and memorizes a new piece of music before ever sitting down to play it. Use the follow- ing as a basis for developing your own mental training routines.
1. The starting point for effective visual- izationisbecomingphysicallyrelaxed.Use a method of your choice, or simply sit qui- etly in a comfortable position, close your eyes, and take several deep, slow breaths. As you exhale, imagine yourself releasing all tension, worry, and negativity. With each inhalation, you are bringing in posi- tive energy, peace, lightness, and relaxa- tion.
2. Experiment with using a still shot, a slide show, or a full-length movie to see what works best for you. Some evidence suggests that using action or motion in your images is very important.
3. Use both external and internal imag- ery.Externalimageryistakingtheroleofa spectator by watching yourself playing the drums, as if you were in the audience. You might think of yourself as a cameraman employing various shots and angles to get the best shot. Internal imagery involves assuming the role of the performer and experiencing the attitudes, feelings, and sensations that accompany that role.
4. Remember that this is a learned skill. The more you practice, the better you get. Use both long and short training sessions. You don't have to go into a deep trance. It's important to use longer periods at first, maybe five to ten minutes, to get the hang of it. Shorter sessions will then reinforce your previous work. A number of short sessions is more effective than one or two long ones. A frequently seen pattern is that, after practice, a single word or image will trigger the entire sequence, and one can get the benefits in a fraction of the time.
5. Think of everything as happening right now, even when reviewing past performances or previewing future ones. This is very important. Think of immediate results.
6. Use all your senses. The goal is to make your imagery as detailed, vivid, and realistic as possible. Some people report that they just don't see pictures in their head. If this applies to you, just focus on your other senses and imagine in your own style. This will not decrease the effective- ness of the exercises.
7. Give yourself permission to imagine and fantasize. This came naturally as a child, but you may have to recapture it. With some success, you'll be motivated to continue.
8. Let the process happen instead of trying hard. Gently guide your images instead of forcing them. If your mind wanders— and it surely will—simply accept this and go back to the task.
9. Use both an active and passive approach—active being when you act to direct the process in a structured way, pas- sive being a more unstructured approach in which you just kind of sit back and watch to see what happens.
Review For Improvement
This is an exercise similar to reviewing game films in sports. Basketball hall of famer Pete Marovitch would mentally relive every game to determine his mistakes and reprogram himself to play better in the future.
Close your eyes, breathe deeply, and relax. Pick a recent performance, and mentally review it. You can stop action, use slow motion, rewind, and replay. Did you make any major or minor mistakes? How was your tempo? What do you think of your interpretation of the tunes? Were you synchronized with the rest of the band? How were your dynamics? Did your ideas flow freely? What attitudes, thoughts, or feelings did you have? Did they enhance or detract from your play- ing? How would you rate your perform- ance?
Note any aspects of your playing that you want to change or improve. Rewind and play through those sections, editing in your modifications. Repeat the improved version several times. Get a detailed, crys- tal-clear image of this enhanced perform- ance. Forget the mistakes, and remember the corrections. Focus on what you want, not what you don't want.
Review For Inspiration
Close your eyes and relax. Mentally review some of the high points of your playing career—those times that you really feel good about. Did you get positive feed- back from others? What were you wear- ing? Were other people involved? What impresses you most about these events? Mentally fill in such details as temperature, sound, color, and lighting. Recapture the richness of your own special moments, and re-experience them as fully as you can. Replay your highlight film often. It's a good confidence booster and will inspire your continued development.
Becoming Fully Focused
The human mind is a perpetual motion machine. It's been referred to as "a drunken monkey" and as a chariot drawn by a team of wild horses with no driver. Our challenge is to keep it fully focused on what we choose.
The martial arts have long recognized the importance of tuning out extraneous material and paying complete attention to the present moment. This instruction was given to a medieval student: "You must concentrate upon and consecrate yourself wholly to each day, as though a fire were raging in your hair." The samurai used the term "mokuteki hon'i" to emphasize this concept. It translates as "focus on your purpose!" Buddy Rich displayed this atti- tude. He said that, whenever he sat down to play, he put aside all his problems, per- sonal or business. His sole concern was giving his utmost at that particular point in time.
Here are some techniques you can use to increase your focus. One is to imagine how you would look if you were being filmed. What if the camera were overhead, under- neath your drums, to the sides, far off, or up close? Another is to find a key image that symbolizes your progress, goals, or ideals. Arnold Schwarzenegger visualizes improvement by thinking of his biceps as mountains that fill up the whole room. Swimmers think of themselves as a ship's bow slicing through the water. Dancers see themselves floating through their steps! Sprinters and high jumpers imagine their legs as powerful springs that propel them. Some athletes identify themselves with an animal—perhaps a leopard, cheetah, or gazelle—that represents qualities they wish to express. What meaningful image can you think of? Give this some thought. Steve Gadd uses the image of Airto to inspire him when playing samba patterns. He says, "I'm just trying to be like him."
Use these focusing strategies during both practice and performance. In prac- tice, you might pause periodically to sing the patterns to yourself and imagine exe- cuting them flawlessly in your mind. While playing, you can flash your key images on your mental screen—the images that repre- sent the ideal you are striving for.
Our mental pictures write the scripts for our futures. Dr. Emerson Fostick wrote, "Hold a picture of yourself long and steadily enough in your mind's eye, and you will be drawn toward it . . . . Great living starts with a picture held in your imagination of what you would like to do or be." Basketball great Larry Bird pro- jects himself into the future in preparation for upcoming games. During the 1986 playoffs, his coach said, "You can almost see the movie projector go off in his head,'' as Bird would dribble the ball and then uti- lize one of the many options he'd mentally rehearsed numerous times.
The following exercise will help you to program yourself for peak performance in future situations. Close your eyes and relax. Review your previous exercises, your improvements, and your high points. Scan your own history, and recapture those times of increased mind-body inte- gration—times when everything clicked and just seemed to flow. Dwell on these images.
Now project yourself into a future event. This could be the wedding reception next weekend, or playing in concert for 20,000 screaming fans. How would things be if everything were as you wanted it to be? What do you need to add to make the scene more detailed and real?
Take the role of an observer. See your- self now—your facial expressions, your clothes, your equipment. See yourself behind your drums. How does that per- former project himself or herself? What spirit does he or she radiate? What does he or she play, and how does he or she play it? What do you notice most? In your mind's eye, see yourself as the confident, creative, poised, and talented person you aspire to be. These qualities are now yours.
Now become that drummer. Feel your body sensations—the tingle of excitement, the heat of the lights. Sense the energy in your muscles and the focused power of that energy. Feel the sticks in your hands and the pedals beneath your feet. What are you thinking and feeling? What do you notice most about playing your best? You may want to rehearse the moves you want to make or the ideas you want to express, or you might prefer to focus on the mood, the atmosphere, and the positive feedback from yourself and an appreciative audi- ence. Dwell on this experience, and live it fully. Know the exhilaration of having per- formed your best. Let go, and trust that this exercise has positively influenced you for future excellence.
Will visualization work for you? No, not unless you do so some work yourself. "Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do," wrote Goethe. Make a game of these exercises and have fun with them, but don't under- estimate their power. Expand and modify them in your own individual way. The proper images, rightly used, have the power to stimulate, inspire, motivate, and improve us, and can have a profound and sustained impact on our drumming skills. Our mental pictures are the blueprints for future performances, so keep them positive.
The two articles I've posted covering this material have been inspired by research upon reading John Lamb's book "anatomy of drumming" which in my opinion should be required reading for all drummers. It contains incredible information on the natural movement of our bodies, how we should be approaching the drum set in terms of our posture and how the natural movement our bodies can actually help us as drummers if we listen to what our bodies are telling us. Make sure to visit John's website here where you can purchase the book.