I'm a drumset player. I just finished a B.A. in Percussion Performance, marched 4 years of DCI drum & bugle corps, and am now working on a degree in jazz studies. As I've begun to play more and more jazz (I didn't play much in college), I realize I have more and more awesome ideas for what I'd like to play on any given tune. It's almost as if I can "hear" myself playing in my head along with the music my fellow musicians are playing. I often sing these ideas into my phone, and later I'm still surprised at how much I like what I come up with.

However, I feel like as soon as I pick up sticks to execute any ideas, they evaporate. There are many patterns that are so ingrained into my hands, I just end up combining these in uninteresting ways -- it's like I'm constrained from exploring the ideas in my head because my hands only want to play around with stuff they've done a million times before.

Obviously I've gained valuable skill from building up my current vocabulary, but does anyone have any tips for getting beyond the figures I know, and becoming capable of readily executing the ideas I have in my head?

6 Answers 6


I'm a pretty terrible set player, so I'll attack this from a trombone player's perspective. We also (at least I) suffer from the issue of ingrained patterns.

I would begin by getting completely away from those ingrained patterns. Do this by practicing improv over a recording, and simply forcing yourself to play something different. Don't let the patterns sneak in; if you have to stop, and just do a section. If you need to, use computer software to loop an area, and force yourself to do something completely different each time. Even if it sounds absolutely horrendous, in my opinion it's helping you get out of the box your hands are in. For best practice, use software that can loop areas and record "takes" of you while you're practicing. Doesn't have to be great quality; a webcam mic'll do if you set it across the room. Someone else can recommend a cheap windows program that can do this, but the free Garageband with Macs can do this easily and simply.

Next you want to somehow give your mind a more direct connection with your limbs. Start by really thinking about what you're doing. Don't play it easy; go back to when you were starting out, and you had to consciously think: "Kick, hi-hat, kick, snare, swing on the ride, etc." This'll prevent your limbs from doing what they're used to doing, and move to doing what you want them to do. On trombone I would think every note. Play it real slow, and think literally everything. This'll get you playing out of the box.

Depending on how thoroughly your musical ideas are generated in your head, you may already know which drum/cymbal plays which role in the "lick," if not, you'll have to consciously think that too.

So my tips are slow it down way below your actual skill level, then loop/record yourself thinking through everything. Like your rudiments and all the stuff you learned in college, it'll take time, possibly more so since you're trying to get past all that, but eventually you'll reap great rewards. (As you already know.)

Hopefully this gets some other answers too; I'll be interested to see other takes on this (especially from the perspectives of actual percussionists).

  • 1
    This is a good answer, although it should be noted (somewhat unintuitively for non-percussion players) that playing slower can actually be MORE difficult than playing at a speed you're more used too. I haven't quite figured out why this is, but I think it's probably a lot to do with muscle memory, which probably means it's a good idea for that reason too.
    – naught101
    Commented Jun 18, 2012 at 3:59
  • That's completely true for trombone too… again, at least for me, but if I struggle enough to make it rock-solid at slower speeds, it gets much cleaner and crisper at the higher speeds. Commented Jun 18, 2012 at 13:34

First of all make sure everything you do is intentional... I can't stress this enough, as just throwing your hands around the kit will not get you far, especially if you want to reach a highly proficient level.

I came from a corps background into jazz, and I think one of the main issues is being stuck in the rudimental mentality.

Looking at para-diddles as para-diddles won't get you far as you've compartmentalized something that has a much broader relationship to rhythm: They're a way to play four notes. You could also play two doubles, inverted doubles, 3 on a hand followed by 1, 4 on a hand, or 4 notes hand to hand.

Being able to look at what you're really doing rhythm wise as apposed to stroke wise is the first step, and being able to understand the macro rhythm is key.

This way your ideas can be felt as phrases where you can then decide how to stick/kick within that certain phrase giving you the ability to omit or add subdivsions as you please, not bogging down the processor with having to assemble stickings into larger rhythms.

I believe this top down approach is also beneficial whilst dividing up time, where adhering to the largest denominations within the phrase is better than thinking of everything at the smallest subdivision.


I play percussion and run a slightly anarchic drum jam. I have the same problem, it's in my head but can't get it out through the hands. Watching the good players, I see a lot of "remixing" they will take a pattern they hear and like, copy it, then change it. They also do the same with their own patterns. So I'd suggest you don't try to change everything at once, particularly not under pressure on stage. Evolve; add one brilliant idea at a time to the mix you already do well.


A different perspective -from my teacher of west african djembe solos: Walking practice, your feet keep the beat, your hands play, using body percussion. I'm currently using this to get my head around a tricky 3 dundun part that like a lot of west african percussion is 3X4 on one hand and 4x3 on the other. You may get odd looks doing this on a busy street!


Try really focusing on what you "hear" and close your eyes. Try to visualize yourself playing it behind a kit. See if you can slow it down and/or break it into pieces. What does your leading hand do? What about the bass drum and the other hand?

You can already hear these ideas in your head. Now you just need to get them out.

  • This doesn't exactly answer the question.
    – Luke_0
    Commented Oct 24, 2012 at 21:54
  • 2
    If I understood correctly, we're talking about how to transform ideas from your head into your playing. We're talking about being constrained by your PLAYING abilities, unable to execute ideas you can HEAR. There is no one solution. One is to practice, practice, practice and thus broaden your skill set, but I wouldn't underestimate the power of your mind. Visualizing what you hear, organizing these ideas into actual beats/compositions. I'm not downplaying the importance of practice, but sometimes it's all in your head too. ;) Commented Oct 25, 2012 at 5:11

In the original question, you said you can sing your ideas into your phone well enough to understand them later. I think you could write down or visualize and practice your new ideas and start giving yourself a new set of original patterns to choose from.

I've been a classical violinist for longer I can remember, but just started learning improvisation about 10 years ago. At the beginning of the process it was all about breaking old patterns and getting out of my comfort zone so I could have an original idea. Over time, I've come to understand that even great jazz players don't often do their fancy improvised stuff completely off the cuff-- they also practice licks, scales, and patterns in various styles and rhythms to expand their palette of muscle memory options. There's an (often overlooked) overlap between improvisation and composing. If you heard the same artist play the same tune in different performances, their solo might sound a lot the same on different nights. It doesn't have to be totally new and different every time to be interesting and very cool, and throwing away a great idea just to do something different doesn't make any sense.
It takes time and practice to sharpen your skills with improv too.

Other stuff that helps me: singing along with recordings I like while I'm driving, looping a set of chord changes on the computer and challenging myself to never do the same thing twice unless I really love it, spending 10 minutes with my violin playing whatever comes out just to listen to how I'm thinking, visualizing EXACTLY how I'd like to play the cool stuff I do come up with. Some of my jazz friends spend lots of time transcribing awesome solos from their favorite artists.

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