Nate Smith is one of the most innovative and fresh-thinking drum instructors online, publishing free video lessons and resources for modern drummers on his website The 80/20 Drummer. His approach shows drummers how to get better results with less effort, by focusing on what truly matters and making full use of their ears.
This week sees the launch of Nate’s new fully-fledged coaching course for drummers who want to take their playing to the next level and get maximum results from the practice time they have. We invited him here to explain his revolutionary approach – and how ear training ties in…
Hey guys great to be here! I want to thank Christopher for giving me the opportunity to answer some questions on EasyEarTraining.com.
I moved to New York City in my early 20s from a small town in the northwest USA because I had fallen in love with drumming and with jazz drumming. I was accepted into Manhattan School of Music, where I studied with John Riley. Dream-come-true, right? Well not so fast.
The “aha” moment for me was listening back to recordings of some of the gigs, and realizing I didn’t sound the way I thought I did.
I realized that in a very real way I needed to train my ears if my drumming was going to get any better.
Upon graduating, I had some technique and knew a few things, so I thought I would be working a lot. I discovered, however, that I wasn’t as good as I thought. Sure, I played with some of my musical heroes, and that was a great experience. But the “aha” moment for me was listening back to recordings of some of the gigs, and realizing I didn’t sound the way I thought I did. I realized that in a very real way I needed to train my ears if my drumming was going to get any better.
I’d been teaching on-and-off since I graduated, but a couple of years ago things really started to come together for me, and I wanted to share what I’d learned. So my YouTube channel began as kind of a hobby – just an opportunity for me to “nerd out” about things I was discovering about getting better at the drums. I started getting some students from the channel, and one thing kind of led to another as I used what worked with my students to refine my teaching methods, etc.
The 80/20 Principle from the italian economist Vilfredo Pareto has become popular in technology and business circles lately. There are shades of gray, but essentially it means that when you think of a process, whether that’s something as abstract as creating wealth in an economy or something as concrete as hitting a baseball, not every input – say, choking up on the bat – has equal effect. In fact, a few things have an extremely large effect and the rest have a small-to-negligible one.
What caused a quantum leap in my improvement was my realization that the greatest drummers were different from one-another in almost every respect, but they did all have a few key things in common.
Things that not too many people were talking about. Leverage points where you could focus all your time and forget about practically everything else.
It’s a really powerful principle. Want to improve your golf swing? Don’t just hit a million balls at the driving range. Of the 100 things you’re probably doing wrong, find the one or two with that outsized effect. The things where even if you get almost everything else wrong, will still cause you to improve. Maybe just straightening your left arm on the backswing will improve your consistency by 50%. (I’m not a golf expert – this is just a hypothetical!) Wouldn’t you like to know that before you pour years into practicing?
For drums the advantage is obvious. What caused a quantum leap in my improvement was my realization that the greatest drummers were different from one-another in almost every respect, but they did all have a few key things in common. Things that not too many people were talking about. Leverage points where you could focus all your time and forget about practically everything else.
Most aspiring drummers are lacking refinement in three key areas. These are also, not coincidentally, the areas where the greats converge in spite of their individual styles.
- Playing “cleanly”. That means if you were a group of drummers (and on the drum kit you essentially are), would they be playing together as an ensemble, or would they be stepping all over each other, at cross-purposes? I call this the “personal drum troupe”.
- Playing in time. That just means maintaining a steady tempo when you want to.
- Having options. Drums are improvisational, like freestyle rap. How do you create musical sentences that sound good, so that you’re not just repeating the same thing, or, worse yet, stealing somebody else’s words but not thinking for yourself? Try to do too much and you’ll hiccup – the musical equivalent of stuttering or stammering. Finding the “sweet spot” where you’re able to play your own ideas fluidly without repeating yourself can be taught, but few people are currently teaching it.
So I held this part back on the previous question because I want to underscore that ear training is not a component of drumming but the single most important thing. Why can I just list the three “secrets” to getting better above like that, and people still pay me for coaching and courses? Because knowing what to do is the easy part. Learning how to listen to yourself is the hard part – the part that takes practice.
Ear training is not a component of drumming but the single most important thing.