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.
Let’s take number one: playing cleanly. How many drummers go out to scrutinize Ari Hoenig and Mark Guiliana, and watch those guys do everything right with regard to playing cleanly? Then these same drummers go back to the practice room and continue to play like a hot mess! Why? They’re not hearing themselves as they really sound. They’re imagining something that’s not real.
The good news is that anyone can learn to hear him/herself accurately if they have the patience and the discipline. As I say on my website the reason most people don’t do it is that it’s hard. It involves listening to recordings of yourself, hearing how bad you sound, and using that as both data and inspiration for the next day’s practice.
When I started coaching people who found me through the YouTube channel I was experimenting with ways to take people through the same “self-awareness” process I’d experienced more quickly and less painfully. It was great to have the opportunity to teach real students, because I discovered quickly which of my theories really worked for others and which were just my personal learning style. Essentially I found the 80/20 of the teaching: the 20% of efforts that will produce 80% of success.
The course is a fully-realized curriculum of all the things that have worked best for my coaching students. So ten years of experiments on myself, identifying the best practices, then a couple years of experimentation teaching high-level students, and it’s been filtered still further.
So this is the most distilled, battle tested stuff in an online course.
The course is like a personal web teacher. It manages your practice routine, so you know exactly what to practice, for how long, each week. It uses video and sheet music to demonstrate the exercises, and with each week the exercises get more advanced. At the end of each level or module, there’s a challenge, just like in a video game. You have to record yourself playing certain specific things, then there’s a template to “score” yourself. Above a certain score and you move on. Below it, and you repeat the module.
There are two versions of the course, each with twelve modules of two weeks each – a jazz version for drummers looking to get stronger all around but who want special attention to jazz styles, and a standard version for drummers not interested in playing jazz. And both of those courses are available together for a single price.
If drummers want the full coaching experience, I also have a premium option whereby they can hire me to score their homework, and provide specific feedback for a monthly fee. They can purchase the premium option at any time, cancel at any time, and the course is still theirs for life.
If you’re a beginner, it’s probably not the best fit. The course assumes you have some technique and a few years of experience. But beyond that it’s surprising the range of skill levels that find benefit. For an intermediate player, he’s seeing a lot of the foundational stuff for the first time, and it shortens his learning curve and gets him improving earlier. For an experienced player, it’s kind of “back to basics” to shore up a lot of cracks in the foundation. But as I mentioned above, players often learn a lot of technique without developing that key self-awareness sufficiently. That’s what this course teaches, and it’s something that cuts across skill levels.
Get the 80/20 Coaching Course at a VIP discount price:
There are some tradeoffs. The best-possible case scenario would be weekly lessons with a world-class teacher. But there are several reasons that’s impractical. First, the expense involved is astronomical. My former teacher John charges $150 per lesson! A month’s worth of lessons would be $600. Secondly, for motivated players it’s overkill. You don’t need a complete overhaul every week. You want some pointers, and somebody to curate what you’re practicing, and that’s what this course does extremely well.
Let’s also not forget the many reasons learning over the internet can be superior to private lessons. First, obviously, unless you’re lucky enough to live in a major city and have the money to pay a great player, most people don’t have access to a world-class teacher. Your local teach might be great – or he might not – but with the internet, you have instant access to the greatest players in the world. And unlike a live lesson, you can watch videos over-and-over. If you booked a lesson with me, hired a camera crew to record and edit everything, took detailed notes, then painstakingly transcribed everything I played, you’d have the equivalent of one module of the course. And it still wouldn’t be organized as nicely for you as in the 80/20 Coaching Course.
Finally, the improvement shown by my coaching students over the past two years has validated the whole process for me. You truly can get the key information across via video, and what students are really thirsting for beyond that is feedback and accountability, both of which the internet lends itself really well to.
Here’s a super simple ear training exercise:
- Put on your headphones, turn on a tune you like to play along with, then put your smartphone on the music stand and record yourself with it. The smart phone obviously won’t pick up the recording you’re listening to, but that’s the point.
- Then listen back to the raw recording, and listen out for things that surprise you. Are your sounds consistent? When you intend to play the kick drum and the hats together, are they really together? How is the spacing between your notes? Is it consistent or inconsistent?
- Compare your performance to the drummer on the recording. Feel that pain… That is your starting point for figuring out what you need to practice.