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How to practice without a drum kit

So you’ve decided you want to play the drums, awesome! Next comes the big question: “We don’t have a drum set at our place, what do I need to get started practicing what I learn in lessons?”

For those of you who don’t know me: my name is Kyle Smith, I am the Music Director at SoR Fort Wayne and have been teaching drums there since we opened 4 years ago. During that time, this is one of the questions I have heard the most from beginning students and their parents, and it is absolutely a valid question. Drums are expensive, noisy, and take up a lot of space. Guitars can be practiced in near silence sitting on the couch, drums can’t! For new students and their families finding a set up for practicing drums that works for their living situation can be a huge hurdle - a hurdle that even prevents some people from trying out drums in the first place.

So for this month’s instructor article, I want to share how I answer this question when someone asks me, “How can I practice when my living situation is…”

First, two main premises that I’m operating out of :

Gear doesn’t make the music, you do.

Don’t let lack of particular gear be an excuse that stops you from making music. I firmly believe this. For any instrument, for any player, at any skill level. Music comes from the soul of the musician, not from the instrument. The instrument is just a tool for getting the music out of your head and into other people’s ears. It’s easy to get caught in the trap of thinking that a shiny new piece of gear will make your music better. But at the end of the day, the quality of the music depends more on the person using the instrument than the instrument itself. 

Some of the best music has been made with subpar tools. I mean, we have more technology available to us on the phone in our pockets than the Beatles had accessible to them when they made Sgt. Peppers. I’ve witnessed (and made) some great music on crappy instruments. I’ve witnessed (and made) some crappy music on really nice instruments.  I think it’s important to start any conversation about gear and instrument solutions by talking about this because it is so easy to get caught up in the nuts and bolts of the particular gear. When it comes down to it, gear is just a tool to help you create, but the music starts with you first.

If you are planning on playing live drums in a band setting, you should find time to hit some real, acoustic drums at full volume on a regular basis.

All of the workarounds and solutions listed below are great practice set ups to accommodate wherever you are currently at with your living situation. But if you are going to be performing on a full kit at full volume, you should find time before the performance to play your parts on a similar set up to what you are going to be using live. There’s a reason we use full kits at full volume in our rehearsals, even though we use some of these workarounds in our lesson rooms. Live acoustic drums respond and sound differently than the solutions listed below. Some of the differences are subtle, some of them are dramatic, and you don’t want the gig to be the first time you’re finding out these differences. 

If you have the space, finances, and noise tolerance to support a full acoustic kit, go for it! And if cost is a factor, don’t be afraid to look at used options on eBay, Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, or at local music stores. You can make a not so great set of drum shells sound amazing with the right heads and a little TLC. If space, noise, etc. are still issues, read on - there’s some great practice options available for any living situation (some of these I personally use on a regular basis, even though I have a set up for a full kit at full volume).

Workaround 1: Mesh drum heads and Low Volume Cymbals

Pros: Low volume options, feels pretty close to playing a full acoustic kit, can use these options with a regular acoustic kit that you use live at shows

Cons: Takes up same amount of space as a regular drum kit, costs about the same as regular heads and entry level cymbals

Best use: Where you have access to (or space for) a regular kit, but noise is a problem

In the past 5 years or so, most major drumhead and cymbal companies have started offering low volume options, and these have honestly been a godsend to a lot of drummers, their families, and their neighbors. I used to live in a small apartment and I always had to house my drums at a rehearsal space across town. It was a pain to fit in even the smallest amount of practice time on my kit because I would have a 30 minute drive both ways just to get to the place. When I found out about the low volume options I got super excited because I would finally be able to practice my kit at home.

The way these work is you use an existing drum set and you simply replace the heads (like you normally would do when they get old and/or broken) and use the mesh ones instead. Same with the cymbals - fit regular cymbal stands and can be set up in your normal configuration. What’s nice is you’re sitting and playing at a regular acoustic kit and it feels pretty darn close to what it’s like with full volume heads and cymbals. There is just significantly less noise. I do find that you will need to tune the mesh heads a little bit tighter than you would normal heads to get closer to the same type of feel. Also, the cymbals are close but don’t have quite the same nuances as you would get on a full volume cymbal (e.g. it doesn’t feel like there’s the meat of the cymbal there like it does on a regular cymbal and so the stick response feels differently in the hand). But these things are subtle and not as important to beginning players. 

I’m a huge supporter of solutions like this because it helped me so much. With this option I was able to practice on my kit in my tiny apartment without bothering my neighbors (even when I was practicing for my metal band). We actually use this type of setup in our drum lesson rooms at SoR Fort Wayne, because they are less disruptive of other lessons this. Although there are some feel differences in these options, the positive trade off that you get to practice in places you previously weren’t able to pretty much cancels out those minor details. Even though I’m now out of the apartment and I now have place to practice my full-volume kit, I still use my low-volume setup from time to time if I’m practicing late at night and don’t want to disturb my neighbors.

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Workaround 1: Mesh Drum Heads and Low Volume Cymbals

Workaround 2: Practice Pad Kit / Electronic Drum Kit

Pros: Take up less space than a full acoustic kit, low volume option, tends to cost less than a full acoustic kit

Cons: Most feel very different than playing on an acoustic kit, the ones that do have better feel/response are going to be much more expensive.

Best use: Where space and noise are both an issue

There is a difference between a Practice Pad Kit and Electronic kits, but for our purposes here we’re going to lump them together. Practice pads (we’re going to talk about these more below) are simply rubber pads that you hit with drumsticks. The pads are relatively quiet and the sticks will bounce in similar (but not the same) ways as they do on a drumhead or cymbal. Some companies sell sets of these grouped together in an arrangement that resembles an acoustic kit along with a pad you can attach your kick drum pedal to. 

Electronic kits started out essentially as practice pad kits that would trigger a preloaded sound when you hit the pad. They have come a long way in the past couple of decades. I remember playing an electric kit from the late 90s/early 00s and hating it so much because there would be a lag time from when I hit pad and when the sound was played. That type of thing is much less an issue now. Some companies actually make options with mesh heads and low volume cymbals similar to the first workaround in order to deal with differences in feel or electric kits, but when you get to that end of the market the price goes up significantly.

What’s nice about this workaround is that it tends to take up less space, is relatively low-volume, and you still get the motion of moving your sticks from one sound source to another (e.g. playing different drums and/or cymbals at different times). This helps develop the coordination skills behind the kit in pretty much the same way that you would get if you were practicing on a regular drum set - and so that is extremely useful. If you have an electric kit you also get to hear how changing your sound source will change the sound, so that’s cool. 

There is a bit of debate about electric vs. acoustic kits and the pros and cons of each, but there are a bunch of factors that go into picking the right solution for you. So I’ll just say this on the topic: whenever a student or parent asks me “Should I get an electric or an acoustic kit” I always answer by saying, “Pick the one that’s going to inspire you to practice!” If you have the space/finances/noise tolerance for a full acoustic kit, but you think the electric kit is super cool and you’re going to have more fun playing on that one, go with the electric kit.

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Workaround 2: Practice Pad Kit / Electronic Drum Kit

Workaround 3: Practice Pad

Pros: Inexpensive, portable, low-volume

Cons: Only one sound source to choose from (not the best for working on grooves); feels different than playing on acoustic drums

Best use: Every drummer!

As I said above, practice pads are essentially just rubber pads, that you hit with drumsticks. The stick bounces back in similar ways to how it would on a drum or cymbal, and it’s fairly quiet. Practice pads are great and I really think every drummer should have one. I use mine on a regular basis to work on hand technique exercises in my practice time and to warm up my hands before gigs. They do feel different than playing an acoustic drum, but that’s OK. Their main purpose isn’t as much about being a substitute for playing on actual drums, but rather they are more for working out the hands (and feet if you have a kick pedal practice pad). Think about athletes who train in the weight room. Doing the various exercises to lift the weights doesn’t necessarily replicate what they are going to be doing in their competition, but it is strengthening them to be able to achieve those things. Practice pads function in a similar way - building form, technique, and strength so that when you go to try new things on the drum kit, you can achieve them well. 

If you are looking to make a first purchase on a practice solution and don’t want to invest in another option right away, this is a great place to start. They are not necessarily the best for working on grooves (parts where you have multiple limbs playing on different sound sources) because it’s only the one pad, but that’s where options like the practice pad kits or electronic kits come into play. These individual pads are nice for being on the road or for regular hand workouts. They’re easy to throw in a bag with some sticks, and you’re good to go practice just about anywhere.

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Workaround 3: Practice Pad

Workaround 4: DIY practice pads (pillows, old mouse pads, pots and pans, recycling, etc.), Air Drumming, Imagination.

Pros: Cheap and/or free, can be low-volume and/or noiseless, a “no-excuses” way to get started when you don’t have gear to practice on when you’re starting out

Cons: Doesn’t necessarily develop stick technique, doesn’t feel like drums or cymbals

Best Use: Someone with no other practice options available to them at the moment

So I didn’t have my own full drum kit until I had been playing for several years. I had the snare drum I got in my middle school band percussion kit and that was it. I would occasionally go on the drum kits at school or church to practice grooves on a real kit, but the rest of the time it was up to me to find a solution for practicing drum set. I tried a little bit of everything, but the one that worked best for me was setting up several different pillows to represent the different drums and cymbals. I would sit on a chair, stomp my foot for the kick drum and move my hands around the pillows to emulate the different sound sources on a regular kit.

It wasn’t the best option, but it was the one available to me at the moment so I took it. Honestly, it really helped me when I was starting out, even though it wasn’t helping me develop detailed stick or pedal technique. The thing is that finely detailed technical stuff starts to come into play later. When your first starting out you’re focusing on big motions, making sure your hands and feet are moving in time, things like that. You’re not necessarily worried about if you should be using French or German grip on the hands for the bridge section or if you’re playing your feet heel up or heel down for that soft passage of the song. That type of thing is important and helpful, but not your main focus when starting out. It’s better to be practicing on a regular basis with a less than ideal setup than to have the best set of drums in the world and never touch them. 

This brings us back to the premises talked about at the beginning. Don’t let gear (lack of, quality of, whatever) be an excuse that keeps you from practicing. The fact that you are practicing is much, much more important than the details of what your practice setup looks like. Yes, if you are performing live on an acoustic kit, it’s good to get some practice time on an acoustic kit to know what that feels like before the gig (and if you are an SoR Fort Wayne student, you will get that time at every rehearsal). Hopefully these workarounds provide some practice solutions for you if you don’t have access to a full kit. However, keep in mind that ultimately, the music comes from you first, not the instrument. So get out there and start practicing some drums, whatever your practice set up may look like!

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Workaround 4: DIY Practice Pads

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