Extreme Listening - Extreme Results
Listening Concepts for Productive Practicing

By John Thomakos

When it comes to developing musical proficiency on your instrument, listening is a key ingredient. Productive listening can positively influence and change your playing more than any other practicing. Knowing and understanding this simple but powerful concept, you hold the key to slowly cultivating and developing the sound and musicianship which you desire in your playing.

As musicians, the music you most often listen to and the music that you are exposed to the most are influences which are directly reflected in your sound. Many of us do spend time listening to and investigating music we enjoy as well as music we aspire to play. But, employing a more focused and disciplined listening approach to your practice on a daily basis can deliver extreme results.

Influence Surrounds Us

Although it may sound extreme, the statement, "What you surround yourself with is what you become," holds much truth. We are, in essence, products of our environment.

We've all experienced it at one time or another. We catch ourselves borrowing words and expressions from the people with whom we surround ourselves. We adopt these expressions and bits of dialect from family members, roommates, friends, co-workers and so on. The adoption of these words, expressions and mannerisms begins to surface almost naturally in our speech.  Anyone with whom we spend a significant amount of time is a potential influence. Television, movies, music, books, magazines, etc. can have the same effect and often set the trends which influence our lives.

This is because our brains easily and almost effortlessly process information which is repeated and reinforced. Many people make a conscious effort to ignore the influence of their surroundings. Even so, the information is processed and can be called upon as a use of expression and imitation.

Think about how a small child learns to speak: by constantly watching and listening to people speak. This is the main form of instruction. Through watching, listening and imitating, children eventually use their mouths to make sounds and form words that will soon become their voice of expression. In regards to music, Jeff Hamilton summed up this idea when he said, "We're the products of what we've listened to and what we've grown up with. Your influences become part of your personality." What we need to remember though, is that we have a choice in our surroundings and in the influences we select for our lives and for our music.

Listen And Learn

Music is contagious, and it doesn't take many listens before we become familiar with a given piece. Through heavy doses of the same music, however, you experience something beyond mere familiarity and knowing. You get inside and arrive at a new level of knowing, a place where there is a more complete sense of understanding. It sometimes takes many listens, but you will eventually start to learn and grasp what at first listen may have seemed incomprehensible and inconceivable. Once you get inside and reach this new level of understanding, it is not long before the influence of this music starts to naturally and convincingly surface in your playing. The end result is that we walk away with the spirit of the music and of the musicians involved. It is this spirit that can now live within us and be called upon for our own creative endeavors. As the late great Jeff Porcaro once said, "After a while, the accumulation of all the guys you copy becomes your own thing - hopefully."

The key to really learning, understanding and getting "inside" the music that you are  investigating is concentrated repetitive listening. When you find that special recording that blows your mind, one that puts goose bumps on your body and/or brings you to tears: WEAR IT OUT! Listen to it for weeks, or more, exclusively! My automobile has turned into one of my most productive practicing/listening stations, where the music I am investigating goes into heavy rotation. I've listened to the same material almost exclusively for months at a time.   

Ideas for Productive Listening

Try using some of the following listening approaches.

1) Purchase a recording of one artist, group, drummer or style at a time. Don't try to analyze the music or the playing at first listen. Just enjoy it. This way you won't overlook the most important elements: the spirit, emotion, attitude and mood.

2) Take your time when you listen. Spend weeks, months or longer listening to and immersing yourself in just one recording at a time. This is key - an osmosis-like method of learning. You will find that this concentrated listening approach alone will positively influence your thinking and playing.

3) It is oftentimes a good idea, however, to listen to and focus your analysis to just one song at a time, as opposed to trying to digest a whole CD in its entirety. An entire album of new music is sometimes too much information. If a piece of music which you are studying is very difficult, it may be wise to repeatedly listen to and analyze one small section at a time. This way, you can slowly work your way through any given piece. 

4) I highly recommend focusing, learning and memorizing the melody and words - if there are words to the music which you are investigating - instead of just focusing on the drums. Doing so will give you insight into why the playing around the melody works, as well as help you to better learn, memorize and remember the music.

5) Listen carefully and ask yourself what are the elements which make the playing excellent. Listen for attitude, emotion, dynamics, dynamics within the groove, subtle fills and embellishments. Listen to the sound of the drums, tuning, drum sizes, effects, the size and weight of the cymbals, the use of drumsticks, brushes, bundle sticks etc.

6) Try listening to your favorite recordings through headphones. What you hear might surprise you.

7) When listening with the intent to learn a specific groove, fill, solo or what have you, remember the rule: "Can't Sing - Can't Play." Listen repeatedly to whatever it is that you are learning until you have memorized it. If it is in your head and you can sing it, then you can more easily translate it to your instrument.

8) Finally, something for the hard-core music lovers and enthusiasts. Analyze your favorite recordings in the following way: one song at a time, focusing on one instrument at a time. Focus on, for example, the bass player. Listen to and focus on every note that the bass player only plays from the beginning of the song to the end. Next, pick another instrument. Listen to and focus on the entire performance of that instrument and what part that player plays from start to finish. Go through every instrument that you hear on the track, focusing on each instrument and what each player plays as they navigate their way through the tune. This is a very insightful exercise that sheds light on the elements that make a great performance. I recommend listening to each instrument play through the entire song several times. You might be surprised at what you hear.

Recommended Listening

There is an overwhelming amount of recorded material that we can listen to for information, inspiration and enjoyment. Listen to and learn first from music you enjoy and the music you are passionate about. Then, slowly start to learn other popular and essential styles. Research and find out which are the "must have" great recordings in each style that you plan to investigate, and begin your journey.

Fellow musicians are all always eager to share their thoughts and information about music, influences and recordings. You'll find that many musicians will recommend many of the same albums in a given genre. When I take a lesson or meet with drummers or another musicians I respect, I always ask them about their influences and what recordings they recommend. If there is a specific recording which has been highly influential, or one which has touched them deeply, I want to experience it too.

As you investigate new music, it is easier and more fun to spend time with recordings that interest and intrigue you in your current phase of development. Whether it's Philly Joe Jones playing with Miles Davis, Zigaboo Modeliste drumming with The Meters or Jose Pasillas playing with Incubus, listen to whatever puts goose bumps on your body and accept new music and new styles with an open mind. I had always heard about what a masterpiece John Coltrane's A Love Supreme is. The day I brought it home from the record store, I listened to about the first fifteen minutes of it before it was laid to rest on a shelf for many years. Although it is a great work, it crossed my path at the wrong time. I was not ready for it. It was not until years later that I was able to start to understand the beauty of this recording and what makes it the great work that it is. Upon that realization, I also realized how much I had grown.


There are many great drummers, past and present, who have had very little, if any, formal training. We often describe these players as "self-taught." It is these individuals whose desire to learn has led them to set their sights on the joy of developing, playing and creating music rather than the frustrations which can accompany the life-long journey of learning. It is listening which is the key ingredient in the self-taught player's development.

We are all, in a sense, self-taught. Whether we've received formal training or not, we all learn every day by watching and/or listening to live and recorded performances of other musicians. Listening, is the key ingredient which teaches us the "language" that eventually enables us to communicate musically in whatever setting we choose. Just as we expand our minds and gain knowledge from reading books, articles etc., as musicians we reap similar benefits and can gain a wealth of knowledge from listening alone. Ultimately, you are what you listen to.

As one profound thinker, Mehdi Fakharzadeh was quoted from the book Nothing is Impossible by Roy Alexander, "Pay attention, and you can learn to fly with another's wings." That is how the process starts, and you eventually run with the idea and turn it into something of your own. Most profound ideas and things that are beautiful or significant are often documented. How could you ignore that? Listen, listen and re-listen to the masters of the past and present whose work is documented for your enjoyment and inspiration. It is all out there for you to take in, learn from and enjoy. When it comes to your development - in all aspects of your life - you are in charge. You set the pace. You hold the key. Stevie Wonder, one of my favorite drummers, summed it up well when he sang, " Do yourself a favor, educate your mind, get yourself together, hey there ain't much time."

John Thomakos graduated from the Baltimore School for the Arts as a percussion/music major with a scholarship award to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts.

He also holds a Certificate with Honors and an award for "Best Funk Drummer" from the Percussion Institute of Technology in Los Angeles, California. John continues successful professional career as a freelance drummer, author, and educator.

He can be contacted through his website - www.johnthomakos.com