Readiness Potential and Drumming: Priming Your Neural Pathways Like A Boss

In the spring of 1985, I lived in Santa Cruz, California. It’s a beautiful beach town with hills overlooking the pristine Monterey Bay. I was attending Cabrillo Community College with hopes of transferring to UC Santa Cruz to study the more esoteric aspects of drumming and psychology in a self-study environment. One of the classes offered at Cabrillo really caught my eye because of the link between drumming, the body and the mind, so I enrolled in Physiological Psychology…

It was a fairly dry class until the day the professor introduced us to the concept of Readiness Potential, and that’s when my drumming world turned itself upside down. The concept was simple: when you think abut doing something, conducting an action of any sorts, the nerves associated with that action come alive with a kind of “Ready, Set” priming. The nerves await your “Go” signal before completing the action.

For example, suppose you want to reach for a glass of water on a table. Your mind sends the “Get ready to reach for the glass, activate all nerves pathways asociated with completing this action, and wait for my signal” command. You’re cocked and locked, so to speak…

I was absolutely enthralled with this notion, because it’s applications to drumming and all music performance were immediately clear.

Think about the times you have heard a song and wanted to learn the drumming part. You listen closely, and somehow, your body seems to already know how to play the part. You can almost feel your limbs coming alive with the desire to play…

Get the picture?

When you hear a drum part, you are in effect thinking about it, and by thinking about it, you are sending the signals to your nerves and muscles to play the part… if you can hear and understand it clearly in your mind FIRST. By employing Readiness Potential in your practice, you can strengthen the link between your mind and your body without ever touching a drum set or a pair of sticks. It’s not a replacement for actual physical practice, mind you, but it certainly helps at a deep level. Gary Chaffee mentioned this idea of keeping the neural pathways primed in his Patterns series of books, and I remembered that phrase when I thought about how to apply Readiness Potential to my own practice and playing.

I found a link recently to a scientific study that backs this idea up:

http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/08989290152541449?journalCode=jocn

Now, here’s how are some ways you can actually apply Readiness Potential to your practice routine…


Since most of us are right handed, take a second to just look at your left hand. Now, visualize it hitting the snare drum and hear the sound (this phenomena is referred to as audiation). Now, visualize hitting it with matched grip, then switching to traditional grip.

Next, visualize moving your left hand back and forth from the snare to the mounted tom. Then, snare to cymbal…

If you are sensitive enough, you will feel the slightest energizing of your arm and the desire to move it. THAT’s readiness potential.

Try hearing the most famous drum fill that Phil Collins ever played, and visualize your hands playing it. If you can feel THAT, you know exactly what I’m talking about…


Readiness Potential is incredibly powerful as a practice and performance tool that has not been discussed largely to date. It’s application to polyrhythms in particular are awesome, and in terms of practicing dynamic level balancing, equally valuable.

Jazz drummer George Marsh, author of Inner Drumming, uses concepts of Tai Chi to develop a flow from mind to body as applied to the drum set. You can apply Readiness Potential to that book, or any drum study book, by hearing the patterns SLOWLY… and if you’ve ever wondered why drum teachers were SO insistent that you practice slowly, this is why. You are programming your mind with either precision or rough edges… slower really is faster in the long run…

So for now, try some simple exercises like visualizing moving your arm up and down, or your foot up and down. Sit quietly, see it in your mind, and hear the sound of the drum in your mind. You are sending signal to make the action happen… but don’t play. Just THINK about it, hear and see it in your head, strengthen and develop your ability to conceive it first. Do this for 5 minutes, then go play the same patterns you were thinking about…

Do with your weaker limbs first, by the way, and then see what happens…

You can also apply it to sheet music: Look at a piece of music, like say, a page out of Stick Control, and just hear it in your head. Play it all the way through, and sound it out in your mind.

You are sending practice signals to the nerves and muscles to perform the music without actually playing the music.

Try this with a single line of music, and envision, say, your left hand playing it. You are actually practicing the use of your left hand without moving it.

Now, imagine all four limbs playing a simple pattern. You can practice the drums in your mind to keep the neural pathways prepped and sharp…

The potential for application of readiness potential is virtually unlimited…

If you can discipline your mind in this way, you can practice drummer ANYwhere, ANYtime… it’ll open some very interesting doors, I promise you…

 


 

 

 

Now, suppose you hear a drum pattern and think about it, trying to figure out how to play it. Your brain starts sending the “ready, set” signals, which accounts for how sometimes you hear something and feel like you already know how to play it.

I found a link recently to a scientific study that backs this idea up:

http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/08989290152541449?journalCode=jocn

I’ve been interested in this subject for many years, but what are the practical applications for you?

Try this sometime: look at a piece of music, and just hear it in your head. Play it all the way through, and sound it out in your mind.

You are sending practice signals to the nerves and muscles to perform the music without actually playing the music.

Try this with a single line of music, and envision, say, your left hand playing it. You are actually practicing the use of your left hand without moving it.

Now, imagine all four limbs playing a simple pattern. You can practice the drums in your mind to keep the neural pathways prepped and sharp…

The potential for application of readiness potential is virtually unlimited…

Published by David Aldridge

I'm a jazz drummer, author of The Elements of Rhythm Vols. I & II, and drum teacher, based in Austin, Texas. My music interests include odd meters, polyrhythms, and music cognition studies. I've recorded with The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, and I am a former features writer for DRUM! magazine. Follow me on: twitter @daldridgedrums facebook davidaldridgedrums myspace davidaldridgedrums www.theElementsofRhythm.com Contact me at: davidaldridgedrums@yahoo.com

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