What is practice?
That's a good question. There are more kinds of practice than one may think. As a noun, a practice is an ongoing carrying out of a profession. Like a law practice. As a verb, practice can mean to perform a particular skill in order to improve or become proficient.
Going with the latter and applied to the practicing of a musical instrument, there are different kinds of practice within that definition.
Practice to learn a skill.
Practice to become proficient at the skill.
Practice to master the skill.
Practice to maintain the skill.
Practice to integrate the skill into musical action.
Wow, that's a lot of practice!
The drums are a very physical instrument. The drum set has been referred to by the great Max Roach as a "four limbed monster" and indeed he's right. The manipulation of the sticks and pedals to get the multiple instruments to all speak as one rhythm, one sound, takes a lot of work. It takes a certain amount of conditioning of the muscles and mind.
So, you have a "conditioning" kind of practice that you must deal with in order to train your muscles. Olympic athletes know this well. Have you ever watched the Olympics and marveled at the precision, the timing, the confidence, the clutch performance of the athletes? That certainly doesn't happen by accident, or even with mere "practice". It happens with an intelligent and analytical approach to training, conditioning, muscle memory, mental toughness, self discipline, motivation and probably some qualities there aren't even names for. Let's call that inspiration.
Let's break it down further.
Practice to learn a skill: slow, concentrated practice of the skill to teach the muscles and mind how to respond. Paying close attention to form, feel and sound production, we are literally teaching our neurological system and brain how to fire together. We are wiring the action into our brain.
Practice to proficiency: to be able to perform/execute the skill upon command with good form and control.
Practice to mastery: to be able to execute the skill at any tempo, any dynamic level, under any circumstances, at any time.
Practice to maintain: as they say, use it or lose it. This kind of practice is usually a daily ritualistic practice of going over what we have mastered in order to keep what we have worked so hard to master. What we have mastered is like a jumping off point where we move onto to the next plateau.
Practice to integrate the skill: for musicians, this would mean utilizing the skill within a musical performance context, usually playing with other musicians (but not always) and to be able to maintains ones ease, concentration and form in the "heat of battle". For athletes, this would be in an actual competition.
A lot of practice indeed, but if you break it down into different types of practice, one can begin to put it into perspective and begin to understand how a master musician attains that level of play. Obviously, there are intangibles; talent, culture, opportunity, environment, tenacity, goals, vision. However, if we understand what we are doing when we practice; learning, polishing, mastering, maintaing, integrating, then it doesn't seem quite so daunting, dry or academic. It makes total sense.
Thanks for reading, let's go hit the practice room!