The word "reps" is thrown around a lot in every pipe band. Every practice we hear...
"Get some reps in"
"We need to rep that some more"
"Don't forget to rep the second part"
What Does this Word Mean?
The word "rep" is short for repetition. When a pipe major or lead drummer says to "get some 'reps' in" what they want you to do is repeat a certain phrase, rudiment or part, over and over until you can play it perfectly every time. But, how many reps should you do? How long will it take? When should you stop? Most pipers and drummers are scared of reps because they don't know the answers to these questions. So let's deal with each question separately. First: How many reps should you do? The answer to this question depends on what you're trying to master.
Learning a Two Bar Phrase
If you are trying to learn a small phrase (one or two bars worth of music) the general rule is to play the musical passage three to four hundred times, usually at a slow tempo. Wait... THREE to FOUR HUNDRED TIMES!!??? Now the panic sets in. The best way to deal with the anxiety of knowing you have to play something three to four hundred times is to keep it real, crunch the numbers, and make a plan.
For example, if you are trying to master a two bar phrase in a march it will take approximately eight seconds to play it at 50% speed. If you take two seconds to collect yourself between each attempt it will take ten seconds for each rep. Now let's crunch the numbers...
One minute of practice = 6 reps
Ten minutes of practice = 60 reps
One hour of practice = 360 reps
Once you've worked out the time it takes it's time to deal with the next question:
How long will it take?
If you want to get this two bar phrase quickly you could rep it for ten minutes, six days in a row. If you're not in a rush to get 360 you could rep it for five minutes, twelve days in a row or two minutes, thirty days in a row. The decision is up to you. Once you decided on a time frame you only have one more question to answer:
Can I stop now?
If you reach 360 reps and can play the two bar passage perfectly it's time to stop. Congratulations. You did it!
If you are still having trouble you need to ask yourself why. If you can execute the two bar phrase well at slow speed but are having trouble speeding up, it would be beneficial to simply repeat the process you've just completed. Your hands just need more time until they acquire the necessary "muscle memory". There is no shame in this at all, you just need more reps.
If you still can't execute the passage you may have to examine, with the help of a teacher, the reasons why things are not going well. It could be anything from incorrect stick heights, lack of preparation for what comes next, inaccurate rudiment execution or myriad other reasons. Go and get some good advice from someone who knows what they're doing and then take yourself through the reps once more.
Learning and Mastering a Specific Rudiment
In my personal experience I've encountered two rudiments that I have had to rep literally thousands upon thousands of times. Nobody knows how much I've struggled with these rudiments as I don't post about my personal practice on the internet (until now) but I continue to battle both trizzlets and drag paradiddles to this day. I'm not happy with the speed of these rudiments and my execution of both of them remains inconsistent at faster tempos. At times it feels like a war I'm fighting and losing. I've experienced the whole range of feelings and emotions including frustration, satisfaction, exhilaration, jealousy (when I watch the World Solos), sadness, hopelessness and optimism. It's been a roller coaster. A conservative estimate for the number of times I've played a drag paradiddle as part of my personal practice (especially variation #4) at a slow tempo would be twenty hours over course of the last two years. Let's crunch the numbers...
One minute of practice = 60 drag paradiddles (metronome at 60 BPM)
Ten minutes of practice = 360 drag paradiddles
One hour of practice = 2160 drag paradiddles
Twenty hours of practice = 43200 drag paradiddles
Looking at the math I almost feel sick to my stomach. I still can't do drag paradiddles as fast as I want to but I've done SO MANY REPS! It's easy to feel discouraged, and I often do. However, I understand that some rudiments are really difficult and, even though it makes me miserable thinking about my perceived "lack of progress", I know I'm improving--albeit incrementally. The most important thing that any potential musician needs to realize is that the work is worth it! It is also important to respect the amount of work it takes to be great and do as much of it as you can, as regularly as you can.
Using Reps to Memorize Music
Some people have a great memory. I don't, and it's getting worse! Lately I've noticed that my brain gets less able to memorize drum scores as I get older. Therefore I need to depend more on "muscle memory" than on actual memory. Reps have helped me in this regard.
In order for me to memorize a four part march I have figured out that it takes about a hundred reps. To figure out how long it will take me to memorize a score, let's crunch the numbers...
Length of time it takes to play a four part march = 2 minutes
Total amount of time to achieve one hundred reps = 3.5 hours
Even if you rep a score twice every band practice (assuming your band has at least 50 practices a year) you should be able to reach a hundred reps easily. If you're doing solo scores, playing through your scores twice a day for two months will get you there. Of course, the more reps you do, the less you'll need to think your way through the music and the more music you'll be able to make!
Have fun repping your music this competition season. Until next time...