If only there were more time. Practice time is often hard to come by and yet, once seated behind the drums, we can become intoxicated by all of the possibilities. We may skim the surface of various ideas or routines, mechanically practice exercises from a book, or let the drums completely run away with us. Then, before we realize it, our available time has expired even before we have become fully comfortable behind the set, with another opportunity for advancement lost. So it's helpful to have a way to focus both technically and musically in a short time frame. What follows was inspired by a Peter Erskine clinic I attended some years back.
At a medium tempo, play a consistent dotted eighth-sixteenth jazz cymbal beat (walk-the-dog, walk-the-dog for the uninitiated) on the ride, two and four on the hi-hat, while feathering the bass drum on all four beats (barely touching the beater to the head, so that it is felt rather than heard). The bass drum helps establish the groove from the bottom while helping to center the cymbal beat. Play quarter notes on the snare in the following sequence, repeating each one for four (or eight) measures, beginning with the first beat of each measure, followed by the second, third, and fourth. Then, 1 and 3, 2 and 4, 1 and 4, 2 and 3, 3 and 4, then on each beat (1 2 3 4). The last grouping can be especially grounding because it requires agreement from each quadrant to make it swing.
Something to bear in mind, in addition to maintaining a good feeling, is the sonic blend between the different parts. The ride cymbal/hi hat clarity and placement, understated bass drum volume, and definite but not overbearing stroke on the snare coming together as a unified whole.
Next, play the off beats (or the "and" of 1, 2, 3, and 4). In the same manner as above, play the "and" of 1, then the "and" of 2, the "and" of 3, followed by the "and" of 4. Next, the "and" of 1 and the "and" of 3, the "and" of 2 and the "and" of 4, etc. Continue, as before, finishing with the "and" of each beat (the off beats of 1,2,3,4). This last grouping is also tricky in that there is a tendency to rush groupings of off beats. To assist in making all of this more musical, play these variations along with a familiar, especially grooving recording and notice your placement in relation to the music.
The next obvious step is to combine the on and off beats in various combinations. Ted Reed's Progressive Steps to Syncopation is a great source, should you be in need of inspiration. The syncopation exercises (page 32-36 of recent editions) also repeat the same figure four times per line. While maintaining two and four on the hi-hat and the dotted eighth-sixteenth ride cymbal beat, play the written eighth notes on the snare, since it has a relatively short duration of sound, and the tied eight notes and quarter notes on the bass drum, utilizing its longer sustain. In this way note values can be emphasized while working with independence. Add one of the recordings you were using and notice how nicely these groupings fit with the music.
Playing these simple beats may seem ridiculously elemental, even given the fact that much of what we encounter in music is either on or off the beat. Yet the balancing effect of a few minutes spent with these fundamentals can be more productive than an hour of aimless "practice" and provide a focused, musical foundation to anything else we might care to tackle.