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Ask Damian Erskine: Practicing and repetition

Q: How many hours a day do you practice? Do you have any practice tips?

A: Admittedly, I don’t practice as much as I’d like these days. I’m married, with dogs that need walking and a mortgage and am very busy playing bass for many different people (which requires a lot of shedding of it’s own kind. Transcribing or memorizing tunes, etc..) and lots of driving/flying. I play constantly but as for REAL practice? My shed time seems to come in short bursts these days. I would very much like to start carving out some time every day to simply shed, but it’s not always possible. However, when I was a kid, I practiced for at least 1 hour EVERY day (7 days a week) and divided the time between sight reading, learning music my grandfather would bring me (play along books, transcriptions, etc.) and scales, etc. Before my life got quite so busy, I had very good practice habits and I do have a few suggestions and things to keep in mind.

1. Even if you are busy, 15 min a day will serve you better than a 3 hour session once every week or two…

So much of what we learn has to do with repetition. Muscle memory (both for your fingers and your brain!). In order to REALLY internalize something and make it second nature, we have to have done it over and over again. This is especially true of learning to READ music. I have had countless friends and students who express an interest in getting their reading chops together. So I suggest a book or two of music to practice reading every day (Bach Cello suites are great. I also love Oscar Stagnaro’s “Latin Bass Book”. It’s FULL of wonderful music, comes with 3 play along CDs that are real cats playing real music, not some dopey band-in-the-box style thing and it’s both rhythmically AND notationally challenging. GREAT material!).

When I check in to see how they’re coming, it’s always, “well… it’s hard. I kinda start to get this one page but then when I come back to it it’s like I’m starting over again!”. So I ask how often they’re doing it and they usually say, “I’ll get real into it for a few hours, but then I might not do it again for a week or two.”. and I then say, “You ARE starting over again… every time!!”

Something like reading music is like learning to speak or read English. You need to absorb little bits of information at a time (you won’t “get it” in a few sittings), but you need to continue to build upon those bits of information. The longer you wait to revisit the material, the less you’ve internalized and the more you are starting from scratch each time!

Practice reading EVERY day… even just a little. 10 minutes a day for a month will get you infinitely further than 2 hours at a time but only once or twice a month!! Same goes with technical exercises. Muscle memory inherently requires repetition. LOTS of repetition. If you’re not drilling it, it ain’t gonna happen!

2. Practice with INTENTIONALITY!!

I always encourage students to play… all the time! Watching TV? Why not have the bass in your hands? BUT… this is not necessarily practice!! It is noodling, encouraging muscle memory, getting comfortable with the instrument as an extension of yourself, etc… but it is not real practicing.

If you are going to PRACTICE… do it right:

  • Avoid distraction. Don’t sit in front of your computer with Twitter running or your email open… you’ll only get distracted and start doing something else!
  • Set an agenda. Make good use of the time by dictating what you’re going to work on before hand.
  • Practice playing well. Don’t jump in to something difficult and try and play it faster than you can execute it. Take your time and practice getting good tone, having good technique/posture, playing cleanly, etc. If you practice playing sloppily, you will play sloppily.
  • Don’t just practice things you are good at! If you’re simply playing the scales you already know and playing the tunes you already know, you’re not practicing… you’re reinforcing some knowledge… yes, but not practicing.
  • Don’t worry about sounding good! If you’re NOT making mistakes, you’re NOT practicing!!! This is the time when you should be in full exploration mode. Going for it, falling on your face and getting up and trying it again. This is the time to do the things you cannot yet do! You should be making mistakes. You should also be stopping at that point and evaluating why you made the mistake, slowing it down and trying again until you get it. THAT’S how you learn…
  • Be slow, patient and allow yourself to suck whilst working through things.

3. If you have the time, try playing over a tune for far longer than you have the patience or vocabulary for.

Most of us stop playing or practicing a tune once we’ve lost a bit of patience or just don’t know what else to do with it. Try forcing yourself to continue and work through to the OTHER side of that. The side of rediscovery… Some things take time and, you’re really just getting that tune in your head even more anyway… nothing bad can come out of setting a 15 minute timer and saying, “Im going to play this standard for 15 minutes”. You may hate it half way through, but you may also discover some new stuff or a new approach or internalize the tune in a new way, etc… interesting things can come and many of them take time. Give yourself the time!

4. “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life”

If you really are passionate about music and playing… Shouldn’t you WANT to practice? There’s nothing more exciting than the path of discovery. I love the feeling of really looking forward to getting home so I can play! It’s what I love and it’s what I do. Practicing is really just “me time”… where I get to be selfish and take the time to do what I REALLY want to do…

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