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Ask Damian Erskine: Practicing in Your Head

Q: So as I walked around the house, my wife asked me, “What are you doing, space cadet?” I guess I had a fairly blank look on my face and was walking around the house in circles. I replied, “Playing Bass… in my head.” She then said, “huh… you should write about that for the No Treble guys!” And I thought… “YEAH, I should!”

A: I do this a lot! I actually do MOST of my practicing in my head these days. I DO NOT recommend that beginning players ditch the shed and sing licks to themselves and call it practice, though!! You need to work on really knowing your fretboard before you can accurately visualize it and hear it in your head.

This does, however, tie in to a concept that I speak a lot about with students.

VISUALIZATION!! I always try and get students to see the fretboard in their minds eye. To try and write down bass lines and solos over changes without the instrument in their hands, but trying to visualize playing and then see how it sounds…

At the moment when my wife asked me what I was doing as I looked around blankly, I was inventing grooves to loop (like I was playing with my Boss Loop-Staton) and then attempting to solo over them and navigate certain types of chord changes.

I do this while driving on long trips, when waiting in lines, sitting on a plane… anytime I’ve got some time and I don’t need my brain, I’m either playing with rhythm using my hands or playing with rhythm and harmony using my minds eyes and ears.

The more you understand your fretboard, the more playing you can do without your instrument and likewise… the more visualization you do in your head, the better you’ll know your fretboard (at least, that’s how it works for me).

I recommend everyone experiment with the visualization concept…

  • Try sitting in a quiet space, closing your eyes and play your instrument in your mind… really try and hear and feel it! Come up with some grooves or lines
  • Then try and write them down
  • Now try and actually play them! How do they sound? Do they sound just like they did in your head? Same fingerings, etc…?

I’ll even do this with scales and intervals just to work on my ear training!

It’s very meditative, actually.

Find your own ways to play with visualization. See what you can come up with!

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Share your thoughts

John Nastos

Once I had enough ear training practice to be able to do this, this has become my main method of practice too. There's always something rattling around up in my head now.

I had an ear training professor in college (Chris Rosemberg – from Ornette's band for a long time) that had a mantra for us: “See what you hear, hear what you see” meaning that he always wanted us to be able to see on staff paper in our mind's eye what we were hearing, and be able to hear in our head what we were reading. Might be the best advice I've ever gotten

Russ Sargeant

Excellent stuff Damian! I often visualize geometric shapes on the fretboard. For example, Root, 4th, 5th is square. Root, 3rd, 5th is a triangle etc. Doing this with a knowledge of what intervals sound like helps me to 'see' entire riffs, runs and chords in my head, which can then be translated to the actual fretboard for further development and improvisation. As a designer and a 'visual-ideas' person, this technique really helps me.

Russ Sargeant

Excellent stuff Damian! I often visualize geometric shapes on the fretboard. For example, Root, 4th, 5th is square. Root, 3rd, 5th is a triangle etc. Doing this with a knowledge of what intervals sound like helps me to 'see' entire riffs, runs and chords in my head, which can then be translated to the actual fretboard for further development and improvisation. As a designer and a 'visual-ideas' person, this technique really helps me.

Russ Sargeant

Excellent stuff Damian! I often visualize geometric shapes on the fretboard. For example, Root, 4th, 5th is square. Root, 3rd, 5th is a triangle etc. Doing this with a knowledge of what intervals sound like helps me to 'see' entire riffs, runs and chords in my head, which can then be translated to the actual fretboard for further development and improvisation. As a designer and a 'visual-ideas' person, this technique really helps me.