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Ask Damian Erskine: Good Practice?

Q: What is considered a “good” practice session?? Say, if I take an hour to practice, what should I be working on… doing warm-ups, running through set lists of songs I know, learning new material, listening and trying to imitate players I like, etc. Just trying to be as productive as possible with my time.

A: In my opinion, ANY time spent with your instrument is better than time NOT spent with your instrument but, yes, we want to try and be as productive and efficient with our time as possible!

In general, I’d say the most productive use of your time is that in which you are doing something that you can not yet quite do.

Playing tunes you know is good for muscle memory and facility, etc. but a rule of thumb for me is, if I’m not making mistakes, I’m not really practicing. I’m only playing.

You mentioned “trying to imitate players I like”. that’s an interesting one! Personally, I don’t try and imitate so much as study in an attempt to understand. I think that everyone sees something slightly different when they look at the neck of their instrument. I like to try and discern what someone else sees when they play something that I might not have come up with myself. Kind of like walking a mile in their musical shoes so as to expand upon the ways my brain work when looking at my musical options.

My way is this. I try and objectively look at my playing and find flaws (there are a million!! for everyone) or things that I could improve on. I then ask myself a few questions and try and put together a list

  • From what angle have I NOT approached this?
  • What would be the best way to work on this?

I then invent exercises for myself!

Granted, there are some things that I KNOW I should work on, but I just don’t care to. My weakest link? I’m SUPER diatonic. I never make use of Melodic minor scales and the like… they don’t feel or sound right to me. I do like harmonic minor, so I play with that. I work on chord types that are less comfortable to me (diminished, sus, etc…) than minor, so I can play comfortably over any chord in a set of changes, but certain things people tell me I’m supposed to do, eh… If it doesn’t feel natural, I tend to put it way on the back burner. Now the crucial thing is to NOT to ever avoid material because you are lazy!! Not everybody can play everything and that’s ok, but if you avoid the real work involved to play the way YOU want to play, then you’re only hurting yourself.
I don’t care to sound like or ever be a super bebop soloist, so I don’t work on that stuff as much. I DO however want to be a fantastic bassist, so I work on my bass playing more than anything. If I take a super-crappy solo, I think. well it’s my own fault, and I’ll shift focus to whatever it is that stumped me! Sometimes that can be as simple as, “I need to know more tunes!” so I’ll spend weeks learning and memorizing the bass lines, changes, etc. to tunes.

The trick is discern your own needs and then work hard to meet your own goals. Any time spent doing that is time well spent!

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johnvarney

johnvarney

I do a lot of practice joining modes to their accompanying chords as relating to a basic scale. Then I do this with different dtyles and rhythmic configurations. As chords and lines are the backbone of bass playing, I think that the more time spent on these aspects prepares us for potential applications.

paulwolfe

paulwolfe

Hi Damien – great post as always.

One thing I find with some of the beginners I teach is that I notice there's not much of a correlation between what they practice and what they want to achieve.

For example I had one guy come to me who once I'd got through all the non specific answers like “I want to be really good” etc actually wanted to be able to play in a Texas Boogie style band (you know Stevie Ray, ZZ top that kind of stuff).

And yet he didn't really understand a shuffle groove and when I asked him what he WAS practicing I found that he was mindlessly running scales – because someone had told him that was what he should do.

The other thing I find as a common mistake is that beginner/intermediate players don't have a clear plan of what they're going to achieve BEFORE they sit down and practice. They go: I'm going to practice now. And then don't really know – or haven't thought about – what they're going to actually work on.

So they end up wasting time looking for exercises, or noodling around with something that they can already do. That's another habit I try to teach my students – know what you're going to practice EVERY day of the week before the week even starts.

Paul Wolfe

Hi Damien – great post as always.

One thing I find with some of the beginners I teach is that I notice there's not much of a correlation between what they practice and what they want to achieve.

For example I had one guy come to me who once I'd got through all the non specific answers like “I want to be really good” etc actually wanted to be able to play in a Texas Boogie style band (you know Stevie Ray, ZZ top that kind of stuff).

And yet he didn't really understand a shuffle groove and when I asked him what he WAS practicing I found that he was mindlessly running scales – because someone had told him that was what he should do.

The other thing I find as a common mistake is that beginner/intermediate players don't have a clear plan of what they're going to achieve BEFORE they sit down and practice. They go: I'm going to practice now. And then don't really know – or haven't thought about – what they're going to actually work on.

So they end up wasting time looking for exercises, or noodling around with something that they can already do. That's another habit I try to teach my students – know what you're going to practice EVERY day of the week before the week even starts.