If you are really serious about improving your bass playing, at some point you are going to realize that you need to have a solid practice plan in place. Merely working on a random variety of exercises or picking up your bass arbitrarily between performances will not put you on the fast track to solid and consistent progress.
This is part two of a two-part series on improving your bass playing. Be sure to check out part one.
Establishing Categories Of Study
If you want to be a well-rounded and “complete” player, you are going to have to be skilled in a variety of areas. Over the years I have taken inventory of key musical concepts and topics of study and integrated them into my development as a bass player. From an educational perspective, it can be helpful to classify and categorize these topics so that you can use them to build an organized practice routine. I have defined a set of seven core competencies that comprehensively categorize any bass playing goal that I am pursuing. These core competencies also form the organizational model behind the curriculum-based approach that we utilize at AdamNittiMusicEducation.com, my online bass academy. Here is the list of them in no particular order, along with explanations of what they include:
- Technique – Technique exercises are focused on the development of your overall facility, dexterity, accuracy, and endurance for both the fretting and plucking hands. This category also includes work on specific skills needed to execute particular playing styles, such as slap bass, tapping, double-thumbing, or sweeping. Technique work focuses on the fretting and plucking hand mechanics and helps you to develop headroom that allows you to negotiate the fretboard with greater confidence and ease.
- Ear Training/Transcription – Our ear training and transcription work helps to eliminate the disconnect that often exists between what we hear and what we “see” on the bass. In other words, it focuses your ability to play or interpret phrases or melodic lines, chord types, rhythms, and other musical nuances naturally and intuitively without having to do so using mere “trial and error” or evaluatory processes. Development in this area helps to diminish your reliance on shapes and patterns and also helps you to communicate more effectively on the instrument. Transcription also teaches us phrasing and dynamics, both key components of the communicative nature of music.
- Groove/Timekeeping – Groove and timekeeping work comprises some of the most important and foundational concepts for bass players in particular. This category focuses on developing your internal clock and fine-tuning your awareness of time and space within the music. By developing a natural sense of time, a bassist is able to perform and interact with greater expression and freedom, while at the same time inspiring confidence for the entire musical ensemble in both performance and recording scenarios. This category also includes rhythm and subdivision work, as well as interpretation and control over timing placement (i.e. playing behind the beat, on top of the beat, etc.)
- Styles and Repertoire – The styles and repertoire category covers both style-specific bass playing concepts as well as the learning of tunes that exemplify the styles, themselves. The more familiar you are with musical styles and their traditions, the greater your musical vocabulary and the more well-rounded you will be in a variety of settings. Work in this area exposes you to examples from each selected genre, and helps to increase your overall versatility by introducing you to a variety of style-based approaches. This is also where you would work on emulating key musical nuances such as phrasing, dynamics, tone, and feel.
- Applied Harmony and Theory – This category covers all types of musical components that can be utilized and specifically applied to the bass guitar. Examples include scales and modes, arpeggios, chord forms, and other shapes and patterns that are used in specific harmonic settings. These are exercises or concepts that relate music theory directly to the bass fingerboard and teach us how to make use of them in real-life performance settings. This category essentially takes the ‘math’ of music and applies it directly to the bass guitar.
- Improvisation – A lot of players make the assumption that improvisation work is all about soloing, but it goes way beyond that in helping you to be a better all-around player. The improvisation category also includes concepts and strategies for building effective bass lines and fills, as well as helping you to compose appropriate bass grooves for songs on stage or in the studio. Although in typical scenarios the bass player’s role is primarily foundational, improvisation work is also vital to your understanding of the relationship between harmony and melody. It is also a category in which our musical identity is often pursued and defined.
- Reading – Reading is all about being able to interpret the language of music on the written page. Anything related to work with notation, lead sheets, number charts, or other studio shorthand methods falls into this category. Sight reading, the process of being able to read through a chart that you might not be familiar with in real-time on a gig or session is obviously a vital skill for those interested in working in situations that require it. However, the reading category also helps you to better learn your fingerboard and navigate through different hand positions when performing, even in situations where reading is not required.
This list is one that I have assembled and refined over time, but of course it could be slimmed down or even made even longer, depending on how you like to like to divide up the musical pie. The important thing is that it represents a useful way in which we might divide up our practice time among key concepts. Of course, we could vary the number of competencies or further define countless sub-categories for each in an effort to be even more specific about what we practice. The important thing to keep in mind is that there is plenty of overlap among the core competencies, and you will find that your work in one category will often help to develop another simultaneously. For example, imagine if you were spending time playing through the diatonic modes of the major scale to a metronome, increasing tempo after each successive pass. Not only would you be reinforcing your knowledge of each memorized modal pattern as an exercise in applied harmony and theory, but you would also be working on your technique at the same time, ensuring that you were playing cleanly and accurately with each pass. Additionally, you would also be working on your groove and timekeeping by making sure that your timing was accurate and well-aligned according to the changes in tempo setting. The overlap possibilities are limitless, and that is one of the reasons why I like to use the competency model when building a routine.
Building A Routine
In a perfect world, it would be great to be able to devote ample equal time to all seven of the competencies daily. But as you might imagine, that can add up very quickly. Even devoting just 30 minutes to each would require 210 minutes of practice time (3 ½ hours) in a day, which for some of us, is an ambitious quota to reach on a consistent basis when we are juggling work, family, gigging, and anything else requiring our regular attention. When players ask me how to divide up their practice time, I usually suggest trying to devote at least 15 minutes to whatever competencies make up their routine. A 15 minute block of uninterrupted, focused attention on an exercise is enough time to make improvements, regardless of the competency. Some studies have shown that the average adult attention span is 15-20 minutes long, so this often a great place to start for players with limited time and periodic distractions.
When building your routine, there are several ways to go. One approach is to focus on fewer competencies, and maximize the amount of time spent on each. For example, let’s say that you have two hours to practice. You might decide that you want to focus on the areas that you need the most work on, spending at least 30 minutes on each category. In this scenario, you might choose four of the seven competencies and devote 30 minutes to each of those on a daily basis. As your skills improve in certain categories over the following weeks, you might end up swapping out those categories with others so that you can level out your progress among the entire set in the medium to long term. Another approach would be to focus on more competencies and spend less time on each. If you had the same two hour block, you might decide to devote 15 minutes to each of the seven competencies, which leaves 15 minutes of practice time leftover to work on whatever you like. You could use that time as an extra 15 minutes to put towards one or more of the competencies you need extra work on, or you treat it as “fun time” in which you play something just for enjoyment as a reward to yourself for making it through the routine. Yet another approach to pacing your time might be to work on a focused set of competencies every other day. Maybe you work on you reading, ear training, technique, and styles and repertoire on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays, and work on your groove and timekeeping, improvisation, and applied harmony and theory on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. Obviously there is a myriad of permutations you could experiment with here, but the bottom line is that you want to figure out the best division of time that will set you up for the most success in the shed.
The approach that I like to use personally is a bit of a hybrid combination of the aforementioned methods. One of the things I like about it is that it is a routine that dynamically changes each day. I take whatever practice time I know I’m going to have and divide it into four segments. I choose three primary competencies that I want to focus most of my attention on and assign them to the three segments. The fourth segment becomes a “rotating” segment, in which I then cycle through each of the remaining four competencies on a daily basis. For example, let’s say that my current areas of focus are going to be improvisation, technique, and ear training. Let’s also say I hypothetically have two hours of practice time daily. I’ll spend 30 minutes on each of those three primary competencies. The fourth 30 minute segment will change each successive day, and will cycle between groove and timekeeping, applied harmony and theory, styles and repertoire, and reading. This keeps the practice routine interesting, and still allows me to visit all seven of the competencies on a regular basis, giving focused attention to the categories I want to spend the most time on. After cycling through all of the rotating competencies, I have the option of either starting the cycle over again, or changing the primary competencies so that I cycle through a different group of topics, instead. This approach is a great way to avoid practice routine burnout and always keep things interesting.
I’d like to add one final suggestion that is incredibly vital to your success. Be sure to log your practice time consistently. Create a daily log and write down every exercise you play, the specifics of what you worked on (including keys, tempo ranges, etc.), and how many minutes you spent on each exercise. The importance of this simple routine is twofold; on one hand, it allows you to track and evaluate your progress by showing you exactly where you spent your practice time. (“Why am I still not any good at reading? Oh… It’s because I only spent two hours practicing it over the last 4 months….”) The other thing it does is give you valuable encouragement and a sense of accomplishment when you are able to look back over a long period of time and see on paper how hard you worked and how far you have come as a player. The confidence you will gain from having an official record of your successful journey can not be overestimated.
Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Hopefully I’ve given you some useful things to think about in terms of reengineering your practice routine, but keep in mind you can’t just stop there. You are also going to need to think about the specific exercises that you will be working on within each competency. There will also be times that you will encounter difficult challenges or obstacles on the bass that you can’t seem to break through while practicing, and you need to have a logical practice solution in place to overcome them. These are the times in which you will have to be more creative in how you train. I would love to dig further into these topics in a future article, but in the meantime I encourage each of you to start thinking about these things and put a plan into action. My hope is that these tools will help you to create a study program that will both challenge and inspire you to become the best player and musician you can be.
Photo by Ras Taparta