Past the Point of Unknowing

Q: I tend to hit a wall while practicing over a tune, where I don’t know what else to play. I know you’ve explained some chordal exercises and other ways to expand one’s vocabulary, but do you have any other thoughts about what to play when you just don’t know what to play?

A: Actually, yes. We all hit a point here and there where we feel like we’ve played everything we know and we just don’t know what else to play. I think it a worthy exercise to actually practice playing through that place. What I mean is this:

If playing over a tune (or even over a single groove), I’d typically play until I felt like I’d exhausted my ideas and had run out of steam. If my pool of ideas had run dry, I’d stop and take a break.

I’ve come to realize that it’s very important to not stop there. There is much to be learned when sticking to your guns and begin exploring with renewed focus in that place of unknowing and in inspiration. Eventually, you’ll come through to the other side having come up with something completely new and interesting. And that will invigorate you and get you excited all over again.

Whenever tiy hit a wall when practicing, try the following:

1. Think to yourself, don’t stop! Keep playing!

2. Try and think of what you have not done. Ask yourself:

  • Have I been up high on the neck this whole time? Then change register.
  • Have I only been playing inside the scale or tonality? Try and play completely outside the tonality
  • Have I experimented with rhythm enough?
  • Have I only been playing harmoniously? Make some noise!
  • Have I only been free-associating over the changes? Give yourself restrictions (for example, only play certain scale tones for a while and change up your approach).
  • Have I only been playing restrictively? Free-associate!
  • Have I only been playing fast? Play slow for 10 minutes before ramping it back up
  • Have I only been playing single note runs? Try and play double-stops or chords exclusively for a bit

Be sure to be aware of not just what you’ve been doing, but what you haven’t considered yet. Be open to any and all possibilities, which means you absolutely must practice running out of ideas and putting yourself in the position of having to find new ways to be musical.

We’ve all had that moment during a gig where we are given a solo and we just feel completely devoid of solo ideas. I’ve come to believe that this is one way in which I can actually practice what to do when I’m out of ideas.

One more tip: try setting a time constraint on yourself. For example, do not stop playing over a few chords or a loop for an hour or two, no matter if you like what you’re doing or not.

Or try playing until the well runs dry, and then play for another hour.

That’s an interesting thing to do… To force yourself to play until the point of frustration and only then, does the real practice begin? It puts you in a different space. It’s kind of a meditation and I think everyone would do well to explore the possibilities of our abilities beyond the first 5 minutes of inspirational playing.

Take it further! Always…

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to askdamian@notreble.com. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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Share your thoughts

  1. jim

    Damian, I respect your work and your commitment to your craft. I am not excited about musical criticism as music is an expression of emotion and therefor is a very subjective activity. I usually like what you have to say Damian, and most of your insights are very helpful to students.

    Here you are not talking about music, you are talking about practicing.

    This advice you gave on “ways to expand one’s vocabulary” is at the essence of why there are so many talented musicians sounding mediocre today. You will perform the way you practice. To continue “sticking to your guns and begin exploring”, after you have run out of things to say, results in solos that are too long and boring. If one is shaping their performance to entertain a room full of high school or college level bass nerds, then probably the longer you can play without stopping, the cooler they will think you are.

    All of the 10 items you listed above are good things thing to “think” about. It is always a good idea to have various approaches. However, as concepts to use to extend your solo, …. If you are “thinking,” “How can I play more,” you are playing too much. Bass battles are popular but not necessarily good music.

    Damian, I would like to offer you to step up the level you are reaching for. You are capable.

    “…thoughts about what to play when you just don’t know what to play?” YEAH! Stop playing and go listen to some great music. Then copy some it. This is how you increase your vocabulary, a vocabulary shared by the all of the masters.

    • I understand the concern that Jim has about performing the way you practice, but I think everyone takes steps to differentiate the way they play in each situation. All the great players that I’ve heard stories of spend hours and hours playing each day and I doubt any of them were, for example, just playing a tune once and only coming back to it the next day, as you might in a performing situation. We all probably run scales and arpeggios to warm up some of the time, but hopefully we aren’t spitting them out in our solos the whole time.

      While there’s almost certainly benefit to practicing taking 2 choruses like you might on the bandstand and trying to tell a story that makes sense in that amount of time, it doesn’t mean there isn’t value to doing what Damian suggests and playing for hours on the same form trying to get to a new level. Just like, for example, a professional writer may write all day long and get 50 pages out, but only use 1.5 in their book.

  2. steuart

    i think you guys are talking at cross purposes to a certain degree, but i might also be confused by what you’re trying to get across.

    that being said. imho, most of the time people get hung up on playing the same ideas is because they’re letting their fingers do the thinking—their fingers are driving the bus.

    it’s possible that a good solution in this case is to think through what you hear musically *away* from the instrument, and then come back to the instrument and try to emulate what you heard in your head. if it’s the same thing, you’re either happy with that or you gotta expand your inner ear—what you want to hear/do.

    in short: i think many people neglect the most important “chop”—their imagination—in favor of their physical chops.

    they say the beethoven often got his ideas and worked them out when he took walks. works for me.

  3. DM

    I think that those are great suggestions on how to get past that musical wall.
    While I completely agree that music and admiration/criticism of music is subjective, I would also note that successful practice techniques vary from one musician to the next, so be careful criticizing one that may help many other players.
    I know a bassist that could repeat a scale or groove for 8 hours straight…weeks at a time. He is an amazing player, huge pocket, and a very deep understanding of what he wants to create musically, and how to do it.
    My practice techniques are on the other end of the spectrum from him. I tend to have a shorter attention span, and search for more instant gratification. Ultimately I do practice, can play my instrument, and more importantly, I create exactly what I want to hear musically. Many roads lead to Rome.
    Learning other people’s songs is a great way to expand musical vocabulary, but be cautious when calling it your vocabulary while repeating what someone else does. We all have known great players who have followed that approach, and sound like their favorite players. “I sort of have my own style, it is a mix of Parker and Coltrane.” “Cool, I went the opposite direction, mine is a mix of Coltrane and Parker.”
    There is a balance to the many different aspects of practicing, and a balance that wil be different from one player to the next.

  4. I think the advice is spot on. In your practice room there’s no crowd, no need to wear a cool t-shirt and there’s no record button (well maybe there is) Regardless, you should feel free and comfortable about making mistake and trying stuff.

    The only crime of mediocracy I see is players not taking risks. I see too many bassists just pumping 8th note roots in the first position all night.

    Sure if you’re playing The Clash, you’re not going to need to use that 25 minute bass solo loop you made up in your practice room, but you just may just find a cool, expressive, artistic lick to Rock The Casbah known as your audience!

  5. Brandon Woody

    Damian, I completely agree with practicing at length, using improvisation as a kind of meditation of sorts and not stopping once your main arsenal is exhausted. I’ve experimented with doing solo recordings of myself playing using different rigs and approaches for extended periods of time. What I noticed when listening back was there is an arch to the way new ideas emerge. It’s typically so that the strengths of the improv are near the beginning and the end (if you push through). I think, due to my “self-consciousness” being unrelaxed and constricted when I near the middle of my improv, I start over analyzing my bag of tricks and running through them a lot as though I’m really trying to keep myself interested in myself. When I’m at the beginning I’m floating around, letting my brain spit out all of the ideas I’ve been thinking of that day or week, although, my fingers aren’t always up to the task so early. Near the end I’ve over come the self-gratification of running my licks and “come through to the other side” where I find myself slowly pulling out new musical ideas. There is something to be had from exercising this way every once in a while, or at least deliberately continuing to practice at those times when you feel like the ideas have dried up. Several of my favorite compositions have come through me this way actually. It comes either out of instantaneous inspiration (from just feeling or hearing the instrument) or from hours of mulling through and weeding out my usual “go-to’s” until new stuff comes out. I completely agree with John’s analogy of the writer writing 50 pages and only using 1.5. Sometimes you need to over do it to narrow it down to the choice goods. Nice thread!

  6. Edo Castro

    Clearly by all the comments everyone has an opinion and that’s to be expected.
    There are different paths to music, but there are no short cuts and no one gives you your sound. Time put in is = to results.

    Thus begins the life long journey of working through each barrier we encounter in our musical growth.
    It’s quite natural to hit plateaus and “run out of things to say/play” In that moment we’re caused to ask how to refill the Vessel we draw from.

    Damian you gave great recommendations. Not everyone will agree about what you said and that’s to be expected.
    What speaks clearly is your sincerity to want to help and contribute the bass community at large.

    I would not be concerned with how folks reacted, and just be mindful that you had the best intentions. And that your work and musical contribution speaks for itself. Period

  7. There’s a similar concept in every other sport or creative endeavor I’ve been involved in. An Olympic lifting friend referred to it as the “Dark Stage.” This is where you make the transformation from intermediate to advanced. You’re exhausted, can’t stand the the thought of even thinking about your activity/sport and friggin’ hate it. This is where most people quit. However, as Damian alludes to, if you stick with it and make it out to the other side, you’ve just entered a whole new world of mastery.

    In sports, you do this to force your body to adapt. In the arts, your mind.