Playing By Yourself: A Guide to Inspirational Practice Routines

Q: I have a hard time remaining interested when I try and practice at home by myself. I have no problem finding inspiration when playing with others, but I quickly get bored and want to stop playing when I’m home alone. Have any tips?

A: I think this is a common issue. Many of us are “reactive players”. We need to interact with the music – and with musicians – or we get bored and lose focus.

So, one path is to figure out how to interact with yourself, musically.

I suggest getting a looper of some sort – even just a phrase repeater, but a full fledged looper would be best so you can add layers. Personally, I have an affinity for the Boss Loop Station but also really dig the Jam Man.

With a looper, you can then create progressions to play over, loop rhythms or any sound you could conceivably create with your instrument. You can also feed other sources through it, like an MP3 player or drum machine, via the aux input.

To help, I’ve created a little pedal board with some fun effects so I can play with different sounds, try and solo like a guitarist, experiment with atmosphere, and so on.

I think you’ll find a looper will become the best thing to happen to your practice routine. Try not to get too caught up with the actual loops you create though. Try and decide on something to work on, and build your loops to allow you to explore that topic.

For example, playing over changes. It’s so easy to loop 8, 16, 32 (whatever) bars and practice different things over the chord changes. This is also when having some chord shapes together really comes in handy.

A second idea may be to work on your ears. Janek Gwizdala told me about a new thing he’s been doing, which I think is brilliant. He’ll create an iTunes playlist of music he doesn’t know, keeping it interesting and challenging. He then plays the setlist, using his ears to figure out the changes as the tunes progress.

Typically, if your ears are fairly developed, you’ll have the tune by the time you’re half way through. If not, start it over and don’t move on the the next tune until you’ve got the first one down.

You are not only working your ears and fingerboard, but you are also developing your repertoire at the same time.

It also beats practicing scales by yourself for hours on end. It’s all about the music anyway, isn’t it?

Hopefully these two approaches will give you plenty of inspirational practice time. Bottom line, if you’re bored, you won’t retain as much information. Find a way to keep yourself interested and have fun! That’s the best way to learn.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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  1. I love my Boss Loopstation! It´s a great way to practice tunes and compose. I often practice Jazz tunes. When i find a progression i find hard to play over i break it up in smaller pieces and work on it for a while and then move on.
    When i practice I try to shift beetween something i think is fun to play and something more boring.

    Here is my practice scheduel:

    Sommerferie øve program.

    Warm up: 40 min.

    Blok Time Type Tempo
    1 10 min Teknik 80 Melodisk minorscale in 2 oktaves up and down spillet i tempo 80 i 4.dele, 8.dele og 16.dele.
    2 5 min Teknik/dynamik/frasering 80 Bach Cellosuite i G-dur
    3 10 min Impro/intuition/kreativitet 120 Improvisation over akkorder til ”Falling Grace” or another standard.
    4 10 min Metrik 60-260 Pentaton in minor sekvenser
    5 5 min Teknik/dynamik/frasering 210 Solotransskription: ”Sirabhorn” Jaco Pastorius.

    Blok Varighed Type
    1 45 min Eartraining Play along the radio. Find Rootnotes. Listen and play.
    2 30 min Eartraining
    Follow the book ”Training The Ear” By Armen Donelian.
    3 45 min Transscribe. Eartraining/tecnique/style/inspiration/understanding/analyse Transskribe. Listen again and again, remember, sing it and play it. Write it down.

    2 Hours and 40 min.

    I also keep a practice diary. Where i count the hours i practiced.

  2. Mike Brown

    A comment on the playlist exercise. With Pandora you can really set yourself up with random tunes. GrooveShark is good from a free playlist aspect as well.

    BTW, thanks for Right Hand Drive. Working through that now.

  3. Pbass Wil

    I sure appreciate the ideas in this post.

    Any and all “mechanical”, practical ideas and tools that help you progress are great.

    But overall, the best idea that I’ve ever come across (re. practice) is that:
    Music is supposed to be enjoyable. I think the greatest players aren’t all necessarily the greatest self-disciplinarians; they’re the ones who get so much joy out of playing that they can’t leave their instruments alone.

    Discipline and structure are important tools. But if they’re not based on an unquestioned pleasure of playing, they become a bit grim.

    So: if I’m having a hard time getting myself to the instrument, I momentarily surrender all my musical goals, and look for my primary enjoyment of music. Once I’m securely in the saddle with that, then I can think about superimposing goals and structured practice again.

  4. Well, I bought a nice Boss RC-30 looper. But, and this is going to sound really stupid–I don’t know what to do with it. I basically know how to work it. But…what sort of things should I do to enhance my practicing?