Guiding Your Own Practice: A Checklist for Improving Your Practice Routine

Confession: I played bass for years without ever practicing.

I didn’t know what to focus on and certainly didn’t have enough discipline for it… I just wanted to play.

I played along with records, I fooled around and discovered certain licks, and I hung out with musical buddies who would give me tips now and then; but I never actually practiced.

I got better as time went on, and I assumed that I was getting enough out of the time that I put into playing bass. Turns out, I didn’t know how mistaken I was. I also knew that I loved the instrument and wanted to get better, but I didn’t know any other method for going about it.

When I began to get more serious about playing, I decided to make a change in my “practicing” habits. As a self-diagnosed workaholic, I realized that no matter what kind of work I was doing, I got more accomplished when I:

  1. Had a deadline
  2. Had specific tasks to complete
  3. Had someone to report to
  4. Knew someone in the same boat who could empathize with or share my struggle

After identifying those things, I realized that it would be a good idea to take lessons again. Although lessons were expensive, I decided to go with it for a while and considered it to be somewhat like graduate school. By finding a good teacher and getting comfortable with the lesson format, I suddenly had a deadline (one week), specific tasks (whatever we went over in the lesson), someone to report back to (the teacher), and friends to empathize with (other students that I met and struck up friendships with). It did a world of good for my playing, I improved greatly over shorter periods of time, and I made some new music friends.

Although this may seem like an advertisement for taking lessons, it isn’t. Lessons can be great, if you can afford them, but realistically, everyone wants to know how to have these practicing goals without dropping $50-$100 every week.

So here’s a list of things to do in order to vamp up your practicing, whether or not you’re taking private lessons:

  1. Have a “practice station.” Organize all of your books so that they are easily accessible… if “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” is right in front of you, you might be more inclined to page through it and work on your reading. Also make sure that your tuner, metronome, and speakers are ready and waiting for you.
  2. Determine a good time of day for your practice session and establish a productive format. Since I teach in the afternoons and gig at night, I like to practice in the late morning/early afternoon. On “good days,” I have coffee and read a book for 20 minutes, just to calm down and get my brain working in a creative way, and then I sit down to practice. It’s easy for me to get side tracked, so I try to “get the jammies out” before I sit down to work. I’ll take the first 15 minutes or so to jam along with some of my favorite tunes and I’ll solo, work on the groove, or pick out a couple of interesting licks to learn by ear. It’s easy to extend this part of the practice session (since it’s probably the most fun part), but try to keep an eye on the clock or limit the number of tunes you’ll play. This is also a good thing to put at the end of your practice session as somewhat of a “reward” for getting through all of the less-fun (I dare not say boring) stuff. After I relax and “jam” for a little while, I’ll work on technique, do some reading or ear training, then work on tunes that I need to learn for a gig.
  3. Make a practice journal. (Tip: Keep a notebook at your practice station that you can use to log what you’re working on, use a Word or Excel document on your computer, or download our very own practice log sheet and print it whenever you need it.) Before I sit down to practice, I write down the date and the length of my practice session. Then I list all of the exercises that I’m doing, tunes that I’m learning, or books that I’m reading through. If I’m working on technique exercises, I’ll keep track of the tempos so that I can see my improvement from day to day. Here’s an example of my log entry:
    1/2/12 (1 hour, 15 mins)
    Jammed along with “Watermelon Man” and “The Chicken”
    Technique Exercises in E Major: Broken 3rds (120bpm-184bpm)
      7th Chord Arpeggios (104bpm-152bpm)
      Tremolo (126bpm-152bpm)
    Played through chord arpeggios and melody of “Dolphin Dance” (116bpm)
    Practiced playing and singing harmonies for “Brown Eyed Girl”
  4. The practice log can be as general or specific as you want, but create a format that works for you. The log is also a good way to look back at things you’ve practiced in the past, so if you want to work on a technique exercise that you’ve taken a break from for awhile, you can see where you left off or get ideas for new variations of old exercises.
  5. Establish short-term goals and post it in your practice station. One of the reasons why people like to take lessons on a weekly basis is so that they have a few short-term goals to work on and a specific deadline. One of my goals is to practice for 10 hours a week (at least). I keep a chart at my desk and check off every hour of practicing that I do. I also list goal tempos for certain technique exercises or songs that I’d like to have under my belt. Stay away from general goals, such as “get better at reading” and instead, pick specific pieces that you want to read through and set a deadline for it.
  6. Find a buddy. Talk to a friend who has a desire to improve and call or email each other once a week with a status update. Your friend can be another bass player, a band mate, a family member, your old college roommate, or anyone else (such as an artist or writer) who is trying to find the time to improve or work on other creative endeavors. It’s great to find another bass player, because you may be able to work on the same types of things and discuss the difficulties of what your practicing, but it’s not necessary. Your buddy helps to “keep you honest” and it’s great to have someone who can understand the triumphs and tribulations of the learning process.

We all know that practicing is easier said than done. However, I’m hoping that some of the tips listed above are new approaches that you haven’t considered. It’s easy to get swept up into the habit of “playing not practicing,” but as someone who battles with that everyday, I can attest to the benefit of actually practicing.

If you’re taking lessons and you feel as if you’re not improving, think about how your teacher establishes deadlines and assigns tasks. If it’s not working for you, find a new teacher or ask them to help you strategize practice methods.

If you have other suggestions for inspiring or improving your practicing, please comment below!

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and playing sessions, she fronts an original music project, The Interludes and teaches private lessons. Visit her website to learn more about her music or to inquire about lessons.

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  1. This is exactly the process I went through but for different reasons. I played professionally for many years and then suffered three strokes and subsequent homelessness. When it did come to where I was wanting to play agai, I bought a bass and then found I remembered nothing of the early days. Nothing at all. So, I hired a teacher (which I still have) and had to start from the very beginning. He set up a rigid and structured practice routine for me. Had to relearn everything. I still mintain this today and don’t deviate from it. For me, it was practice or don’t play at all. I don’t thumbslap. I’ve sort of adopted Rocco Prestia’s fingerstyle funk technique and it works well for me. I have my metronome right there, tape recorder, pencil and notebook. Now, I’m actually PAST where I was before the strokes hit.

  2. Excellent suggestions! I always struggle with practicing, particularly staying focused when practicing, & knowing what to focus on & how much time to dedicate to each segment of my practice session.

    Getting started is the hardest part. Deciding what to work on is difficult too. It was easier when I was taking lessons & had an established plan, but money is tight these days.

  3. I find practice very useful and keep a station with metronome, books, practice pad and sticks ready for daily use. This is ideal for a drummer since we can’t always bang on the kit for practice. When I can use the kit, of course the books and music accompany the practice time, usually everyday anywhere from 15 minutes to over an hour.

  4. I don’t normally comment twice on the same issue, but this was worth coming back to. I was easily distracted when I first started back. I would sit in front of YouTube and make believe I was Stanley, Marcus, Rocco, etc. Ya see, I was afraid to pick up the bass because in the beginning, I was having such trouble even making my left hand do a simple “C” scale, I thought it was over for me. YouTube became my ‘escape route’ if you will. My instructor saw this. He actually held my left hand and walked me one note at a time throught the simple scales. Then he taught me a real simple line. When I could do it, he picked up his guitar and showed me I could still make music. It wasn’t Marcus, but it was a start. From there, it was discipline and the realization I still had a chance. What the author of this article said was solid and real. The journey back was one note/step at a time, but it was progress. When you finish practice and have a lick you couldn’t do before, it’s accomplishment.

  5. OK, lets see… first I just start warming up with the major scale on any key. Just to get the blood flowing. Then I’m looking into understanding modes and how they sound so I’ll mess with that too. The one thing I will suggest is getting a Casio or Yamaha or what ever key board that has like a hundred different rhythm’s on it. I like picking a random rhythm and just start jamming to it.Even if I’m just playing a scale it’s the staying in the pocket that I try to do. Another thing to try is to “listen” to the notes when your playing. And not just each individual note but how the “box” sounds when your playing, the change of tone in the box. That way when your playing basic 1457 stuff you can hear where the notes are suppose to go( considering you have the song your playing mesmerized.) LATER DUDE!

  6. I’ve been using this sort of practice method since the beginning of the year and I can say that the rate of improvement to my musicianship has grown so much. I try to do this sort of practice 5 times a week for at least an hour a session, the other two days I’m playing with bands or jamming so I can implement what I learn in a band context.

  7. It’s great to see someone else recommend keeping practice notes. I’ve been preaching about this one for years!

  8. Great article. I might actually keep a practice log. I do practice a lot, not as much as I would, and being even more focused on practice can help me improve in such areas as coordination voice/playing basslines and theory. Thanks for that Ryan.

  9. I love these kind of posts. Lately I’ve been taking practice more seriously but I’m not getting a clear improvement despite all my efforts. Reading this article made me think maybe my current goals are interfering with my learning instead of enforce it. I’m going to apply some of what I’ve read into my daily routine.

  10. Crush

    One of the things that has really helped me is to practice in several shorter sessions versus one long session each day. When I keep my practice sessions to around 30 minutes I not only remain focused for the whole time, but I find that I retain a lot more of the information later on. This is especially true when learning a new line or chord changes. Short bursts works for me!