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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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