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Setting Yourself Up For Success In The Practice Shed (Part 1)

Old shedIf 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.

The Importance Of Having A Plan

If your goal is to be a well-rounded player, skilled in a variety of feels, styles, and techniques, you have to have an effective plan for your development, and the discipline to stay on course. However, the creation of a perfect practice plan can sometimes be as challenging as the skills, themselves. How do we know how long to practice? What to practice? When to practice? These are all questions that need to be addressed. Vince Lombardi, considered one of the greatest coaches of all time, is credited with one of my favorite quotes of all time: “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.” I have really tried to embrace this philosophy as I have worked to improve my playing.

I should probably start by emphasizing that no practice routine is one-size-fits-all. Different players learn in different ways, and sometimes we have to experiment with different methods before arriving at an educational strategy that works best for each of us. Therefore, the concepts that I will present in this article are really just some basic guidelines that you can follow when getting started with a new practice routine or overhauling your old one. Also keep in mind that your routine should be continually dynamic, meaning it should grow and change as you grow and change as a player. As you continue to improve and make progress, you will find that you’ll need to make adjustments and fine-tune your routine to always keep it challenging and effective.

The Definition Of “Practice”

It is important to differentiate the concept of “practicing” from “playing” or “performing.” There are some players that spend their practice time playing things that they already know, or working on exercises that never really go beyond the realm of patterns. I will go ahead and say there is nothing wrong with spending your time in this way. In fact, many players find their greatest level of musical fulfilment comes from simply playing their favorite tunes or learning bass grooves that make them smile. Everyone has different goals, and for some the thought of going out of their way to struggle with exercises and lines they might never use doesn’t make a lot of sense. However, the concepts that I will be focusing on in this article mostly apply to those of you that want to try and stay in a steady state of development and improvement, even if it means breaking a sweat every time you practice.

The true meaning of “practicing” requires that we commit ourselves to the pursuit of conquering of the unfamiliar, the physically demanding, and the mentally challenging. As bizarre as it may sound, you’ll know you’re practicing something effectively when you find you are barely holding on to it, using every last bit of focus and concentration available to try and successfully execute that concept or exercise. For me personally, when I’m doing serious study I try to practice as if I’m on the borderline of struggle with whatever it is I am working on. To some this may sound like the furthest thing from enjoyable, but I have learned that my greatest periods of musical growth have been borne out of my greatest challenges and struggles in the practice shed.

Putting Time On Your Side

How long should you practice? This question doesn’t necessarily have a single definitive answer. The common thought is that we should practice as much as we can, and I wholeheartedly agree. However, it’s important to point out that practice time is much more about quality than it is quantity. Fifteen focused minutes of wrestling with a challenging exercise or concept not yet internalized is going to improve your playing more than an hour of playing the same favorite groove that you’ve known for years. I’m sure that many of us would love to be able to devote 8-10 uninterrupted hours a day to practicing the bass, but that’s not feasible if we have any semblance of a life of responsibilities outside of the shed.

When it comes to your musical development, keep your goals ambitious and your expectations realistic. You want to set yourself up for success when you practice, and one of the best ways to do that is to create minimum practice time goals that are going to be relatively easy for you to reach on a consistent basis. This is as much a psychological benefit as it is musical, as the idea is based on reinforcing feelings of satisfaction, accomplishment, and positivity associated with having met your practice time goal, day after day. However, you’ll notice I referred to them as “minimum” practice time goals. This leaves the door wide open for you to practice even longer if you have the time or the energy available. These “bonus time” practice periods bring about even greater feelings of accomplishment and success in knowing you went beyond your daily requirement. However, your first job is to meet your minimum daily requirement, and that’s what our consistency goals are all about.

When setting up time goals like these, first ask yourself, “What is the minimum amount of time that I know I can devote to the bass consistently each day?” You have to be very honest with yourself as you contemplate this. For some of us, the answer might be 30 minutes or an hour each day. For others, it might be 15 minutes, and that’s ok. 15 minutes a day of true, uninterrupted, challenging practice time will indeed improve your playing significantly over time. In fact, if you are practicing correctly, there should be some level of improvement after every practice session, even if it hasn’t manifested itself directly through your hands or into your playing on the gig yet. And by the way, you may ultimately find that trying to practice seven days a week is not the best strategy for you. Many players benefit from having an “off day” or two each week, in which they take a short break from the bass and give the mental challenges and physical challenges time to be absorbed and synchronized more, subconsciously. I know some players that practice every other day, which parallels a weight trainer’s approach to allowing a day of rest following the targeting of a particular muscle group. Once again, your results may vary, so be realistic based on your available time and attention span before diving in. Also, you can always make adjustments to your practice routine after trying it out for a while, so don’t feel like you have to lock in to your plan immediately before evaluating how effective it is going to be.

One last thing I would like to add about practice time is that it doesn’t have to be contiguous. In other words, you might not have a single hour block that you can devote each day, but you might be able to find four individual 15 minute blocks, instead. All of your practice time counts towards your daily goal, regardless of if it is broken up or not, so don’t worry about how it gets divided, unless it affects the effectiveness of your comprehension or progress. Furthermore, you may find that it is more mentally exhausting for you to try and practice for longer uninterrupted periods of time, and you don’t want to feel completely spent after just working on a single concept. A lot of players do better with breaks in between exercises. For me personally, I find that it helps me to divide up my practice time during the day between the different topics or subjects that I am working on. This keeps my mind feeling a little more fresh and

I find I look forward more to my practice time as a whole.

Later, in part 2 of this series, we will get into the subject of what to practice, as well as suggestions on how to build a successful practice schedule. Until then, keep it bassy!

What do you find is your best routine? Tell us about it in the comments.

Photo by Tim Lorenz