Consistency: From the Practice Shed to the Bandstand

Bassist performing live

Photo by kmlz

Q: I seem to have an issue with consistency. I seem to be able to pull certain licks and lines together when practicing, but it always falls apart when I’m actually playing with the band. Any tricks to develop consistency?

A: Tricks? No. But I do have some thoughts.

1. Context

I had a realization after something similar to what you’re describing happened to me on a gig. I had been working on this finger pattern and could just blaze with my right hand in the shed. On the gig, I tried to make use of it in a solo, and it completely fell apart on me. What was the problem?!

The problem was that I had only practiced the finger pattern one way (over just a couple of notes, back and forth) in the shed and thought that I had it together. The reality was that I only had it together if I was playing the same harmonic pattern. As soon as that shifted, I couldn’t hang.

Because of this, I am always hyper-aware of musical context when practicing anything. Whether it is harmonic or just pure technique, context is always important.

This is actually how I got so into practicing arpeggios in various inversions over chord changes. I figured that the best way to prepare for anything harmonically – with regard to my finger pattern, or lick – was to practice it over various tunes in the Real Book, using arpeggios as my guide.

This forces one to skip strings, move around and change positions on the neck. This is especially true when you start to mix and match your inversions and harmonic patterns. If you can alter your lick to fit the changes and move it around the neck in time with the tune, chances are that you’ll nail it on the gig the next time you try it.

2. Play slow to go fast

I’ve said this before: I see far too many students come in and try to play really fast – because they want me to know that they can – but nothing is connecting. Either the harmonic content is haphazard and/or their hands aren’t actually in sync. Often, what it amounts to is all fingers on deck wiggling around the bass, but nothing really coming out but mud.

In order for speed to have an impact, it should be married with precision. A race car with loose steering will inevitably crash if it goes too fast.

In order to practice precision, we must actually slow things down and practice playing lines and patterns at a tempo that allows us to play properly.

I will often pick a challenging melody (say, “Freedom Jazz Dance” or “Got A Match” or “Spain”) and when I work on that melody, I will only play it at a tempo that allows me to articulate every note properly and play it cleanly.

Once those two things are achieved, I gradually notch my metronome up, by a few clicks at a time, until I’m having trouble playing it. I will then stay there (or notch it back a tick) and work at that new tempo until I can again play it cleanly a few times in a row. Then I will repeat the process until the piece is up to tempo AND sounds the way I want it to!

3. Practice licks over changes

If it is a lick that you are working on, there’s no reason not to try and expound upon it by altering the harmony a bit. If you’ve got a killer minor scale lick, try and play it over every other chord type (altering the appropriate notes to make it fit the new harmony – don’t just play the same lick). This really helps to expand your ability to play over different chord types and also gives you more vocabulary over changes. It’ll allow you to start to see how your licks are really laying over the changes and working with them.

Try this with every chord type you can think of. It’ll also expand your ability to think through changes.

As with most things, it’s not so much about practicing but rather smart and efficient practicing. If you practice smartly, you can get more out of one hour than others might out of three hours in the shed.

Make good use of your time and never take a shortcut. You’re only short-changing yourself in the process. Go slow and work methodically and it’ll pay off big time in the end!

Readers, what’s your approach to transferring knowledge from the practice shed to the stage? Tell us about it in the comments.

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. The old saw comes to mind: I needed directions once in New York City. I saw a person carrying a violin case, so I asked: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The answer: “Practice… practice… practice…”

  2. the same old trap that had gotten all of us once in a while. Playing in a practice situation is much easier than on a real gig or in a band context. So things tend to fall apart in such situations. The lick was just too close to your edge/abilities or even above them to master it in a live situation. Simple as that imho.

    • That reminds me of what singers often do: The warm up to at least a minor third above the highest note they will have to sing. The same goes for tempo, I think…

  3. One thing I believe is really important is attention. A difficult passage or a lick need a lot of attention, that you do have in the practice room, but on the bandstand, your attention is drawn to many other places, like other band members, the audience, etc… So very little attention (or mental capacity…) is left for the lick. There’s ways out of this dilemma: Don’t play the lick until you really “overpracticed” it (i.e. someone wakes you up at 4 am and you can play it immediately; or you have played the lick in hundreds of different contexts or harmonic situations); Practice in context (i.e. imagine standing on the stage while practicing, with movements and posture and all); Or focus your attention momentarily so that it is not distracted. The latter is easier said than done, because there’s also the problem of nervousness: Your mind and body are in two different states either in the practice room or on the gig. Again, “overpracticing” and practicing in context can help, along with relaxation (yes, indeed..). Oh, and don’t forget another context effect: At what point in the concert does the “difficult lick” occur? Maybe right after 10 minutes of burning funk? So practice that. I have always admired bass players who can play the hottest solo after 2 hours or so of comping…