How to Change Up Your Practice Routine When You Don’t Feel Like Practicing

Q: What does one do about practice when you just don’t feel like playing and can’t get into it? Do you walk away for a few days or force yourself to play?

A: Everyone likely has a different approach, but I have a few things that I try to do before throwing in the towel and taking a break. But know that there is nothing wrong with taking a break!

First, I should be completely open here. These days, I rarely actually practice. I do, however, usually have a gig or 12 that I need to be preparing for so I do spend quite a bit of time in the shed working on tunes, transcribing, marking (or re-writing) charts, etc. I probably play a few hours per day on non-gig days – minimally – and will likely play for a few hours prior to gigs as well. So, even though I am not shedding exercises so much anymore, I often have the instrument in my hands or am working on music in one way or another.

But I have spent plenty of years, before I was gigging all that much, working my tail off in the shed. I often found myself frustrated, burned out or just in a rut. These are some things that I’ve tried:

  1. Picking a new song or entire album that I love and learning it note for note.
    Sometimes all I really need to get the juices flowing again is to take a break from the drudgery of scalar exercises and chord changes and get back to just plain old music. I wore out some MeShell N’Degeocello albums, copping licks, learning tunes, etc… I also got very into learning Chick Corea tunes, Stevie Wonder, Jackson5, Jamiroquai…whatever it is that gets you going. Just have fun again, playing along to albums like you likely did when you first started out!
  2. Find the baddest cat (on any instrument) in town and take a lesson or two.
    Even if you have a great teacher, sometimes just getting a fresh perspective can be inspiring.
  3. Pick an artist that you respect and buy their charts online or contact them (if possible) and get your hands on them somehow.
    I love getting the charts that the guys used on the session and playing along to the album. I might even just read along and listen. I like to imagine myself on the session and try to envision how they got from the chart to the recorded piece of music.
  4. Put the bass down and go see some live music.
    If you’re still just not feeling it, there is nothing like experiencing a badass band live to get me excited about making music. If the guys are local or in town for an extra day, see if you can take a lesson with one of them!
  5. Take a bass vacation.
    When all else fails, sometimes you just need to clean out the cobwebs and give it a break. Let your subconscious mind work on the music while you take a hike, sleep or do whatever it is that gets the energy back up. Sometimes a few days or even a week away from the instrument can be just what you needed. On the rare occasions that I don’t play bass for a few days I find myself overflowing with joy and a stream of new ideas when I get back on the bass.

Obsessing about one thing for too long can wear you out. It’s important to have other things in your life or day to day activities that bring you joy. Explore a new hobby. We need to give our brains a break and variety is crucial. Everything in your life informs everything else in your life so it’s good to have a variety of experiences to draw from.

I hope that helps!

Readers, what do you do when you get a little burned out and just can’t focus in the shed? Please share your thoughts and remedies in the comments.

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. Rob

    If you have another instrument you dabble in, that can be helpful. I play a little keyboard and I find myself every few months stepping away from the bass for a couple weeks and really getting into the keyboard. Funny thing is, it always helps my bass playing. I find the concentration of paying attention to what my two hands are doing and the way you have to synchronize them rhythmically will improve my time feel and groove on the bass. After a couple weeks I’m usually ready to move full on into the bass again and feel refreshed doing so.

  2. Bernie

    I like to go do other hobbies when I burn out. The trick I’ve found is to bring the other hobbies closer to your bass playing so you don’t let it slip too far from your scope of activity.
    Eg I’ll restore a guitar/bass, try new wiring combos/pickup switching options, clean up/setup my instruments properly etc, learn ‘how things work’ like building a pickup.

    A lot of these types of carefully scoped breaks tend to bring me back to being interested in playing again very quickly.

    On point 3: I recently picked up and started working through The Improvisers Path, I’m only on the Stella 7-9-11-13 exercise, but it’s already making a huge difference in my flexibility. Great method, thankyou :)

  3. I found that owning some different (construction) basses will keep me playing for ages… Also, playing unplugged (hollow body!!!) @ home will never bore me..