Defining “Practice”: A Discussion for Bass Players

Bassist by Feliciano Guimaraes

Q: How do you define “practice”? I’m curious because a friend asked me how I practice, and I said that I just play a lot and wasn’t sure how to answer the question. He said that “there’s a difference between playing and practicing”. Do you agree with that?

A: My quick answer is yes, I believe that there is a difference between playing, noodling, rehearsing and actual practice.

But, I would be quick to add that I also think that it can be equally important to play, noodle and, of course, rehearse. I just think that you need to be aware of what you are doing and be mindful about it so that you can maximize what you get out of it (especially when practicing).

I firmly believe that any time spent with the instrument in your hands is time well spent. There are those who disagree with the idea of playing while watching TV, for example, but I think that’s actually a great time to work on muscle memory exercises (right hand fingerings or rhythmic exercises, for example). A large part of what goes into playing musically, freely, comfortably and with feel and nuance has to do with your familiarity and comfort level with your instrument. You want your instrument to be an extension of your musical mind and what you hear. That means that you need to remove it, as much as is possible, as an obstacle. You need to know it inside and out. It needs to feel like home when you pick it up. To me, this means that you can also have a casual relationship with your instrument. I’ll often keep it in my lap while doing other things at the computer and noodle while waiting for a task to finish (upload, video conversion… anything that takes a minute is a minute I can play freely on my bass). I don’t see anything harmful in that at all.

That said, when it’s time to practice, it’s time to practice! In my mind, if you aren’t making mistakes, you aren’t practicing. Practice time should time dedicated to doing that which you cannot yet do, so that you may, one day, be able to do it (stomping all over a Picasso quote there but it applies).

Practice is time when you should be:

  1. Honestly assessing the player you are and contrasting that with the player you want to be.
  2. Prioritizing your shed time to focus on that which needs the most attention.
  3. Mapping out how what you want to accomplish, and how you will do it.
  4. Working with focus on those things which challenge you for as long as you have or as long as you can.

That is how we practice and get something from it over time (I know a lot of folks who get more out of a week’s worth of practice the others who get out of a year because of the way in which they work when they are practicing. No joke!). This is the secret to “talent”, “brilliance” and “natural ability”… Not just time in the shed, but hard working, smart working time in the shed.

There are always examples of extremely young musicians who play better than people four times their age. These are the exception to the rule. There may be any number of things involved (brain chemistry, for one) but I also guarantee that each one of them started early and spent hundreds to (more likely) thousands of hours practicing hard and focusing like a laser when they did it.

My friends look at me funny when I get asked how often I practice, because I usually answer that I haven’t had time to practice in years. I’m not being cute. By my definition, I don’t practice at all. I do, however, gig most nights of the week and spend quite a bit of time transcribing and rehearsing music at home before I hit the stage. It’s a kind of practice, maybe, but I’m not pushing my boundaries, necessarily. I’m simply trying to learn and internalize different music as quickly as I can. I likely play four hours a day, but by my definition, I haven’t practiced in probably five years.

I would try and force yourself to set aside dedicated practice time every day. Practice as much as you can. If you only have 30 minutes, practice hard for 30 minutes. Don’t wait until you have an afternoon free or you will never fully build upon what you worked on last time you practiced. Ideally, you can practice for one or more hours a day. This is where the “how badly do you want it” conversation comes into play. Those that go far almost always can tell you about a large chunk of their youth where they fell in love with the instrument and would practice all day long. If it truly is what you want to be doing, you’ll find the time. You won’t have a choice. You’ll be thinking about playing when you’re not playing and race home to get back at it.

Not all of us have that built into us, and that’s ok. Sometimes you have to force yourself a bit (I usually did, to be honest).

That’s why it’s important to schedule time into your day. Set aside an hour if you can to really focus on new things. Then, do whatever you want and feel free to keep that bass in your hands without wondering about whether you’re really putting in the time.

Just play. Have fun with it but if there is something that you want to work on or something you wish you could do better. Hit the shed and hit it hard!

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Share your thoughts

  1. Jeff Bennett

    No flaws in what you say. My input would be to make sure you always do scales a little bit, play along with material you like (easy @ first) and keep your chops up ALL THE TIME. When you can start to ‘get’ those more challenging tunes down, you will feel elated that you can play that stuff now. I’m 59 yrs on and I can attest to that, when I learned a few scales (bored me) but being able to finally be able to play along with Beatles ‘Hey Bulldog’ and Cream ‘Crossroads’ or Rush ‘Red Barchetta’ kinda stuff, you get that WOW factor. Forget partying, video games etc. just play,then teach others, that’s what I do. Marry that bass, but don’t call it ‘the Wife’ as Mr. Sheehan already did. So get to it and love it! (hope it helps a smidgeon)

  2. Good article! But I would add that the most important thing about practicing is to unlearn bad habits and create good ones. We all get bad habits at some point (hand position, rhythm, posture, breathing, etc…). Just noodling without actually trying to correct those bad habits will just reinforce them, and will make it even harder over time to correct them. So, sometimes bad practice can do more harm than good.

  3. Marcelo

    I practice triyng to get better in my technique, doing scales, arpeggios, improvisation etc, etc. Just I get fun weekends when I play some new song or composition and it is when realize the effort pays

  4. Luc

    Practice is setting goals, and work to achieve them.

    Playing is having fun. If you set goals to playing you restrict yourself, and narrow down on possibilities, specially in improvisation.