The Lightbulb Moment: Small Adjustments, Big Results

Bass player

We’re all looking for ways to get more bang for our buck, especially when it comes to practicing. We watch videos, scroll through forums, and read columns about how to establish a better practice routine (you may be doing this right now). So, for what it’s worth, here are my two cents.

Frankly, most of us don’t like to practice because it’s boring, it seems like a waste of time, we have difficulty recognizing progress, and it’s somewhat self-deprecating. Who wants to sound bad? Who wants to sit and listen to a metronome beep incessantly? Why do we even bother trying to get “better?” The struggle is real, my friends. Add the “I don’t have time” factor to the equation and the motivation has left the building. So what can we do? How can we lace up our boots and hike up the mountain of musicianship? The key, in my opinion, is to make small adjustments to the way we practice. Try to isolate why something isn’t working and amend it.

To demonstrate, a few examples:

Case #1: I have a student who absolutely hates Mr. Metronome. Crazy, I know. How can you hate Mr. Metronome? He’s reliable, consistent, and willing to change tempos for you at the turn of a knob. I love him—but enough about me. Student #1 just despises him. He has difficulty internalizing the tempo and seems to fight against the beeping—if anything, he has more trouble keeping time with the metronome on. So, during a lesson, we take a step back and try to figure out why that is. It turns out that the beeping sound is just too electronic, too mechanical, and lacking musical sensibility. “How can I play with something so obnoxious?” asked the student. That’s a great question (and one that I have asked myself after many a gig). Just for kicks, we tried changing some of the sounds on my handy dandy metronome app. No longer were we confined to a digital beep; we could play along to a wood block, a cowbell, a handclap, or a sound that is apparently “traditional.” We went through all of the sounds and settled on one that was more reminiscent of a drummer, “drum kit 2.” Magically, the student had an easier time playing to the click and was relieved to find something that was more pleasant to work with. His time keeping got better and he actually practiced some technique exercises the following week. All from changing the setting of the metronome.

Case #2: I’m too busy! I have a job, or school, or children, or instagram accounts. Most of us have difficulty finding woodshed time and, if we’re lucky, can only squeeze in a few minutes here and there. Let’s say you’ve got five minutes to pick up your instrument. What do you do? Realistically, there’s no way to tackle everything on your “practice this list” with that little time. Those five minutes fly by and become zero minutes because, chances are, you’re spending more time thinking about what to practice and fooling around than you are actually practicing. So, pick one thing. One exercise. One song. By focusing your attention on a single task, you’ll use the time more efficiently. Playing a song (or two short songs) is a great way to spend those five minutes. You may work on learning a part, such as the chord changes to the chorus, or perhaps you’re just brushing up on a song you’ve already learned. Maybe you’re playing through a song that you know like the back of your hand because you simply want to enjoy those precious moments of musical bliss. Either way, if you only have a few minutes, pick just one thing to work on..

Case #3: I don’t like my tone! There are plenty of ways to sound bad. Your fingernails may be too long. Your strings may be too bright or too dark. The settings on your amp could be askew. Who knows? Thankfully, with a bit of troubleshooting, you should be able to find a few ways to sound better. If you’ve never explored the tonal possibilities of your instrument and amp, take some time to do so. Find the settings that inspire you to shout, “Now that sounds like a bass!” By establishing a welcoming tone, you’ll prefer the sound and feel of your instrument and be more encourage to practice (and practice well). There’s nothing like the gratification of playing a groove and realizing “hey, I sound pretty good.” That is the result of the “Musical Trifecta:” playing the correct notes, executing a good feel or groove, and having the right tone. After all, most of us choose to play bass because we enjoy the way it sounds… we could have picked up the French horn. Once you recognize that you can actually sound good, you’ll be more confident about your playing, you’ll hold yourself to a higher standard of tone and technique, and you’ll learn how to diversify your tone to fit into different musical settings.

These three examples are pretty common, both among students and professional players. When it comes to practicing, everyone needs to work on time keeping, on finding the time to practicing, and on tonal exploration. If none of these examples apply to you, then take a minute to review your playing or practice routine. Try to isolate one simple thing that you could do better and try to focus on that.

A small change could have a big impact on your relationship with your instrument.

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!

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  1. Max

    Case #3 really hit home for me. As someone relatively new to the instrument I’m learning and practicing at home, using a tiny Fender Rumble 15 and worse, usually through headphones. How does one even judge tone under those circumstances?

    • Luc

      99 % of the time i practice without amp, just the instrument in a qiuet room. This added to my tone big time, really. On gigs or in the studio my amp stands flat most of the time. Sometilmes a minor adjustment in bass is all it takes. It also added on my right hand technique and stamina. If you have a fairly good instrument i’d recommend this to everybody.

  2. Tom

    #3 !!!

    Have an instrument that suppports your idea of tone and you feel good with (love the haptical aspects !!!)
    Practice also without an amp (like Luc) and try to get a good, clean tone. I think I read about this first time in an interview with John Patitucci.
    I also had to learn that huge EQ adjustments doesn’t result in a good tone most of the time.
    For me most of the time amp flat + a little bass on my bass-preamp and/or amp is enough to get a likeable sound.

    • Luc

      Idd Tom. Technician in the studio i work often told me he has never heard a bassplayer so loud and clear on a bass that is not plugged in. I got the advice from a guitarplayer, i hadnt heard of patitucci back then (1990) when i started. So i do this from the very beginning i got to bass. Fretted and fretless. My dynamic range is also very wide, due to practice whitout amp.

    • Tom

      Just to be clear … I normally practice with amp/mp3s/drumtracks over headphones. But I practice as well unplugged just with the instrument and think this was important for me getting a good tone out of my instrument. Pay attention when unplugged to not overplay (play hard) just to get loud !!! Play relaxed but … for me it is more the way hitting the strings the way so it sounds good

  3. Andrés

    Thanks for the words of wisdom. Really helpful for all of us busy bass freaks :)