I ran a survey a few weeks back asking bass players what they struggled with the most. With an overwhelming majority, the response had to do with practicing. Specifically, how to:
- Practice effectively so as to see improvement.
- Not be distracted.
- Know what to work on next or where to even start.
Some people formulated it perfectly, asking for very specific practice advice: structure, specific improvisation, timing or grooving exercises, for example. Others’ responses showed that they have not yet experienced what is possible with effective practice, assuming their persistent lack of improvement was due to not having talent, being too old or just not up for it, which is such a sad and limiting belief – and it’s not true in my teaching experience. I recently wrote about this in an article, Why “just keep playing” is not working.
Effective practice leading to results is not only possible, it is also quite simple. Not necessarily easy, but simple. The ingredients are:
- The decision
- A regular commitment of time
- A bit of discipline
- A solid program
- Trust that you can do it
The first step is deciding to practice in a new way because you want to improve in new ways. If what you have done so far got you mixed results, if you feel you are not really on a path to your goals, then deciding to check out something else is the place to start. Possible approaches are:
- Taking lessons with a (new) teacher
- Participating in an online program
- Studying a book
- A new band project
- A course at your local community college
- Maybe a weekly jazz jam to shed a different tune each week.
If you don’t really know what the next step is for you, feedback from someone who is further along really helps. Avoid getting stuck in decision paralysis – the search for the ideal time, the “bestest” teacher or for whatever non-existing magic bullet can keep you stuck. Just decide to do something different for, say, three months, to give it your all, then evaluate.
Notice that I use the word “decision” rather than the word “motivation”. It is in our power to motivate ourselves. If we wait for the feeling of motivation to come on its own, we may wait in vain for a very long time. We can, however, start anyway and allow motivation to develop, or we can actively create it.
The Commitment of Time
Many people believe it is necessary to sit in the practice room for hours on end to make practice effective. For a long time, I thought that fewer than three hours is not even worth starting for! I was wrong. While more time spent in the shed is certainly a great thing, it is not so much the quantity that counts, but rather the quality of the practice.
The quality of focus really determines the outcome. It is much better to practice for ten minutes with a laser-sharp focus on a specific topic rather than just mindlessly moving fingers for years.
There are two recommendations I generally make because they tend to lead to consistent and measurable improvement:
1. Commit to 45 minutes of focused practice five times a week
2. Do short bursts of practice throughout the day. This can be 5 blocks of ten minutes sprinkled throughout the day but can also include things like:
- “After I switch a light switch I stop to visualize playing the G major scale in the first area of the bass.” or
- “After I wash my hands, I say the Cycle of Descending Fifths out loud.”
- The idea behind this method was developed by BJ Fogg at the Stanford Persuasion Lab and its goal is to create habits effortlessly. It works great to include a bit of bass extra shedding.
Little gems of practice spread throughout the day will jump-start the mind over and over again – if you didn’t know the cycle the first day and had to use a cheat sheet in your pocket – by the end of a week or two of saying it every time you washed your hands, don’t you think you will nail it? (One more reason to pick up good hand washing habits!)
My PORA method is also great material for short practice bursts.
A Bit of Discipline
Just do it. Distraction is your worst enemy. Set a timer, and go. If you hit a snag, take a deep breath, get up for a spell or a glass of water (pause your timer), then get back to practice (start the timer again). Never touch a gadget or the computer during these breaks. Make it a rule and never break it.
A Solid Program
Find a program or method that looks good for your current level and then stick with it. A program is key – it is important that it goes step by step and that each step builds on the previous one. A good program will include:
- Knowing the bass neck and reading
Find one that looks right or has a teacher with a method to help you. It is easy to get stuck in research paralysis: Don’t spend too much time looking for the mystical perfect method and magical ingredient.The only way for you to know is to try. Decide, try for three months, evaluate. If you made measurable improvement, continue on that path. If not, revisit the search. Either way, you will have won valuable insights, even if you decided to change direction.
Trust is a vital ingredient here. Trust that you can do this. If not today, then with practice. Trust that every day you work on your skills, they will get a bit better. Remind yourself that progress sometimes can look like going backward for a moment.
And then there are (internal) voices from “well-meaning” parents, friends or teachers that don’t allow for us to shine, but rather want us to be “safe”. That negative self-talk can sabotage everything. Just have an eye out for those thoughts that will certainly sneak in – thoughts of:
- Doubt in yourself (do I have talent?)
- In what you are practicing (“shouldn’t I be looking at the triple tritone backward flip instead?”)
- In your equipment (“Maybe if I used flat wounds I wouldn’t get all that fret noise?”)
Be careful – these voices seem to mean “well” – their aim is to shield you from disappointment. Sometimes they appear to downright plot to get you back into an online trance. If you research bass strings or tritone backward flips there is no danger of failing, right? Remember, you gave yourself three months and you made a commitment. Return to the task at hand.
This article is deliberately generalizing because my aim is to make these principles apply to any practice regimen. I encourage you to try out these tips and please share your experiences in the comments below.
I am in the process of developing a new practice series. If you’d like to give input or sign up for updates, please go here.