We’re already a month into 2014 and I’m willing to bet that many of us who made New Year’s resolutions along the lines of ‘I’m going to do more practice’ or ‘I’ll get better at bass’ have already started to let things slip. This post deals with how to make the most of your practice time and create a routine that is both effective and sustainable.

The bulk of the information in this post is concerned with the why and how of practising rather than the what – everyone has different things that need attention so I’m reluctant to give advice on the content of your practice schedule.

A brief disclaimer: all of this is based on my personal experience of what works best for me and my practice routine. This is not the only way to do things, but I’ve had positive feedback from many students regarding the concepts outlined in this post. I’m always open to alternative strategies, so if there’s something that works for you but isn’t covered here then leave a comment to let me know…

In keeping with the New Year theme of the post, I’ve organised things along the lines of a meal (my main non-musical obsession is food). Think of this as a new musical diet plan for 2014.

APPETISERS 

1. Practising vs. Playing

The first step is making the distinction between practising and playing. 

Practising allows you to hone in around on the areas of music (note that I didn’t say ‘bass playing’) that are currently outside of your comfort zone. These could involve instrumental technique, application of harmonic/melodic ideas, sight reading, ear training or knowledge of music theory.

Playing covers situations where you’re in your comfort zone, often playing material that you can already play well. This includes gigs/rehearsals/jamming/noodling, all of which are enjoyable but aren’t stretching your playing and therefore won’t result in significant improvement.

In order to maximise your musical development, you need to strike the balance between practising and playing. If all you do is practise, then you deny yourself the opportunity to apply all of the things that you’ve been working on in a ‘real world’ scenario. On the other hand, if all you do is play then you run the risk of getting stuck in a rut and never evolving as a musician.

I use playing situations (gigs/rehearsals etc) as a measure of how well my practice schedule is working. We’re all the best player in the world in the safety of our own practice rooms, but in a performance environment things feel very different. I find that recording gigs and later critiquing my performance is one of the most effective (and painful) strategies for establishing which concepts have worked their way into my playing and which still need work.

2. Reality Checks

Getting a second opinion on your playing is hugely important for your musical development. I find it difficult to be entirely objective about my playing (particularly while I’m in the act of performing) so I make an effort to seek constructive criticism from people who I respect musically.

More often than not these ‘critical friends’ are other musicians that I’m on a gig with, but I also try and take lessons whenever I can. Having a mentor who gives me a brutally honest assessment of my playing inspires me to put more hours of practice time in, informs the content of my practice time and helps to keep my ego in check.

Some people find it odd that I still continue to take lessons even though I make my living through gigging and teaching (“…I thought you knew how to play bass?!”) but I feel that continuing to study music with someone more knowledgeable than myself is the only way to ensure that I keep growing as a musician. Michael Brecker continued to have a coach long into his career and Mike Stern studied with the same teacher for almost 30 years. If it’s good enough for them then it’s good enough for me (important note – I am in NO WAY comparing myself to either Brecker or Stern…)

3. Goal Setting

Make a list of all the things that you’d like to change about your playing. Focus on 2 or 3 areas in particular and write a set of related goals that are measurable. Once you’ve established what you’re aiming for you can then choose (or create) appropriate exercises that will help bring you closer to your goals.

It’s also wise to ask yourself why you’re practising certain things – how will what you’re about to work on bring you closer to your goals? If you can’t directly trace how a particular exercise will improve a specific area of your playing then cut it out of your practice regime.

THE MAIN COURSE

4.’Chunking’

My preference is to divide my practice time into small ‘chunks’ rather than working on anything for a protracted length of time. I find that 15-20 minutes of focused practice interspersed with short (2-3 minute) breaks produces the best results. I started this approach after going to a masterclass with Todd Johnson in which he suggested using a similar approach; I almost immediately found that I seemed to be getting more practice done in less time than previously and that I retained more information on a day-to-day basis.

Let’s say you have 3 areas that you need to work on (e.g. ear training, reading and repertoire) and you have about an hour a day of practice time. A sample ‘chunking’ routine would look like this:

15 mins on Topic A

-3 min break

15 mins on Topic B

-3 min break

15 mins on Topic C

-3 min break

At this point you still might have time for another chunk, so go back and spend more time on the topic that you feel weakest on.

15 mins on Topic B

A small note on breaks – be disciplined and use a timer! 3 minutes easily become 5 minutes which easily become 10 minutes which easily become…

Having more than an hour to practice allows for more opportunities to revisit topics multiple times over the course of a practice session without losing focus or suffering information overload.

I’ve been using this method for 5 years or so and find that it allows me to do a relatively high volume of practice and not feel exhausted afterwards. The concept of alternating intensely focused periods of work with brief rest periods is well established amongst athletes and academics alike (see the ‘resources’ section below for literature on this subject).

5. ROTATING SCHEDULES

One issue that almost everyone that I talk to mentions is not having enough time to practice. One way to get around this is to have two (or more) practice routines that you cycle through on alternating days – an ‘A’ routine and a ‘B’ routine. Again, this is nothing new – athletes do this all the time.

Let’s imagine that you have the following areas to work on:

  • Sight reading
  • Arpeggios
  • Repertoire

Now let’s think about some of the possible variables for each of these areas:

i. Sight Reading

  • Rhythm reading (no pitch variation)
  • Pitch recognition (no rhythmic variation)
  • Combination reading (‘real’ music)
  • Reading in different clefs (treble/tenor/alto)

ii. Arpeggios

  • Different chord types (major/minor/augmented/diminished/suspended)
  • Transposition through all keys
  • Single string vs. multi-string (2-6 string, depending on your instrument)
  • Inversions

iii. Repertoire

  • Transcription of material to be learnt
  • Memorisation of new material
  • Revision of existing repertoire

If we combine the idea of rotating with some ‘chunks’ we begin to get an idea of what an alternating practice schedule looks like.

Here’s a sample ‘A’ routine:

-15 minutes on rhythm reading

-3 min break

-15 minutes on arpeggios in 6 keys (#s), single string and multi-string

-3 min break

-15 minutes on learning new repertoire

The sample ‘B’ routine might look something like this:

-15 minutes on pitch reading

-3 min break

-15 minutes on arpeggios in 6 keys (bs), single string and multi-string

-3 min break

-15 minutes revising existing repertoire

Splitting your practice routine in this way means that you can still make significant improvements to your playing without having to work on every element each day.

This is a very brief (and simplified) overview, but it should give you an idea of how to apply the concept to whatever you’re working on. It may seem really obvious, but I’m surprised at how many people who come to me for lessons complain of not having enough practice time because they’re trying to do everything every day.

6.TRACKING

This is one of the most crucial areas of any practice routine – and one that is often overlooked by many players. The act of keeping a record of what you practice helps to keep track of your progress over a given period of time and make adjustments if necessary.

I have two methods of logging my practice time: a practice diary and a checklist. These represent the micro and the macro aspects of practice. In the diary I keep a record of the exercises I do every day, together with notes on which keys/chord types/tempo ranges I’ve worked on:

This has largely replaced my short term memory...

I find this really useful on a purely practical basis, as my preference for ‘chunking’ means that I tend to be working on lots of different things and my short term memory is terrible.

The purpose of the checklist is for tracking progress towards longer term goals – mostly related to repertoire, transcriptions and technical exercises. I keep the checklist on a whiteboard that stays in my office as a visible reminder that I always have things to be working on…

DESSERT

7. MOTIVATION

One of the biggest sticking points that I’ve encountered when it comes to practising is maintaining motivation. When I’m busy with teaching and gigs and I get a few hours off, practising is not always the most appealing option. I have a number of strategies that I use to make sure that I keep pushing myself:

i. Visible Reminders

This is the first thing I see when i wake up. It helps set the tone for the day:

Bass wall hanger

Along with the Whiteboard Of Doom (see ‘tracking’), these are part of a series of things that I have around my house to remind me that there’s always work to be done.

Awkward confession time… I’m also one of those people that owns motivational crockery:

SmugCringeworthy, but surprisingly effective.

ii. Books

All of these have helped to shape my musical development in some way:

LibraryYes, there’s a cookbook in there. And yes, that is Arnie’s biography. Both have proved to be unusual sources of wisdom.

There are several books in particular that contain great advice on strategies for keeping to your resolutions (musical or otherwise); Richard Wiseman’s 59 Seconds and Switch by Chip & Dan Heath both include strategies for making resolutions stick, while Outliers and The Talent Code are both great for reminding yourself that great players are made, not born.

An area that I’d strongly recommend looking into (before you investigate anything else in this post) is time management-The Four Hour Work Week and No B.S. Time Management for Entrepreneurs are good starting points (my mentor put me on to the second book after I complained that I didn’t have enough time to practice…).

So there you have it – try some of these ideas and let me know if they work for you.