How To Practise, Part 3: Keeping Track In a drawer under my bed I have a collection of old diaries stretching back to 2008, detailing almost every day of the…
How To Practise, Part 3: Keeping Track
In a drawer under my bed I have a collection of old diaries stretching back to 2008, detailing almost every day of the last decade. Here are a few of them:
These are not diaries in the conventional sense – they don’t contain my musings on life’s trials and tribulations, there are no empowering affirmations or overly confessional spoken word poetry. Instead, there are scribblings – hieroglyphics listing exercises, keys, metronome markings and time logged at the instrument, part of the never-ending process of attempting to achieve musical mastery.
So why would anybody want to engage in such a boring, borderline-OCD activity?
Tracking your practice has numerous benefits:
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Maintaining a log of what you practise, how often you do it and how much time you get at the instrument is a great way of providing yourself with accountability (this was also emphasised in the last post on finding a teacher). Nothing motivates me more than opening my practice diary and being embarrassed by the long gaps between practice sessions – I can see when I’ve been slacking off, or letting life get in the way of spending time at the bass. Seeing the fine details of your practice (or lack thereof) in black and white reinforces the message that you alone are responsible for your musical development – even if you’re taking regular lessons, your teacher cannot do the work for you; if you want to improve then you have to put the hours in.
Tracking Provides Accurate Feedback
What were you practising 6 weeks ago today? What were you working on? What keys did you play in? How fast were you playing? How much have you improved since then?
If you rely solely on your memory for these items of information then you’re not only burdening yourself with lots of extra figures to carry around in your brain but you’re also likely to forget many of the details, especially if you’re practising regularly. There’s a Chinese proverb that goes something like this:
“Even the palest ink is better than the strongest memory”.
I find having an accurate written record of the minutiae of my practice routine helpful in gauging my musical progress, not least because my short term memory is terrible – in fact, the act of ‘going back in time’ in my practice diary by 6 months or so is a useful way to remind myself of all the things that I should be able to play but have probably forgotten.
Tools and Tactics
I have two ways of tracking what happens on a day-to-day level – one physical, one digital:
The Practice Diary
As detailed above, this acts as a detailed written record of what I’ve been working towards on a given day – my preference is for an A5 notebook, but if you’re clocking up lots of hours then you might want to opt for a larger size. I used to prefer the ‘day per page’ diary format, but my embarrassment at wasting numerous pages has forced me to adopt a plain notebook instead.
I’ve mentioned this rather childish looking productivity app before in cheapest site viagra but I’ll cover it here as well, because it’s my favourite method of fighting digital addiction and maximising productive time. In short, the app rewards you for spending time locked out of your phone, which forces you to concentrate on the task at hand without distractions. This means that I can easily keep tabs on how much practice time I’m logging in each week and my natural tendency to be competitive with myself means that I’ll push myself to try and increase my score each week.
In fact, I’m such a mega-nerd that I apply the concept of tracking to other areas of my life…
Tracking Daily Life
The book that’s had the most profound impact on how I operate on a daily basis is purchase viagra pills by Cal Newport – a manual for achieving peak productivity in a world of constant distractions. One of the tactics that Newport advocates for maximising productivity is to keep a weekly log of so-called ‘deep work’ hours, which over time form what he terms a ‘cadence of accountability’ – regularly engaging with important tasks in a focused manner soon becomes habitual; deep work begets more deep work.
For me, the following areas fulfil the criteria of ‘deep work’:
- Practice (obviously…)
- Meditation (more on why this is important tadalafil liquid buy)
- Reading for research (not all the stuff on here is made up on the spot)
I don’t include gigs, teaching or any sort of ‘digital admin’, as playing ‘Superstition’ and replying to emails aren’t pushing me out of my comfort zone.
The Power of Planning in Advance
An important key to maintaining a regular, effective practice routine is to schedule dedicated blocks of time in advance. I find that I’m most disciplined and productive if I spend 10-15 minutes on a Sunday scripting as much of the week ahead as possible in iCal – this means I can see where I’m going to be each day and allows me to pencil in practice around other obligations.
One crucial part of this process is also deciding what I’m going to work on in each session based on forthcoming gigs, website projects or personal interest. This minimises ‘decision paralysis’ – losing the first 15 minutes of a practice session by trying to decide what it is that you’re going to practise.
Why you (and I) still need lessons Regardless of whether you’ve been playing bass for 2 weeks or decades there are always things about your playing that could do with…
Why you (and I) still need lessons
Regardless of whether you’ve been playing bass for 2 weeks or decades there are always things about your playing that could do with improvement – the problem is that it’s very difficult to be truly objective about your playing while you’re in the act of playing; too much of our mental processing power is taken up with the task of playing music, so it’s tough to accurately critique yourself while making music.
One idea is to record your gigs and/or your practice – whilst this can be a useful tool in assessing your playing, it might not always be the best thing:
- Your current gigs might not reflect the way that you’d like your playing to sound; if you’re looking to master improvising over changes, then recordings of you playing ‘Superstition’ or ‘Dancing Queen’ at last weekend’s wedding gig won’t be particularly relevant.
- Recording your practice might be more indicative of what you’re working towards, but everyone is the best player in the world when they’re in their own room and there’s nobody else about. It’s also easy to kid yourself that everything in your practice sounds great (you might not even hear the things that need work).
So, what you need is a second pair of ears to give you feedback on your playing and direct your practice with the aim of reaching your musical goals. This doesn’t have to be a teacher in the traditional sense, it could be a ‘critical friend’ – a bandmate, other musician or another bass player who you trust to be objective about what your playing really sounds like.
One issue with asking this of a friend is that they might not want to be brutally honest about what you need to work on – they also might not hear any areas for improvement either; the best option is an experienced teacher who has no other agenda other than helping you to improve your playing.
It should be noted that even after 18 years of playing the bass and almost a decade of teaching I still try to take lessons whenever I can; there’s nothing more powerful than the occasional reality check to get rid of any musical complacency that might have set in.
What type of lessons?
Studying the bass can come in many different forms, the main formats of lessons are:
- 1-on-1, ‘in person’ lessons
- 1-on-1 lessons via Skype, Facetime or similar
- Group lessons ‘in person’
- An online subscription service
Of these options, I’d strongly recommend the first one – there’s no substitute for getting in a room with someone more experienced than you and gaining immediate feedback on your playing. This is also the best format for asking specific questions and getting detailed answers about any areas that you’re not sure about.
The other benefit of regular, in person lessons is that they makes you accountable for your learning; you have to show up every week (or every fortnight) and show that you’ve put in the hours in the practice room, otherwise you’re wasting your teacher’s time and your money. Whilst the online subscription option provides easy access to a huge amount of lesson content, it requires tremendous self-discipline to log on regularly, decide what it is that you really need to work on and stick to it – due to the constant influx of new content, it’s very easy to get sidetracked and just work on what’s been most recently uploaded. Although this feels like the most exciting option, it has the potential to leave you with a very broad but shallow knowledge base.
Finding the right person
Assuming you’re looking for a teacher to give 1-on-1 lessons in your local area, what criteria should you be looking for?
1. Find someone who actually works
Your top priority should be to ascertain how much your prospective teacher gigs (or engages in other musical work, e.g. recording sessions). If they’re of an age where they might have had enough of gigging or they might be focusing on teaching over other things, then make sure that they have done plenty of varied work at some point in their career. And here’s the clincher – make sure that they’ve been hired by other people. It’s very easy to manufacture a lot of hype about yourself and make it seem like you’re a big deal by creating an online prescence consisting entirely of projects that are of your own invention, so seek out people who get booked by others because they are musically skilled.
2. Make sure they deal in musical facts
What do I mean by ‘musical facts’?
I mean the fundamental elements of music: harmony, melody, rhythm. This may manifest itself in a teacher who emphasises things like chord tones, ear training, sight reading and transcription.
If in doubt, my rule of thumb a teacher who works solely from TAB and encourages things like ‘finger independence exercises’, ‘string crossing drills’ or ‘two-handed tapping etudes’ is a witch and, as such, should be burned at the stake.
It’s the easiest thing in the world to go to a teacher to learn flashy slap bass licks and other associated circus skills, but the reality is that those abilities are required for precisely 0.01% of paying gigs that exist in the real world.
If you are fully conversant in musical facts, then you can easily direct your learning in whatever direction you wish. However, if you’re a slave to finger patterns and numbers then it’s hard to make any real sense of anything.
3. Do they really know their stuff?
One way to increase the odds of finding a teacher who deals in the above musical facts is to seek out someone who has formal musical training, possibly in the form of a music degree. Now, there are plenty of great players who didn’t go to music college and don’t have a degree, and the academic music path is certainly not the only (or best) way to do things, but I’ve always found there to be a strong link between formally studying music for an extended period of time and possessing the skills necessary to perform at a professional level; this is not to say that there aren’t exceptional players who aren’t ‘schooled’ (or terrible players who are), but they tend to be in the minority.
In closing, here’s something to ponder:
Everyone is self-taught. Noone is self-taught.
Think about it – even if you’re operating ‘under your own steam’ then the information still has to come from somewhere; knowledge doesn’t exist in a vacuum and even if you’re watching YouTube videos, trasnscribing solos from recordings or reading instructional books then you’re still getting the information from someone else. The other side of the coin is that if you go to a teacher (or enroll in a music school) then you still have to do the work – a teacher can show you the right door, but you have to walk through it.
Here endeth the sermon.
How to Practise, Part 1: Posture There’s an almost infinite amount of content out there on what to practice, but very little in the way of how to go about…
How to Practise, Part 1: Posture
There’s an almost infinite amount of content out there on what to practice, but very little in the way of how to go about it with maximum efficiency and efficacy. I’m going to kick this one off by absolving myself of any responsibility whatsoever:
DISCLAIMER: I am not a doctor or physical therapist, nor do I claim to be one. Any suggestions towards specific movements, exercise routines, alternative therapies or diets are based on personal experience and may not be suitable for everybody; please consult a qualified medical professional before making any significant lifestyle changes.
The following are some ideas that I’ve arrived at over the last 18 years of playing the bass and roughly a decade of teaching; I’m pretty badly constructed from a physical point of view and have had numerous back problems and other soft tissue injuries over the years including tendonitis, so I’ve put a fair amount of time and effort into optimising my posture and movements for playing bass (and life in general).
Whilst it’s not generally top of of most bassist’s to-do lists, posture is the first essential element of interacting with the instrument and it comes before technique; the physical aspect of playing the bass is often taken for granted (if not ignored completely) by many players and teachers.
This video gives a brief rundown of the seated and standing postures outlined in this post:
New Kid in Town
The main issue when discussing posture is that the electric bass has only been around for 67 years and, as such, we haven’t quite reached a consensus on the best way(s) to play it – contrast this with more elderly instruments, like violin or piano, which have well-established teaching methodologies and definite guidelines for best practice that have been refined over hundreds of years. If you look at five different bassists that you’re aiming to emulate, chances are that you’ll see a huge amount of variation between them in their stance, strap height, neck angle and hand position.
First port of call is realising that playing the bass is a fundamentally unnatural and asymmetrical task for your body to perform – we’re placing a load of between 3 and 5 kilos on one shoulder for an extended period of time. Playing will always be a compromise between what is natural or comfortable for your body and what is necessary to get around the instrument in a relaxed, musical fashion. No one particualar posture is perfect – all have pros and cons – but some make more sense than others.
Most of us have to deal with the fact that we sit down to practice but are forced to stand up when it comes to gigs – sitting on a gig basically out of the question unless you’re in a theatre pit or you happen to be Anthony Jackson. Because of this, we need to make sure that our sitting and standing postures are complementary rather than contradictory, otherwise we’re sending our body mixed messages about how to play and our practice time will have been wasted.
Here’s the first essential element of the posture checklist: your strap height needs to be the same whether sitting or standing. Why? If you spend hours sitting and practising without a strap and then get on a gig and have your instrument slung low then your hands will suddenly be in a completely different position relative to the bass. Get over the fact that having your bass somewhere around where your abs ought to be doesn’t look particularly rock ’n’ roll; if you sound great then nobody will care how you look.
Seated posture: option 1
Choose a seat that allows your thighs to be pretty much parallel to the floor – my preference is to use a drum stool, as I find that almost all chairs are the wrong height for my long limbs. Practise with a strap, even when seated, so that your arms aren’t having to do the work of balancing the bass and are free to deal with the complexities of whatever you’re working on. If you’re reading music, then make sure your music stand is at a decent height and you’re not dropping your head forward and looking down to see the dots.
Pros: upper body position is almost exactly the same as standing posture, bass balances easily on the strap, comfortable enough to sustain long periods of practise.
Cons: I find that as the practice session wears on I tend to collapse over the bass, slumping forward with my head, shoulders and upper back.
Seated posture: option 2
I stole this from the classical guitar – here you use a footstool under your left leg (reverse if you’re left handed…) and sit the bass between your legs; this means that you can get rid of the strap and the bass will balance by itself by leaning the top horn against your chest. I find that this allows me to maintain a more erect upper body posture (you at the back, stop giggling!), maintaining balanced shoulders and an open chest without collapsing forward.
Pros: Arms, shoulders and chest are not encumbered with the weight of the bass, all areas of the instrument are within easy reach.
Cons: The bass is in a more ‘diagonal’ position compared to how most people play when standing, I also find that I get pins and needles and the occasional dead leg if I practise for too long without a break as my feet and hips aren’t balanced – this might well be due to my dodgy physical construction.
Get up, Stand up: Standing Posture 101
Think you know how to stand up? I certainly thought I’d got the hang of it after 30 years of being vertical on a daily basis, but spending time in various health professionals’ treatment rooms brought up some things that I’d been ignorant of. The main point that I’d missed is the importance of spreading your weight equally through your feet – if you don’t properly ‘ground’ yourself then it’s hard to maintain a decent posture with neutral position for your pelvis, spine and head.
Regardless of the posture that you happen to adopt, the main thing to focus on is being relaxed – if you’re holding tension in your muscles, or holding your breath when you play (a surprisingly common occurrence) then your playing will sound tense. Your posture is your sound and your sound is your posture.
Alongside relaxation come the ideas of balance and symmetry. A common problem that I was guilty of for years is allowing my left shoulder to rise up over the course of a gig in response to the weight of the bass – I wasn’t aware of this until I saw pictures of myself onstage looking rather unbalanced. As much as possible, we want to reduce (or eliminate) harsh angles in the wrists – having the bass relatively high up means that we can keep the wrist of our fretting hand relatively straight, but this posture tends to emphasise an acute flexion of the plucking wrist. Having the bass lower down reverses the problem; the plucking wrist can straighten out, but the problem is now transferred to the fretting hand.
Life outside of bass playing will have a huge impact on your postural habits as well as your general health and wellbeing; if your day job involves long hours sitting at a desk, driving or hunching over a laptop, then chances are that your range of motion is less than optimal (when was the last time you were able to touch your toes without fear of tearing something?). To paraphrase the great Russian strength coach Pavel Tsatsouline, your body most readily adapts to the positions that you spend the most time in – spending an hour a day in a good bass playing posture will not undo the countless hours that you’ve spent at your desk, in traffic or slumped in front of the TV. Having some sort of regular movement practice is vital for counteracting the poor postural positions that life often puts us in.
What’s a movement practice? These are all movement practices:
- Strength training/weightlifting
- Rock climbing
- Martial arts
The importance of movement cannot be overstated – your physical health is intrinsically linked to your mental wellbeing and your musical output; whilst we can all cite many players that are obviously not taking care of themselves physically it’s important to remember that they’ve succeeded in spite of this rather than because of it.
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