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The Best Sight Reading Books for Bass

Bass Player’s Book Club Part 2: Sight Reading Have you ever wondered what the best sight reading books for bass are, or how to practise sight reading? Episode 2 of…

Bass Player’s Book Club Part 2: Sight Reading

Have you ever wondered what the best sight reading books for bass are, or how to practise sight reading? Episode 2 of the bass player’s book club focuses on some of my favourite books for developing your sight reading skills and some strategies for using them with maximum efficiency in order to improve your sight reading as quickly as possible.

This post is not meant to debate the relative merits of TAB vs. notation. It might seem odd for someone who runs a bass transcription website to say it, but I don’t actually believe that taking music in ‘by eye’ is the best way to do things. It is, however, very useful in a number of situations when you need to communicate musical ideas quickly. I also believe that being able to read is an integral part of being a well-rounded musician; people seem to be happy to nod along when someone trots out the very tired ‘music is a language’ analogy, but are often reluctant to actually do the work of learning how to read and write the language fluently.

Confessions of a Teen TAB-aholic

I took up the bass at the age of 14, largely because I was too scared to talk to girls and thought it would help (it didn’t). I started having lessons at school with a guitar teacher who played a bit of bass and straight away I was introduced to TAB – what a great system! It tells you exactly where to place your fingers and out comes Green Day… What could be better?

Eventually, I found myself arriving at music college at the age of 19 with plenty of technique but very little musical ability. I suddenly found myself confronted with notation and realised that I had to get my reading together quickly if I didn’t want to languish at the bottom of the class. Here are some strategies that helped me to get my act together – by the end of the first year, I had gone from zero reading ability to near the top of the class:

Five Tips for Better  Bass Sight Reading

1. Do it every day

If you don’t do it enough, then it won’t stick. Lectures didn’t start till 11am, so I’d get up at 7.30, make a big cup of green tea and get lots of notes in my face for an hour or so. You don’t have to put that much time in, but you have to do it regularly to have any hope of it becoming second nature (other hot beverages are also acceptable).

2. Separate Rhythm from Pitch

The two big variables that we’re dealing with are the pitch of the note and its duration, so when learning the fundamentals of reading notation it’s good to practise the two separately.

For pitch, I used to use Gary Willis’ Xtreme Sight Reading page on his website, which randomly generates rows of pitches for you to play through. The range of notes and the probability of accidentals can be adjusted depending on your pain threshold (EDIT: he’s now taken it down, if anyone can find it, then please get in touch):

For rhythm, I used Louis Bellson’s Modern Reading in 4/4 time (link further down the page), which focuses on reading syncopation. No pitch variation whatsoever, but it explores almost every rhythmic possibility from the simple to the vomit-inducing.

3. Read with a click

The main secret to sight reading is teaching your eyes to look ahead of where you are in the music; if you’re looking at the note that you’re playing, then there’s no way that you can prepare for what’s coming up. The only way that you can really develop this is by using a metronome when practising and not allowing yourself to go back and fix mistakes. This is good practice for ‘real world’ reading situations, where you can’t go slow down difficult passages or go back and fix the wrong notes you just played.

4. Be Well Read

In order to become a well-rounded reader, it’s important to expose yourself to a lot of different material; if you read classical studies all the time, then your rhythm reading skills might be lacking when it comes to read that Tower of Power chart.

5. Don’t Just Read Bass Music

Try to read any sheet music you can get your hands on: piano/vocal scores, violin sonatas, trombone etudes – doesn’t matter what it is – and work out how to fit it on your instrument. The sad reality is that nobody really cares about the bass player, so you have to stop expecting to show up at a gig and be given pristine bass clef charts that are nicely laid out. This is particularly true if you do any sort of musical theatre or cabaret engagement – they probably won’t have the budget to buy in ensemble parts or the resources to have them written out, so most of the time you have to work from the rehearsal piano score. The MD will probably say something really helpful to you like ‘well, the bass is just the left hand of the piano isn’t it?’

If you’ve ever been in a piano score situation, you’ll know that trying to construct your own part is an absolute nightmare – your survival depends on having a firm grasp on notes outside your range (super low left-hand octaves) and treble clef reading. In fact, treble clef reading is something that I’d recommend to everyone because most of the musical universe operates ‘above ground’ and you never know when you might get asked to take the melody on a tune you’ve never seen before. It’s also a very useful skill if you’re into taunting guitar players, which everybody should be.

My Top Sight Reading Books for Bass

Here are some of my favourite books that have helped me to develop my sight reading; I’ve grouped them roughly by ability level, so hopefully there’s something for everyone. Since editions of some books differ between countries I’ve included separate links for US and UK where appropriate; environmental considerations aside, I’d recommend AVOIDING Kindle versions of these books, because in my experience the formatting of musical notation is always horrible. Opt for physical copies instead.

Beginner Sight Reading Books

1. Simplified Sight Reading for Bass by Josquin Des Pres (UK | US)

Although I trashed one of his other books in episode 1, I really like this one because it separates out rhythm and pitch to start with.

2. M.I. Music Reading For Bass by Wendi Hreschovic (UK | US)

Another good general method which drip feeds in accidentals, key signatures and other notational devices.

3. Modern Reading in 4/4 Time by Louis Bellson (UK | US)

This is a staple of drum instructional material, and it offers all musicians a great way to get their rhythm reading together without having to worry about pitch. This book is focused on developing skills in reading syncopated rhythms, starting with very approachable studies and building to horrible 32nd note phrases intersected with triplets.

4. New Method for Double Bass by Franz Simandl (UK | US)

I seem to talk about this book in every single post or video, but that’s because it’s the book that has had the biggest impact on the way that I approach the instrument in terms of technique, fretboard positioning and articulation.

Intermediate Sight Reading Books

If you feel like you’ve got a handle on the basics of reading and want to push your skills further, then these are worth a look:

5. Standing in the Shadows of Motown (UK | US)

James Jamerson was basically the first electric bass virtuoso, and these transcriptions of his lines provide a great reading workout; tons of rhythmic activity, lots of 16th-note syncopation and plenty of chromaticism. A great source of vocabulary, too.

6. 113 Etudes for Cello by J.J.F. Dotzauer (UK | US)

This was suggested to me as a good alternative to the very popular Hanon Virtuoso Pianist book, which became very popular with bass players when Janek Gwizdala revealed that he’d used it to build his not-inconsiderable technique. These are a good stepping stone between Simandl and more intense classical studies, which we’ll get to later. Cello repertoire tends to be a great source of melodic reading material, but you’ll need to do some transposing unless you have a 5-string bass because the cello is written at sounding pitch, while the electric and upright bass are both octave transposing.

7. 6 Suites for Violoncello by J.S. Bach (UK | US)

I’ll put the Bach Cello Suites alongside this; tough to read and play and it seems like everyone just plays Prelude No.1 in G major, but Bach really knew a thing or two about thematic development so definitely worth a look – I’ve always approached them as long-term studies rather than everyday sight reading material.

Advanced Sight Reading Books

8 & 9. Finger Funk Workbooks 1 & 2 by Anthony Vitti

Anthony Vitti is a bass player who doesn’t get nearly enough time in the spotlight; he’s been teaching at The Berklee College of Music for decades and his books are some of the best around. His Finger Funk Workbooks are filled with demanding 16th-note lines, which can be a real challenge to both read and execute at tempo – studying these books is also a great way to develop your technique in a musical way.

10. Giovannini Bottesini Upright Bass Method (UK)

This is effectively a more advanced version of the Simandl book. Lots of technically demanding studies that contain plenty of position shifts and detailed phrase markings, which will really put your articulation skills to the test.

Extreme Sight Reading Books

If you’re a seasoned reader who’s feeling particularly masochistic, then here are 3 books to give you a real workout:

11. Odd Time Reading by Louis Bellson (UK | US)

Like the Modern Reading in 4/4 time, this takes a static pitch and moves it through almost every possible rhythmic permutation, except this time you have to do it in odd meters, and then the exercises start shifting between different odd meters. Horrible, but very nutritious.

12. 60 Melodic Etudes by John Patitucci (UK | US)

John Patitucci is one of a handful of players who is a true virtuoso on both upright and electric bass, so it’s no surprise to find that his books are challenging; the 60 melodic etudes are designed to get your ears used to the sound of the major scale modes over their diatonic chord types in all 12 keys. Practising these studies over a drone or a static chord also serves as a great ear training tool, as well as a hardcore reading and technique workout. As the book title suggests, the etudes aren’t that rhythmically taxing, but there’s a huge pitch range and – unless you’re playing a 6-string bass – you’ll need to do a lot of position shifts.

13. Sight Reading Funk Rhythms by Anthony Vitti

Anthony Vitti brings the pain with this collection of studies that combine syncopated 16th-note funk rhythms with plenty of unexpected pitch variations; his favourite trick is to build a central motif and, just as you think you’re getting the hang of it, he throws in subtle variations to trip you up. The sheer amount of rhythmic and melodic variation in these studies makes them difficult to memorise, making them ideal for sight reading practice.

If you have a favourite sight reading book that I’ve left out of this list then let me know in the comments below.

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The Bass Player’s Book Club #1: Chops

I’m a musical self-improvement addict, a condition which has manifested itself in my tendency to buy – and hoard – tons of books, instructional videos (including some very dubious Hot…

I’m a musical self-improvement addict, a condition which has manifested itself in my tendency to buy – and hoard – tons of books, instructional videos (including some very dubious Hot Licks VHS tapes) and apps in the hope of getting my playing to sound the way that I want it to. I use each one for approximately 3 days before feeling the need to try something different, hoping that this one will somehow revloutionise my playing.

Solid advice? or snake oil?

The problem is that not all books are created equal; some are life-changing, some are mediocre, others are terrible. This series will take a detailed look at a handful of books that have had the greatest positive impact on my playing over the last 18 years; I’ll be covering a range of areas, including technique, reading, music theory, ear training and improvisation.

But before we get to the good stuff, I thought it’d be actually more valuable to look at the worst offender – the book that’s proved to be the biggest waste of time and that I’d urge everyone to avoid at all costs; it also ties in with many things that I’ve seen in bass education that upset me because they’re not only irrelevant but also potentially damaging (both musically and physically).

This video covers:

  • The book that I feel actually hindered my musical development rather than helping it
  • How to sniff out BS in bass education (and how to spot if a teacher is a witch…)
  • What you should be practising in order to develop your musicianship (hint: it’s not technique)
  • How to organise your fretting hand in a safe, secure and musical manner according to what you’re playing and where you are on the neck

There’s also a PDF of all of the exercises that I demonstrate in the video available here:

Music, Not Chops

 

 

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How To Transcribe Bass Lines

As someone who runs a bass transcriptions site, you’d expect that figuring out bass lines by ear and notating them is something that comes naturally to me. It doesn’t. After…

As someone who runs a bass transcriptions site, you’d expect that figuring out bass lines by ear and notating them is something that comes naturally to me. It doesn’t. After over a decade of regularly transcribing everything from bass lines to vocal arrangements, the art of plucking sounds out of the air and turning them into notes on the page can still feel like an enormous challenge.

So, if I find transcription so hard, why do I keep going?

Transcription is a subject that’s very close to my heart and is something that I feel has produced the greatest improvements in my musicianship; having spent the first six years of my bass playing life using nothing but TAB, I found myself wanting to eventually become a professional musician but without any real aural or sight-reading ability; not a good place to start.

Regularly working out bass parts from recordings that I loved using my ears rather than reaching for the TAB helped me to get my hearing in shape without feeling like I was doing ear training exercises (something that we all know we should do, but love to avoid…) while writing everything down gave my sight-reading skills a much-needed boost.

Transcribing bass lines can be daunting when you’re first starting out. Being able to work out parts by ear from recordings and then write them down accurately can be a slow and painful process, but transcription is a skill that’s vital to becoming a successful working bass player; you can, of course, survive without the notation side of things, but if you can’t pick out a bass line by ear then you’re in deep trouble.

Luckily, there are some simple steps that you can follow to make transcribing anything easier. Through more than a decade of transcription trial and error (with a heavy emphasis on error) I’ve gradually figured out a workflow that makes the task as pain-free as possible.

Top Tips For Bass Transcription

Here’s half an hour of me breaking down my personal transcription method, explaining what I do, how I do it and why I do it. The video answers some of the most common questions that I get asked on a regular basis, including:

  • How will transcription improve my bass playing?
  • What’s the best way to train my ears?
  • Should I use software to slow things down?
  • What should I transcribe?
  • Which notation software is best for transcription?
  • What sort of headphones are best for transcription?

Links to everything that I mention in the video are below:

How Habits Happen: 7 Ways To Maintain New Behaviours

Functional Ear Trainer App: iOS Android

Hearing and Writing Music by Ron Gorow (UK | US)

Change The Way You Hear Music

Modern Reading in 4/4 Time by Louis Bellson (UK | US)

Franz Simandl’s New Method For Double Bass (UK | US)

Dotzauer Cello Etudes (UK | US)

Standing In The Shadows of Motown: The Life and Music of Legendary Bassist James Jamerson (UK | US)

Michael League Interview with Bass Lessons Melbourne (quote is at about 17:30 onwards)

The Complete Transcription Process by David Liebman

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How Habits Happen: 7 Ways to Maintain New Behaviours

How To Form Positive Habits (and Make Them Stick) One of the things that I have consistently tried and failed to do is adopt and maintain a set of positive…

How To Form Positive Habits

(and Make Them Stick)

One of the things that I have consistently tried and failed to do is adopt and maintain a set of positive behaviours that would improve my day to day life if I actually stuck to them. These include meditation, exercise and – of course – practice. In spite of the time I spend making video lessons and blog posts telling others how to do things better, I’m terrible at taking my own advice and although I can do a very good impression of an effective human being, I freely admit to being frequently disorganised, lazy and ineffectual.

Here are 7 strategies that I’ve found to be effective in disrupting the patterns of a master procrastinator; it doesn’t matter if you’re looking to lose weight, increase your creative output or improve your bass playing, these tricks should work for just about any positive habit that you’re looking to form:

1.The Power of Daily Rituals

My working life is often unpredictable, which has led me to pursue a self-imposed structure as a means of creating order from chaos and to prevent going completely insane from juggling numerous projects. If you’re a self-directed individual and don’t have anyone telling you what to do and when to do it, then it’s vital that you create your own routine.

I try to begin each day with a series of small steps that are designed to ensure that I make the most of every day and don’t fritter away precious time pursuing things that aren’t important.

My Morning Routine

  • The first thing is that I do my best to get up early, regardless of how much sleep I may or may not have had – I find that the morning is the best time for me to go through my various rituals without interruption from the outside world, and that my willpower and focus are strongest at the start of the day. I’ve also found that if I do the right things in the first hour of the day, then I’m more effective later on.
  • I begin with journalling, which helps to clarify both what I’m doing and why I’m doing it – I write down 3 long term goals, and three things that I’m going to do today to move myself closer to those goals. At the end of the day, I come back and note 3 positive things – no matter how small – that I did today and 1 area that I could do better on tomorrow. Again, if you’re the one who’s in charge of your time then it’s really important to feel that whatever you’re doing is the right thing.
  • After the journalling I do some sort of mobility work and/or exercise, which is designed to mitigate the damage that I’ve done from 18 years of playing and 30ish years of having bad posture.
  • I then meditate for 15 minutes.

These steps help to get me in the right frame of mind (and body) for whatever work I have to do, and I find that I’m much more productive on the days when I complete them compared to days when I rush out of the house without having completed any of them.

I also have a morning playlist of music that puts me in a positive frame of mind which I listen to if I have to travel anywhere – this acts as a universal ‘reset button’ and is useful in getting into a good emotional state at short notice (see ‘resources’ for more on this)

2. Script Everything in Advance (Don’t Leave It To Chance)

I find myself much more likely to carry out a task if I’ve told myself exactly how and when I’m going to do it. This requires some forward planning, but it’s well worth doing as it prevents excuses as to why I haven’t done things.

Ideally, I’ll sit down for 10-15 minutes on a Sunday and script as much of my week as possible in advance in iCal; where I’m going to be and what I’m going to do. At the very least, I’ll spend some time each evening working out what I’m doing the following day and prepping for it – this removes the mental burden and wasted time taken up by deciding what you’re going to do when you get in the practice room or the gym in the spur of the moment.

The key with this is to allow yourself a degree of flexibility – things always take more time than you think they will, and tasks can be rearranged and rescheduled. It might be that you only have 10 minutes to spend on something that you wanted to work on for half an hour, but 10 minutes are better than zero minutes.

3. Quantify your goals

This may sound too obvious, but you want your habit to be easily verifiable – ‘have I done X today?’. It should be something that’s easy to do and it should have a very ‘black or white’ outcome – either you’ve completed the task or you haven’t.

Goal setting can easily become vague, so it’s important to be as specific as possible when identifying habits and outcomes. A classic one is ‘I want to get fit’ or ‘I want to lose weight’; a better way to phrase these goals and track your progress towards them would be as follows:

  • I will lose 5kg of fat by a certain date

Or (even better)

  • I will work out 4 times per week
  • I will give up alcohol/bread/refined sugar for 30 days

If your progress towards a goal is easily measurable, then you’re more likely to stick to the new habit.

4. Start With 5 Minutes

Another obvious point, but if you really want something to become a habit, then you absolutely have to do it every single day – I’d say for at least a month. To that end, if you tell yourself that you’re suddenly going to start practising 8 hours a day or radically alter your diet overnight then you’re setting yourself up to fail, because those things require a massive change to your existing lifestyle; you don’t begin training for a marathon by trying to run 26 miles on the first day.

It’s much better to start small and give yourself an easy win – as you strengthen whatever habit it is you’re trying to develop then your minimum time will naturally increase.

To phrase it in other ways: A diet that is 70% of the way to being perfect but has 100% compliance is way better than a diet that is 100% perfect but only a 50% adherence rate. Doing 5 minutes of sight reading every day is much more effective than trying to do an hour but only managing it on one day a week.

Whatever you’re trying to do, start with 5 minutes, but do it every day. Some days you’ll manage more, which is great, but stick to that minimum standard of 5 minutes.

5. Make Your New Habits Visible

Our natural tendency as human beings is to avoid hard work and gravitate towards lying on the sofa in front of Netflix while inhaling Doritos. We’re also really good at justifying to ourselves why we don’t have to do the work. The way around this is to hold yourself accountable for your new habits, even if it’s just to yourself. Make your new habits visible and track your progress. Here are some techniques:

The ‘Chain Method’ (aka the ‘Calendar Method’)

Jerry Seinfeld once told an aspiring comic that the way to be better than the competition is to have better jokes, and the way to have better jokes is to write material every day – he suggested putting an X on a calendar on every day that you write – pretty soon you have a chain going and build up momentum; that calendar serves as a powerful motivator to not break the chain.

Author Austin Kleon has a neat variation on this that can be found in the ‘Resources’ section.

The Habit Sheet

This week, I’ve been trialling a variation on this which I got from a friend of mine who is an NLP trainer – it’s called a ‘habit sheet’ and it works like this: you list the habits that you want to develop along with a box for every day of the week. Simple, but it works – I’ve kept this in my laptop case to make sure that it goes everywhere with me and it’s been surprisingly effective in making me get things done. Writing out the sheet rather than printing it off seems to have a more powerful effect – this is also true of the journalling – when I write things down they tend to have more of an effect than if I type them out on a computer.

6. Create A ‘Cadence of Accountability’

Having a blog, website or a Youtube channel is a great way to force yourself into doing things regularly – I try to get something new out at the end of every week, whether it’s a transcription, blog post or a video lesson – it doesn’t really matter what it is, the important thing is that I’m creating what author Cal Newport calls a ‘cadence of accountability’.

I do a similar thing with music – I get together once a week with like-minded musicians and absolutely butcher jazz standards. None of us grew up playing jazz and our main gigs are all mainstream pop stuff, but we’re holding each other accountable and if I haven’t learned the new tune for that week then I’m not just letting myself down, I’m letting down 2 other musicians. It also makes me works on certain things more because I don’t want to totally embarrass myself when it comes to the bass solo.

7. Don’t Go It Alone

Related to accountability is making sure that someone else knows about the habit that you’re trying to form – they’ll act as your ‘sponsor’ and check in with you. Having to make excuses to someone else apart from yourself is much harder, so make your new habits as public as possible to increase the chance of making them stick.

 

Resources

These are books/websites that I’ve found useful in clarifying goals, changing behaviour and staying motivated:

Daily Rituals by Mason Curry – This book details the daily routines of numerous prolific artists, writers and composers and offers a fascinating insight into what makes great minds tick.

The Daily Stoic – This is also an essential part of my morning routine containing short pieces of wisdom on how to deal with daily life. If you are prone to complaining or falling into a negative mindset then this is a must.

The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin – The chapter in thos book titled ‘Building Your Trigger’ was the inspiration for the morning playlist.

The Tim Ferriss Show Podcast – sure, he’s really quite annoying, but he does interview some extremely successful people and gets them to disclose their secrets to being effective; an absolute goldmine of information AND totally free.

Deep Work by Cal Newport – If you only read 1 book on this list, make it Deep Work; this is pretty much my Bible for getting things done and staying on track.

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield – Ever avoided doing something creative? This explains why and helps you to stop sabotaging your own progress

Getting Things Done by David Allen – A time management book for serious productivity nerds; whenever I use the methods in this book I definitely feel less overwhelmed by the things on my ever-expanding ‘to do’ list.

Austin Kleon’s 30-day challenge – pdf version of the ‘calendar method’ explained above in point 5.

Habit Sheet – my friend JB is not only a great drummer, he’s also a certified NLP trainer who occasionly posts some very useful and insightful blogs. This is where I stole the ‘habit sheet’ idea from.

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Self Preservation vs. Self Perfection

This post is a continuation of the ‘How To Practise’ series – if you haven’t already checked them out, then you can access all 5 articles here. I’d like to…

This post is a continuation of the ‘How To Practise’ series – if you haven’t already checked them out, then you can access all 5 articles here.

I’d like to make it clear from the outset that this is not my own original concept – I got this from Joe Hubbard. If you don’t know Joe, he’s taught Pino Palladino, Paul Turner, Dave Swift, Mike Mondesir and tons of other great players. I studied with him after graduating from music college and realizing that I still didn’t really know anything about harmony.

Joe has an amazing no-nonsense, high standards approach and has developed an effective, systematic way of dealing with all musical problems as they relate to the bass. I would love to tell you that I was a model student, but the truth is that I frequently showed up to my 9am Saturday lessons sleep-deprived, hung-over and generally not in any state to absorb his wisdom.

Sorry, Joe.

One of the biggest light bulb moments in these lessons was this idea of making the distinction between musical self-preservation and self-perfection. What do those phrases actually mean?

Self-preservation

Self-preservation covers all of the areas that are essential for you to operate effectively on your current gigs, whatever they may be.

Self-perfection

Self-perfection describes all of the things that you want to be able to do, musically speaking, but don’t yet have in your grasp. Whilst they aren’t necessary to fulfil your current musical job description(s), they represent how your ‘ideal musical self’ might sound.

In other words, self-preservation is what you need to do for your current gigs, while self-perfection represents the things that you need to get together in order to get the gigs that you really want in the future. In fact, it might just be a case of scratching your own musical itch, which is a perfectly valid reason in itself.

Think of it of ‘gig of your dreams vs. gig of your reality’.

 

Finding the right balance

The key is balancing these two areas; if you spend all your time on self-preservation then you never get to where you want to be, if you spend all your time on self-perfection then you end up with gaps in your knowledge and might not be able to effectively fulfill the obligations of your ‘day job’.

 

Compiling your lists

Since I don’t know what your unique situation is and I don’t want to make sweeping generalisations about the kinds of things you ought to be working on I’ll show you how I arrived at my current self-preservation and self-perfection lists.

The self-preservation list begins by answering the following questions:

– What gigs do you do regularly?
– What skills are required to perform those gigs effectively? Do all of your gigs require the same skill set?
– What are the biggest pain points associated with your current gigs?

 

Currently, my main gig is with The Travelling Hands, a roaming acoustic band that entertains clients at weddings and corporate events playing a range of pop tunes from the 1950s to the present day.

Granted, I didn’t pick up the bass with the goal of playing ‘Hey Jude’ in a tweed suit, but being able to eat and pay the rent every month trumps any discussion over musical credibility.

I also do a lot of dep gigs for other bands on electric bass, often at short notice.

Requirements for these gigs are:

• Playing the double bass in tune, which (for me, at least) is a lifelong struggle
• Knowing lots of tunes, many in multiple keys depending on who the singer is
• Contributing as many backing vocals as possible

The biggest source of pain for me on my current gigs is getting a call to dep with a band at short notice and having to devote more time than I want to on revising repertoire. If I combine typical setlists of the bands that I work with most often, I end up with roughly 300 tunes that I should be able to play in multiple keys without any preparation. In reality, my working repertoire is nowhere near that.

If we combine these answers to make them look like actionable tasks for the practice room, then we get:

• Double bass intonation
• Repertoire (and transposition of said repertoire)
• Vocal harmony

This is not how I thought the core of my practice routine would look when I left music college a decade ago, but this is my current musical reality.

Self-Perfection Questions

– How do I want to sound? Which players inspire me the most?
– What don’t I know that is a source of constant annoyance/insecurity?
– Is there anything that has made me feel out of my depth on a gig?

I’ll try to keep this brief, otherwise it turns into something of a musical therapy session:

• The answer to ‘how do I want to sound?’ changes approximately every 45 minutes, so it’s a hard question to deal with. At the time of writing, it’s a mixture of Bob Berg, Wayne Krantz and Bill Evans, which could easily sound awful.

• My main area of musical frustration is that I lack fluency in the language of improvisation that has been laid out on recordings from 1950 onwards. In short, I can’t play jazz. This is not to say that I want to focus entirely on going out and getting gigs where I have to play standards, but improvising over chord changes is the most challenging thing that I can think of on the bass.

• I’d like to not be that guy that has to get out iReal Pro at a jam session because he doesn’t know any standards.

• Over the last decade I’ve taken numerous lessons and then not done the necessary homework; I have folders full of concepts that I understand on an academic level but can’t comfortably apply on the instrument.

With those answers in mind, my self-preservation list looks like this:

1. Transcribe solos to gain more jazz vocabulary
2. Commit to actually learning some standards
3. Review content from old lessons and get it together on the bass

The very act of performing this sort of analysis can be quite illuminating – things that you thought were of great importance are suddenly revealed as ‘icing on the cake’, while other priorities come sharply into focus. Repertoire, for example, has cropped up on both lists, which is a clear indication that I should be devoting much more time to it.

It’s important to note that, as with everything in life, this is not static. Items may move up and down the list or even disappear entirely depending on what the next 6-12 months look like, musically speaking.

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Removing Obstacles to Practice

Getting Out Of Your Own Way This series of posts on how to practise has already dealt with how to get your brain back on track, refine your posture, find…

Getting Out Of Your Own Way

This series of posts on how to practise has already dealt with how to get your brain back on track, refine your posture, find the right teacher and track your practice. This final post deals with the actual nuts and bolts of the practice regime and how to manage your time in the best way possible.

We’re going to stray into the what of practicing, but I’ve tried not to be too prescriptive, because chances are that we’ve never met and I don’t know what your musical goals are. I’ve used my own practice routine as an example, but your own situation will be unique – take the concepts outlined here and adapt them to your own musical needs.

1. Find Your Own Space

Allocating a separate physical space that is dedicated to nothing but music is vital for effective practice – the usual scenario is that our musical lives get shoehorned into 2 square feet in the corner of a bedroom, your amp doubles as your coffee table, or your family has banished you to the garden shed because they’re sick of the incessant metronome beeping. In general, it’s hard to devote space to musical pursuits, but I find that having the physical separation from everyday life provides a better working environment for practising and also affords much needed mental separation from everything else that might be going on in your life.

2. Get Rid of Obstacles

Related to the idea of carving out your own practice space is the notion of making the act of practising as easy as possible – having to unpack all your gear from various cases and plug everything in not only uses up valuable minutes but also presents a psychological barrier to practice; it might well be less effort to turn on the TV instead of setting up your amp and getting down to work.

3. Avoid Distractions

The importance of being able to concentrate for more than 10 seconds at a time without checking your phone cannot be overstated. If you haven’t already seen the blog post/video ‘Your Brain is Rotten’, then this should be your first port of call:

 

4. Playing vs. Practising

An important thing to clarify in your mind before you start designing a practice routine is the distinction between practising and playing:

  • Practising is the act of taking something that is currently outside of your comfort zone and learning it on the instrument until it becomes comfortable; this might include working out note names, fretboard positions, fingering options and repeating an idea ad nauseam until a desired tempo is reached.
  • Playing is putting things that you have previously practised into a practical context, possibly using drum loops, backing tracks or (preferably) another musician.

Striking a balance between these two areas is very important; if all you do is practise, then you know lots of things but can’t apply them in real time, making them largely redundant. If all you do is play, then your playing becomes stale because you’re still playing the same old pet licks over and over again.

5. Time Management: ‘Chunking’

During my stint at music college, I tried to get to every masterclass or clinic that was put on, regardless of whether it was a bass player or not; I actually found Dave Weckl spending almost 30 minutes talking about the angle of his snare riveting.

One of the best pieces of advice I got from a masterclass was this nugget of information from Todd Johnson; the rest of the clinic was not to my taste, but this made up for it:

Only practise for 15 minutes at a time.

That’s it. Pure gold. Now, to be clear, he wasn’t suggesting that 15 minutes is the total practice time per day, rather that your practice time should be divided up into 15-minute ‘chunks’ of deeply focused work interspersed with small breaks of 2-3 minutes.

There’s more detail on the ‘chunking’ process in the video above for those that might be curious. I immediately found that switching to this method of practice allowed me to reach a greater total volume of practice time each day and also helped me retain information better from day to day since I wasn’t burning myself out by slogging away on one idea for an hour.

For more practical solutions to making the most of your practice time in order to accelerate your musical growth take a look at the Better Bass Practice ebook.

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