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