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Removing Obstacles to Practice

How to practise, part 4: Bringing it all together This is the final part of how to practise – we’ve already dealt with how to get your brain back on…

How to practise, part 4: Bringing it all together

This is the final part of how to practise – we’ve already dealt with how to get your brain back on track, refine your posture, find the right teacher and track your practice. This 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.

To that end, there are some strategies to remove physical barriers to practice:

  • Keep your bass on a stand (or wall hanger) that’s clearly visible – this serves as a reminder of what needs to happen if you have spare time, and it means that you can begin the work almost instantly.
  • I’ve given up using an amp to practise when I’m at home – I either play unplugged or use a Vox Amplug and play through headphones. The Amplug doesn’t sound great, but it’s cheap, makes my bass clearly audible and has an aux cable input in case I need to run a click or play along with tracks (I am not affiliated in any way with Vox and other headphone amps are available!).

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.

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How to find a Teacher

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.

 

 

 

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Learning By Stealing

Learning How To Learn Learning a new skill can be a daunting task, especially if you’re pushed for time – which, let’s face it, we all are. The good news…

Learning How To Learn

Learning a new skill can be a daunting task, especially if you’re pushed for time – which, let’s face it, we all are. The good news is that there’s a straightforward, repeatable process for skill acquisition that works regardless of whether you want to learn to juggle, cook or play decent walking bass.

Let’s stick with the last of those items; I was raised on a solid diet of classic rock, singer-songwriters and classical music – basically all the genres that don’t swing – which meant that developing the skills necessary to play jazz with any sort of competence has been (and continues to be) something of an uphill struggle.

It turns out that the solution to learning anything effectively is actually about learning how to steal.

Steal From The Best

To outline the process of assimilating walking bass vocabulary from a pro, I’ve enlisted the help of John Patitucci (I’m fairly sure that he’s completed jazz on expert mode).

Important note: This process can be used to learn anything musical (or, actually, anything non-musical, too). If you’re averse to jazz then you can still get results from applying the method to any style of music that you’re learning. What we’re actually doing is:

  1. Modelling a professional by transcribing their playing in a given context
  2. Analysing their strategy in order to tease out the underlying concepts
  3. Creating an etude that succinctly incorporates the methods of a master musician
  4. Imitating these phrases until they become ingrained in our playing
  5. Building new vocabulary based on the previously learned phrases

 

Here’s how I used the process of transcription to teach myself about walking bass concepts and develop my own vocabulary:

The source material was this John Patitucci masterclass – I’m guessing from hair/jumper combo that it’s from the 1990s:

JP discusses different approaches to walking through standards, playing ‘Stella by Starlight’ (he later plays through ‘Alone Together’) and mentions some key concepts in playing effective walking bass in both a 2-feel and playing 4 notes to the bar.

What Did I Do?

1. Transcribed 5 choruses of John Patitucci walking on ‘Stella’

The actual transcription process was quite straightforward thanks to the setting of the clinic – it’s just bass and guitar, so there’s no piano or drum kit to obscure the low end. The audio quality is also pretty good compared to many recordings from the 1950s where it’s often difficult to accurately isolate the pitches of a walking bass line. Other must-hear recordings with a similar duo lineup include Jim Hall & Ron Carter Alone Together and – one of my favourite albums ever – Pat Metheny and Charlie Haden Beyond The Missouri Sky

The transcription reveals that JP plays some changes differently as the tune progresses choruses; bar 12 of the form is outlined as Gm7 – C7 in the head, then Bbm7 – Eb7 for solos (as per the changes in most real books).

The transcription is available for download here: John Patitucci – ‘Stella By Starlight’ pdf

2. Created a ‘transcription graph’ in Sibelius

What’s a transcription graph? This is a transcription graph:

This is something that I’ve stolen from saxophonist David Liebman (there’s a pdf kicking about on the interweb detailing his very intensive transcription process). Aligning the choruses vertically makes it easy to spot phrases that appear multiple times as the tune progresses.

3. Analysed the harmonic content of the lines

Each note was labelled according to its function relating to the harmony – either a chord tone, scalar approach note or chromatic approach. Some notes have dual functions, where they are both chord tones and act as an approach note into the next bar.

4. Highlighted phrases common to multiple choruses (‘licks’)

Any phrases that had similar harmonic content were highlighted to easily spot JP’s favourite walking bass licks; I opted for the rather attractive hue that Sibelius calls ‘salmon’ to make things stand out:

 

5. Created composite choruses

I copied and pasted the most frequently occuring line for each successive bar of the tune in order to create a composite walking bass etude that features the essential elements of John Patitucci’s walking bass concepts – one chorus of a 2-feel, another with ‘regular’ walking bass.

Some octave adjustment of pitches was necessary in order to preserve the contour of the lines and make things feel less ‘cut and paste’.

So here you have it – 2 choruses of small, easily digestible fragments that have been distilled from a larger pool of source material:

‘Stella By Starlight’ – Composite Walking Bass Etude pdf

The next steps look something like this:

6. Learn the lines

Memorise the etude. I’d suggest learning this in 12 keys, but few people ever bother to do that. Personally, I’d rather transpose it into 3 or 4 keys and then…

7. Apply to other tunes

Write out etudes based on this one for other tunes in your repertoire

8. Write your own variations

As you play through the lines, you might find that your ears suggest other routes for navigating the harmony; write them down and create your own ‘licktionary’.

 

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Jaco Left Clues

September 2017 marked 30 years since the untimely death of Jaco Pastorius, the self-proclaimed ‘greatest bass player of all time’ who completely revolutionised not only the instrument itself but also…

September 2017 marked 30 years since the untimely death of Jaco Pastorius, the self-proclaimed ‘greatest bass player of all time’ who completely revolutionised not only the instrument itself but also the way that it was played – Jaco pioneered the fretless bass and helped to make the electric bass a more legitimate jazz instrument (this may or may not be a terrible thing, depending on your point of view).

So why is everyone still talking about Jaco 30 years after his death? The fact is that he has influenced every single prominent electric bass player that has come through in the ‘post-jaco’ era; it doesn’t matter who you’re into – Pino Palladino, Mark King, Me’Shell N’degeocello, Gary Willis, John Patitucci, Marcus Miller, Will Lee, Richard Bona, Flea, Laurence Cottle, Stu Hamm – all of these great players have stolen a ton of stuff from Jaco. In fact, even if you’re keen on more modern players then Jaco is still relevant, as his influence can be clearly heard in the playing of Evan Marien, Joe Dart (Vulfpeck), Michael League (Snarky Puppy) and Hadrien Feraud.

What made Jaco So Great?

In order to understand why Jaco’s playing had such a profound impact on the history of the instrument we’re going to dig into his first commercial recording as a sideman, R&B guitarist Little Beaver’s ‘I Can Dig It Baby’, which was released in 1974, before Jaco’s infamous debut solo record, his appearance on Pat Metheny’s ‘Bright Size Life’ or Weather Report’s ‘Black Market’.

You can find a pdf of the transcription HERE

This wasn’t Jaco’s first recorded outing as such, he appeared on a record released under Paul Bley’s improvising artists label, originally titled Pastorius/Metheny/Ditmas/Bley (now widely referred to as ‘Jaco’) on which he can be heard playing some utterly ridiculous things in a not particularly accessible electronic free jazz setting. ‘I Can Dig It Baby’ represents Jaco’s first recording that would reach the ears of most mainstream listeners and allows us to study the key elements of his unique style in the context of a 6 minute pop song.

The credit for bass on ‘I Can Dig It Baby’ went to Nelson ‘Jocko’ Padron, but after a handful of notes it’s clear who’s in charge of the low end. What is most significant about Jaco’s recording debut is that it clearly demonstrates that he was a fully formed musician with a unique voice at the age of 22 or 23, which is an extremely rare thing. By examining the transcription of Jaco’s part on ‘I Can Dig It Baby’ we can isolate the fundamental elements of his style that would become so influential in years to come – it’s as if Jaco left us clues as to what he was going to unleash in the future as his career progressed.

5 essential ‘Jaco-isms’

1. Outlining Chords Using Harmonics

Bar 2 of the tune (Jaco’s fourth note of the piece) features a double stop harmonic which outlines the Bm7 chord. Harmonics don’t seem particularly out of the ordinary to us in the present day, but if we go back 30 years the story was very different; although Jaco doesn’t get sole credit for ‘inventing’ the harmonic vocabulary that we have nowadays he was definitely a pioneer of using both natural and false harmonics in order to expand the bass’ ability to convey extended harmony – Jaco totally changed the game with tracks like ‘A Portrait of Tracy’ and ‘Okonkole Y Trompa’ from his self-titled debut, and even managed to integrate them in a singer-songwriter context on Joni Mitchell’s ‘Coyote’.

Voicings like which combine fretted notes with harmonics have become mainstays of the electric bass, and it was Jaco that brought them to our attention.

2. Propulsive 16th note lines

Although Rocco Prestia is widely considered to be the king of relentless 16th note funk grooves – Tower of Power released ‘What Is Hip?’ around the same time as this record came out – Jaco was no slouch either and many of his signature lines, including the chorus to ‘Come On, Come Over’, consist of rapid fire funk motifs interspersed with ghost notes. The 2-bar groove that serves as the main line for this tune is no exception:

Here Jaco begins by outlining the Em7 harmony before descending into open position and using a combination of chord tones and ghost notes to create the rest of the line – he alternates figures on beat 4, first landing on the 5th and then resolving to the open E; this helps to give the groove a more ‘composed’ feeling compared to a constant 1-bar vamp.

Sharp-eyed (and sharp-eared) readers might have spotted that the main groove is almost identical to that of ‘Kuru/Speak Like a Child’ from his debut album, albeit at a slower tempo. The melodic contour of the line is also very similar to that of one of Jaco’s most famous grooves, the chorus of ‘Come on, Come Over’, with the highest note placed on beat 2 of the bar and the introduction of ghost notes in the second half of each bar:

Come One Come Over Chrous Groove

(for a more detailed look at ‘Come On, Come Over’ check out Groove of the Week #34)

3. Chromatic Approach Notes

Another of Jaco’s frequently used trademarks is the chromatic approach, either as a single chromatic approach from a semitone below a chord tone, or a double chromatic approach from a tone below.
These first appear in bars 9 and 10 of the transcription – the sections  labelled as ‘chorus’ and ‘bridge’ on the transcription are also littered with these approaches.

Bar 21 of the transcription shows the use of a double chromatic approach at the end of the second verse, where Jaco targets the major 3rd of the D7 chord and uses the open D string to create a double stop:

He would use throughout his later compositions most notably ‘Continuum’.

The chorus figure that uses root- 5th with single chromatic approaches actually hints at the infamous ‘Jaco Samba’ pattern that forms that basis of his lines on ‘(Used To Be A) Cha Cha’ and ‘Invitation’.

4. Rhythmic Displacement

As the song progresses, the verse/chorus/bridge structure gives way to a lengthy, less structured outro section. Here, Jaco leaves his opening groove behind and gives us another great 2 bar vamp that combines propulsive 16th note playing with chromaticism and some simple, yet effective rhythmic displacement:

Displacing the opening of bar 1 ahead by a 16th note transforms this from a stock Em funk groove into something special.

After 12 bars of this, Jaco cranks out a variation on this line that gives a nod towards what would become a cornerstone of his style…

5. Pentatonic Sequencing

Bar 97 of the transcription shows Jaco playing this line:

The first 2 beats are comprised of a minor pentatonic scale sequenced in 4ths and 5ths – after beginning with the root note he plays 4th to flat 7, 5th to root, then 5th to flat 7; This sort of thing was unusual at the time, with most scale sequencing being of the linear variety (typically using consecutive notes in the scale played in 3 or 4 note groupings).

Jaco was one of the first to employ wider interval skips, which became features of his landmark solos including Continuum, Port of Entry and Havona.

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