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Tag: how to practise

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

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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What Gets Measured Gets Managed

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:

 

  1. Keeping Track Keeps You On Track

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.

 

  1. 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:

 

  1. 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.

 

 

  1. Forest

I’ve mentioned this rather childish looking productivity app before in this post on brain-rot 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 Deep Work 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…)
  • Exercise
  • Meditation (more on why this is important HERE)
  • Reading for research (not all the stuff on here is made up on the spot)
  • Transcription

 

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.

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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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