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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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Your Brain is Rotten

Your Brain Is Rotten (and how to fix it) January. The month where you take a long, hard look at your life and promise yourself that this year you’ll finally…

Your Brain Is Rotten (and how to fix it)

January. The month where you take a long, hard look at your life and promise yourself that this year you’ll finally sort everything out. For me, the main focus of my January life-purge is my practice routine – or, more accurately, the distinct lack thereof.

Recently, I’ve been thinking more and more about how to really make the most of the time that I spend at the instrument; I had a lightbulb moment when listening to a podcast and the interviewee said something along these lines (I can’t find the episode in question to be able to provide a verbatim quote, but still…):

“Things like maths or foreign languages are like apps that we ‘install’ in order to increase our knowledge or improve our skill set in a given area. Most people spend all of their time and effort on installing or upgrading their apps instead of attending to their operating system, which is how they run their brains.”

Jackpot. How can I expect to get the greatest possible benefit from practising when my brain is perpetually distracted? Why have I been focusing on upgrading my mental ‘apps’ when my operating system is full of bugs?

If you also feel perpetually overwhelmed, or that your attention is fragmented, if you struggle to concentrate, or are always ‘busy’ but never seem to get anything done, then this is for you:

The Myth of Multitasking

We’ve been led to believe that the only way to cope with the relentless demands of modern life is to do lots of things at the same time, and the proliferation of smartphones and tablets has allowed us to be able to chip away at our never-ending to-do lists regardless of where we are or what the time is.

Over time, the ability to be permanently connected has gradually morphed into a necessity. Many of us have become habitualised to permanent digital stimulation to the point where one device is not enough; we browse multiple internet tabs while watching TV, we can’t make it through a film or a concert without checking our phone – the hyperconnected life has left us incapable of being alone with nothing but our own thoughts for company.

Here’s the inconvenient neurological truth: multitasking is bad for you. Whilst it provides the illusion that you’re being efficient and productive, the fact of the matter is that you’re actually just doing two (or more) things badly at the same time.

The crux of the problem is that the very region of our brain that we depend on to keep us on task is easily distracted by novelty; the prefrontal cortex is where all the action is – this part of the brain governs ‘higher order’ behaviours, including:

  • Delayed gratification
  • Impulse control
  • Long term planning and goal setting
  • Maintaining socially acceptable behaviour

The neurons in this part of the brain are sensitive to dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward; when you’re about to complete a task your brain gives you a hit of dopamine which acts as a precursor to reaching your goal and is designed to keep you on track – a biochemical motivator, if you will. The problem is that the brain can’t distinguish between the relative sizes or values of the tasks that you might be performing, so every time you send or receive an email, text, tweet or other digital notification your ancient brain senses that you’ve achieved something significant and rewards you accordingly. This leads to what scientists term a dopamine feedback loop, in which we’re constantly trapped in the cycle of pursuing low-level tasks to feed our sense of productivity.

Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin’s book The Organized Mind offers a comprehensive insight into the numerous perils of multitasking and the damage it has on your brain’s capacity to focus. His view on multitasking can be summed up as follows:

“Multitasking is the enemy of a focused attentional system”

Attentional switching comes at a high neurological cost – constantly chopping and changing between tasks burns up oxygen and glucose, increases the production of stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline and reinforces the dopamine addiction feedback loop in the prefrontal cortex.

Clifford Nass, professor of communication at Stanford, had this to say on the matter:

“It turns out that multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking. They’re terrible at ignoring irrelevant information; they’re terrible at keeping information in their head nicely and neatly organised; and they’re terrible at switching from one task to another.”

By contrast, scientific research has shown that sticking to one thing at a time (‘uni-tasking’) has been shown to protect against Alzheimer’s; older adults who participated in training sessions to develop their attentional control began to display brain patterns similar to those of younger adults after just 5 hours.

It’s not just the scientific community that are alerting us to the dangers of technology; some of the most vocal critics of the hyperconnected lifestyle are those who helped to create it. Recently, a couple of former Facebook employees have publicly spoken out on the deleterious effects of the social media platform:

ex-VP of ‘user growth’ at Facebook Chamath Palihapitiya said that:

“The short term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works… It is eroding the core foundations of how people behave. No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth. And it’s not an American problem… this is a global problem.”

Sean Parker, ex-facebook president, said the thought process behind building the social media giant was:

“How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?”

Parker also confirms that the site’s creators understood the impact that they would have on users’ psychology:

“…we needed to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever … It’s a social validation feedback loop … You’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology … [The inventors] understood this, consciously, and we did it anyway.”

Add to this the news that two of Apple’s major investors are pressing the company to do something about smartphone addiction among young people and we’re starting to get an idea of the extent of the problem. But what can we do about it?

6 Ways to Fix Your Rotten Brain

1.Learn to Concentrate

The most effective method of rewiring your brain and improving your ability to concentrate is by developing a regular meditation practice. If you’re turned off by the religious or ‘new age’ connotations that tend to get lumped in with the typical depictions of meditation then fear not – apps like Headspace offer a totally secular route into improving your ability to focus. I’d also recommend Sam Harris’ excellent, no-nonsense book Waking Up, which focuses on how to cultivate secular spirituality. My own experience with meditation is that it offers a subtle, yet powerful technique for coping with everything that life throws my way. I stumbled into the practice of insight meditation (often referred to as ‘vipassana’ meditation a decade ago and have found it to have numerous benefits, including (but not limited to):

  • improved concentration
  • better sleep
  • increased recovery time after workouts
  • a more consistent emotional state
  • increased sensory awareness
  • effective management of symptoms of depression/anxiety

Numerous high-functioning individuals swear by a dailly meditation in some form or other – bestselling author, lifehacker and meta-learning guru Tim Ferriss has interviewed almost 300 top performers across a range of fields and estimates that around 80% engage in some sort of regular mindfulness practice – this includes distinctly non ‘floaty’ individuals like super-producer Rick Rubin and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Jazz legend Herbie Hancock has been meditating since the early 1970s (at the suggestion of bass great Buster Williams) and the late sax legend Michael Brecker was also a practitioner.

2.Reconfigure your devices to reduce distraction

The most obvious cure for being constantly interrupted by digital distractions is to delete the offending apps from your device; if this is unthinkable then there are still several steps that you can take to reduce the damaging effect they have on your productivity:

  • stop your email automatically checking itself every 5 minutes (more on inbox management later)
  • turn off notifications from social apps that alert you to every single like, comment or retweet
  • put email and social media apps on the 2nd or 3rd ‘page’ of your device and bury them in folders

A more comprehensive guide to optimising your phone by former Google Design Ethicist Tristan Harris can be found here

3.Start and Finish the day away from screens

What’s the first thing you do when you wake up? If the first thing that your eyes see is your newsfeed or your inbox, then you run the risk of burning through all of your attentional energy before the day has even started; your brain has a limited capacity for processing new information and maxing out your mental bandwidth first thing can lead to lack of focus and diminished impulse control. In short, starting your day with screen time can impair your ability to make decisions and sabotage your creative endeavours later in the day.

If you enforce a morning ‘buffer zone’ in which you don’t look at your phone for the first hour of the day, then you’re giving your brain the chance to wake up naturally, without the barrage of data offered by the internet. Doing the same thing with the last hour of your day prior to going to sleep allows you to wind down without the stimulation of technology, resulting in an improved ability to get to sleep.

One of the easy traps to fall into is checking email every few minutes – whenever you have to wait more than 5 seconds for anything, out comes the phone and habit pulls us straight into our inbox. One way around this is to allocate specific blocks of time for checking and responding to email (this can be applied to social apps as well). I find that I’m happiest and most productive when I check my email twice a day – at roughly midday and 4pm – when I stick to it, this policy results in precisely zero people getting upset because I haven’t attended to their email; if something is truly urgent, they will call me. I can get a few hours of quality work done in the morning before dealing with my inbox, then the second check allows me to process any responses that might have come in before the end of the working day.

4.Use Social Media as an Output

Most people use platforms like Facebook primarily as an information input – they scroll through the endless treadmill of other people’s status updates, processing huge mounts of data, most of it useless. But how about using social media solely as an output? If your business or creative endeavours demand that you have to interact using social media then there are steps that you can take to ensure that the technology is working for you and not the other way around:

  • use post scheduling software like Hootsuite or If This Then That to ‘batch’ updates for specific times; this allows you to get all of your daily/weekly/monthly updates done in one dedicated block of time, rather than multiple fragments of several minutes each. This prohibits the spontaneity that social media is predicated on, but it’s amazing how many users give followers the illusion of a ‘real time’ feed through carefully planned, well-timed updates.
  • Use browser plugins like Leechblock to limit the time that you can spend per day on social media and other websites.

If you want to really increase your productivity and improve your mental health, then it’s very easy to kill your news feed. This is what I see when I log into Facebook:

Kill facebook news feed

 

Isn’t that great? No hairloss ads, no people celebrating that they’ve gone to the gym today, no temptation to stalk people that I went to school with.

I can still keep track of notifications, manage this site’s page (you’ve already given the page a like, right?) and pretend to remember birthdays without getting sucked into the whirlpool of useless status updates. The real benefit – aside from not expending time and energy processing superfluous data – is the positive impact of not being perpetually bombarded by the artificial awesomeness of the lives of others; seeing the carefully edited highlights of those in your networks without having insight into their failures can create a distorted sense of reality in which everybody is doing better than you, which can fuel feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and depression.

The obvious criticism of this approach is that it’s cynical, manipulative, insincere and means that you miss out on important events in your friends’ lives; my argument is that you still participate fully in the relationships that matter most to you by seeing your friends and family IN REAL LIFE. Rather than attempting to maintain superficial, surface-level interactions with 1000 people it might be more worthwhile expending the same cumulative amount of time and energy on cultivating deeper relationships with 50 or 100 people that you genuinely care about. Scientists have actually quantified the maximum number of social relationships that any one person can effectively maintain – it’s known as Dunbar’s number (after anthropologist Robin Dunbar) and is 150, surprisingly small in comparison to the number of ‘friends’ that many of us have on social platforms.

5.Screen Sabbaths/Digital Sabbaticals

The idea of a screen sabbath is to take one day a week on which you abstain from social media usage and email checking (you can still use your phone for texts, calls and modern-day necessities like Uber); the effect of this is that you gradually come to realise that the world doesn’t fall apart if you miss one day of your digital life, which can help to reduce time spent on devices during the other days of the week.

A ‘digital sabbatical’ is a longer timeframe, typically ranging from 3 days to one week, where you go totally ‘off grid’ and get away from all forms of technology – set up emergency contacts and an email autoresponder so you’re not paranoid that something is happening while you’re unplugged.

6.Use The Brain’s Dopamine Addiction To Your Advantage

We can actually harness the prefrontal cortex’s dopamine-seeking tendencies to our advantage and effectively play it at its own game – for the last 6 months, I’ve been using an app called Forest to keep me away from my phone and get more work done. The app rewards the user for spending a set amount of time away from their phone, and plants a tree as a reward for focused time – if you use your phone at all during the allotted time, then your tree dies:

forest productivity app

 

Now, this sounds ridiculously childish, but you can’t argue with biochemistry – I’ve found that planting a digital forest has been the single most effective trick in monitoring and increasing the amount of time I spend practising or doing other important things (like making content for this site). Because I’m slightly competitive, I find myself going to great lengths to try to beat my previous day’s score – playing a game doesn’t make it feel like work, and I get my digital dopamine fix from doing something useful.

These measures might seem extreme to some people, but to quote Mark Twain:

“Whenever you find yourself on the side of majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”

So there we are – I’m still trying (and ofter failing) to confront my internet addiction and break away from screens, but I’m doing my best to make sure that 2018 is the year that I finally get of the hamster wheel and spend more hours in the real world doing things that matter to me. If you’re interested in reclaiming your brain, then I’ve found the following resources to be extremely valuable:

Book/Resource List

Deep Work by Cal Newport (the best productivity book I’ve ever read by a long way)
The Organised Mind by Daniel Levitin
Waking Up by Sam Harris
Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss
How Multitasking Is Affecting the Way You Think Clifford Nass
How To Meditate by Sam Harris
Two guided meditations by Sam Harris
Mindfulness meditations by Tara Brach (a little more ‘out there’, but be patient…)
Forest App
Headspace App
Leechblock
Hootsuite
If This Then That
Kill Facebook News Feed Plugin for Firefox|for Chrome (If you’re still using Safari or Internet Explorer, then have a quiet word with yourself).

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