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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 isn’t as gratifying as playing through an amp, 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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Received Wisdom: 3 Pieces of Advice I Should Have Listened To

Are you as terrible at taking advice as I am? While putting off filing my tax return (one of my favourite January activities) I did a few calculations:   Over…

Are you as terrible at taking advice as I am?

While putting off filing my tax return (one of my favourite January activities) I did a few calculations:

 

  • Over the course of 2015, I taught roughly 1200 one-to-one music lessons
  • That’s in excess of 600 hours spent telling other people what I think that they should do to improve their playing.
  • That’s the equivalent of 25 whole days of dispensing advice about music. 

 

 

Why is this important? It shows that the amount of time I spend giving advice is wildly disproportionate to that which I allocate to receiving advice from others about my own playing (or teaching). 

This got me thinking about important lessons that I’ve taken in the 15 years since I first picked up the bass and reflecting on the pearls of wisdom that have had the most significant impact on my musical development. 

The most worrying fact is that the most valuable pieces of advice are the ones that I’ve actually paid the least attention to.

 

The 3 pieces of advice I should have taken on board

 

“Don’t party until you’re 25”

 

If (like me) you’re over 25, don’t panic – this can still be applied to a degree. Some readers will see this as a rather hardline approach, but for aspiring professionals it’s worth thinking about. 

 

The source: This nugget came courtesy of the owner of the only live music venue in the small town where I grew up. I was 18, and on the night in question I was helping out my teacher at the time as guitar tech for his band. I got chatting with the venue’s owner after the gig, and mentioned that I was getting ready to go to music college and wanted to make a career from music. The above was his only piece of advice on how to succeed. 

 

The meaning: Your teens and early 20s are when you will form the foundations of your musical identity. They are also the years in which you will (most probably) have more free time and fewer responsibilities than at any other age – devoting this free time to working on your musicianship will pay huge dividends later when ‘real life’ starts to eat into your practice time. 

 

Why it didn’t stick: I deluded myself into thinking that I was working hard enough and let other areas take equal priority over playing – the fact that the music college I went to was above a pub didn’t help matters… In short, I partied. 

 

What you can do about it: Sleep less. Watch less TV. Spend less time on social media. Have two drinks at the pub rather than seven. Stop wasting time reading blogs like this one and do some practice. This article by pianist James Rhodes is a wonderfully savage introduction to cutting out the rubbish in your life and getting back to what you love.

 

“Go after the sound you love”

 

The source: The venerable Richard Niles, award winning producer, arranger, guitarist and all-round musical übermensch. The quote itself is actually attributed to Pat Metheny, with whom Richard has worked with on frequent occasions. 

 

The meaning: Make the distinction between what you want to learn and what other people tell you that you should be learning. Embrace the music that you are passionate about and steal as much as you can from it – don’t shy away from your musical heritage. Don’t get distracted by people telling you that you should really listen to Miles Davis if the sound you’re after is bluegrass-meets-Squarepusher (I’d love to hear from anyone who is actually after that particular sonic equation). 

 

Why it didn’t stick: The short answer here is decision paralysis: presenting myself with too many options and failing to pursue any one of them to the level required to really absorb the sound into my playing. 

 

What you can do about it: Adopt the Helsinki Bus Station Theory (yes, really).

 

 

“If you have to practise* for the gig, you shouldn’t be on the gig”

 

*It’s important to note that I mean practise in the sense of developing mastery of a musical concept through persistent effort, rather than playing through new material that you might have to memorise for a gig. 

 

The source: Renowned bass educator (and No Treble contributor) Joe Hubbard

 

The meaning: Have the humility to realise that there are certain gigs that you should say ‘no’ to because they lie too far outside of your current comfort zone. Because of the many external (not to mention internal) sources of pressure that are present during any live performance situation, your musical ability has to be sufficient so that you can have a ‘buffer’ to absorb the distractions without your playing being compromised. 

Let’s say you have to learn a tune with a taxing unison line or ‘bass feature’ in it (‘Spain’, ‘Got A Match?’, ‘Sir Duke’ and ‘You Can Call Me Al’ are just a few off the top of my head) and you’re struggling to get it up to tempo in the practice room. There is NO WAY that you’ll be able to execute that same part at tempo on stage in front of an audience – you need a technique buffer of roughly 10-20bpm that will allow you to absorb distractions and still play the part properly. 

This isn’t just a chops thing. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is saying ‘yes’ to a gig which involves playing music that puts you out of your depth stylistically – if you have no real interest in listening to and studying jazz then don’t pitch up on a standards gig with iReal Pro on your iPad and hope you can survive the evening. Don’t say ‘yes’ to the progressive metal gig if you’re not comfortable with odd time signatures – there’s no shame in being honest about what you can and can’t do musically. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t be constantly striving to improve your playing and getting better gigs – there are plenty of opportunities to work on the performance aspect of music without being on a gig where the audience and the other musicians expect you to be on top form.

 

Why it didn’t stick: It’s easy to tell yourself that you’ll turn down certain work until you realise that you have to pay your rent this month. Learning how to say ‘no’ to work also takes time for both financial and psychological reasons – it’s an ego boost to be called for a gig, and you might not want to have to pass on work to other musicians for fear that you won’t ever get called for anything ever again.

 

Do you have any wise words to share?

If there’s a piece of advice that has really helped you in your musical development then why not share it by commenting on this post?

 

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5 Unorthodox Books That Will Transform Your Bass Playing

I have a confession to make: I’m an addict. Over the last 15 years I’ve built a comprehensive library of instructional materials; books, DVDs, play-a-long CDs, online video lessons, VHS…

I have a confession to make: I’m an addict.

Over the last 15 years I’ve built a comprehensive library of instructional materials; books, DVDs, play-a-long CDs, online video lessons, VHS (yes, I’m that old). Here’s a glimpse of part of my bookshelf:

 

 

The problem is that I’ve never really used half of them; I find it difficult to stick to one method at a time, so most of the things I buy get retired to a bookshelf fairly swiftly.

Sound familiar? Then read on…

This series of posts books looks at the handful of books that have helped me make significant improvements to not only my bass playing but also my general musicianship.

One thing that they have in common is that none of them were written for electric bassists, which might well be the reason why I’ve found them so enlightening.

 

Part 1: ‘The Advancing Guitarist’ by Mick Goodrick

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this is the best book I’ve ever read on any subject. It was recommended – or, more accurately, prescribed – to me by Richard Niles (whose work has sold more than 250 million records, so I try take his advice wherever possible).

You can buy The Advancing Guitarist here for just over £10. Do it. Now.

What’s it about?

This book is so broad in its scope that it would actually be easier to list the things that it doesn’t cover – there’s enough material in ‘The Advancing Guitarist’ to keep you busy for several lifetimes.

These are the key areas that Mick Goodrick covers:

* Single string playing
* Positional playing
* Modal improvisation
* Intervals
* Triads, 7th chords, slash chords
* ‘Commentaries’ – short articles on a range of musical topics

Sounds just like every other guitar method book, right? Wrong.

What I love about this book is that it is the polar opposite of 99% of other instructional methods.

Rather than prescribing specific exercises, the author presents a series of musical topics and forces you to work out what to do with them. While this might sound like a cop out on his part, I found that it meant that I actually got much more out of the book – by having to find my own route through the material I found that I gained a deeper understanding of musical concepts that I’d seen numerous times before in other books.

How will it change my playing?

In my opinion, there are only two items of information that anyone needs to be a proficient guitarist (or bassist):

1. The notes used to construct different chord types
2. The location of those notes on the instrument

All other considerations (technique/articulation/phrasing/tone/vocabulary) are dependent on the style of music that you’re playing and are, for the most part, subjective.

Is that a gross oversimplification? I don’t think so.

The ugly truth is that most players fall short of the mark on point 1, and an extremely small number of people that I’ve encountered, including professional players and teachers, have a really thorough understanding of number 2.

Right from the outset, ‘The Advancing Guitarist’ forces you to constantly think about which note you’re playing and how it relates to the chord that you’re playing over. For me this was nothing short of life changing.

BENEFIT #1 – This book will drastically increase your fretboard knowledge, liberating you from playing the same old licks and patterns

 

Confused about modes? Join the club

In my experience as a teacher, modes seem to be one of the greatest sources of confusion for students; Learning the names is confusing enough, let alone understanding how to use them.

‘The Advancing Guitarist’ clearly explains the construction and derivation of the modes of the major, harmonic minor and melodic minor scales and presents a number of practical ways to apply them.

BENEFIT #2 – Modes will no longer be a mystery

Need help finding your voice?

For me the real value of working through the book on bass is that it forces me to work on things I rarely hear other bassists play but that (to my ears, at least) have a lot of musical value. There’s plenty of discussion amongst musicians regarding the importance of finding your own ‘voice’ on your instrument, and several chapters of the book have allowed me to uncover things on the bass that I otherwise might never have explored.

BENEFIT #3 – Working through this book allows you to sound more like you and less like everyone else

‘Commentaries’

The last section of the book is composed of a series of short articles on various aspects of musicianship, including (but not limited to):

* Time, tempo and rhythm
* Reflection and self-evaluation
* Improvisation and composition
* Technique
* How to approach different playing situations

It’s rare that guitar books cross into the realm of philosophy, but I’ve found Goodrick’s insights to be a great source of inspiration, particularly if I find myself stuck in a rut with practising.

BENEFIT #4 – Examining your playing beyond the ‘nuts and bolts’ level will improve your musicianship and give you a fresh perspective on how you approach the bass

 

Whilst it’s obviously aimed squarely at guitarists, the book still works for bassists (and other stringed instruments) because it presents a series of musical topics and forces you to work out how they apply to your instrument. The information is presented in an extremely logical manner and everything is arranged to provide the reader with a clear sense of development as they work through the book.

‘The Advancing Guitarist’ is one of the only methods that I’ve come across which fully outlines both the complexities and the limitations of the guitar (or bass) and provides a progressive route to a greater understanding of how harmony applies to the instrument.

One more thing- it’s also the funniest guitar book I’ve ever read. Always focused and succinct but never stale.

Do you have a favourite instructional book? Tell me about it!

I’m always interested to hear about different methods that have helped people develop musically. If there’s a book (or VHS…) that you love and feel deserves a wider audience then let me know by commenting on this post.

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7 Steps To Better Practice

We’re already a month into 2014 and I’m willing to bet that many of us who made New Year’s resolutions along the lines of ‘I’m going to do more practice’…

We’re already a month into 2014 and I’m willing to bet that many of us who made New Year’s resolutions along the lines of ‘I’m going to do more practice’ or ‘I’ll get better at bass’ have already started to let things slip. This post deals with how to make the most of your practice time and create a routine that is both effective and sustainable.

The bulk of the information in this post is concerned with the why and how of practising rather than the what – everyone has different things that need attention so I’m reluctant to give advice on the content of your practice schedule.

A brief disclaimer: all of this is based on my personal experience of what works best for me and my practice routine. This is not the only way to do things, but I’ve had positive feedback from many students regarding the concepts outlined in this post. I’m always open to alternative strategies, so if there’s something that works for you but isn’t covered here then leave a comment to let me know…

In keeping with the New Year theme of the post, I’ve organised things along the lines of a meal (my main non-musical obsession is food). Think of this as a new musical diet plan for 2014.

APPETISERS 

1. Practising vs. Playing

The first step is making the distinction between practising and playing. 

Practising allows you to hone in around on the areas of music (note that I didn’t say ‘bass playing’) that are currently outside of your comfort zone. These could involve instrumental technique, application of harmonic/melodic ideas, sight reading, ear training or knowledge of music theory.

Playing covers situations where you’re in your comfort zone, often playing material that you can already play well. This includes gigs/rehearsals/jamming/noodling, all of which are enjoyable but aren’t stretching your playing and therefore won’t result in significant improvement.

In order to maximise your musical development, you need to strike the balance between practising and playing. If all you do is practise, then you deny yourself the opportunity to apply all of the things that you’ve been working on in a ‘real world’ scenario. On the other hand, if all you do is play then you run the risk of getting stuck in a rut and never evolving as a musician.

I use playing situations (gigs/rehearsals etc) as a measure of how well my practice schedule is working. We’re all the best player in the world in the safety of our own practice rooms, but in a performance environment things feel very different. I find that recording gigs and later critiquing my performance is one of the most effective (and painful) strategies for establishing which concepts have worked their way into my playing and which still need work.

2. Reality Checks

Getting a second opinion on your playing is hugely important for your musical development. I find it difficult to be entirely objective about my playing (particularly while I’m in the act of performing) so I make an effort to seek constructive criticism from people who I respect musically.

More often than not these ‘critical friends’ are other musicians that I’m on a gig with, but I also try and take lessons whenever I can. Having a mentor who gives me a brutally honest assessment of my playing inspires me to put more hours of practice time in, informs the content of my practice time and helps to keep my ego in check.

Some people find it odd that I still continue to take lessons even though I make my living through gigging and teaching (“…I thought you knew how to play bass?!”) but I feel that continuing to study music with someone more knowledgeable than myself is the only way to ensure that I keep growing as a musician. Michael Brecker continued to have a coach long into his career and Mike Stern studied with the same teacher for almost 30 years. If it’s good enough for them then it’s good enough for me (important note – I am in NO WAY comparing myself to either Brecker or Stern…)

3. Goal Setting

Make a list of all the things that you’d like to change about your playing. Focus on 2 or 3 areas in particular and write a set of related goals that are measurable. Once you’ve established what you’re aiming for you can then choose (or create) appropriate exercises that will help bring you closer to your goals.

It’s also wise to ask yourself why you’re practising certain things – how will what you’re about to work on bring you closer to your goals? If you can’t directly trace how a particular exercise will improve a specific area of your playing then cut it out of your practice regime.

THE MAIN COURSE

4.’Chunking’

My preference is to divide my practice time into small ‘chunks’ rather than working on anything for a protracted length of time. I find that 15-20 minutes of focused practice interspersed with short (2-3 minute) breaks produces the best results. I started this approach after going to a masterclass with Todd Johnson in which he suggested using a similar approach; I almost immediately found that I seemed to be getting more practice done in less time than previously and that I retained more information on a day-to-day basis.

Let’s say you have 3 areas that you need to work on (e.g. ear training, reading and repertoire) and you have about an hour a day of practice time. A sample ‘chunking’ routine would look like this:

15 mins on Topic A

-3 min break

15 mins on Topic B

-3 min break

15 mins on Topic C

-3 min break

At this point you still might have time for another chunk, so go back and spend more time on the topic that you feel weakest on.

15 mins on Topic B

A small note on breaks – be disciplined and use a timer! 3 minutes easily become 5 minutes which easily become 10 minutes which easily become…

Having more than an hour to practice allows for more opportunities to revisit topics multiple times over the course of a practice session without losing focus or suffering information overload.

I’ve been using this method for 5 years or so and find that it allows me to do a relatively high volume of practice and not feel exhausted afterwards. The concept of alternating intensely focused periods of work with brief rest periods is well established amongst athletes and academics alike (see the ‘resources’ section below for literature on this subject).

5. ROTATING SCHEDULES

One issue that almost everyone that I talk to mentions is not having enough time to practice. One way to get around this is to have two (or more) practice routines that you cycle through on alternating days – an ‘A’ routine and a ‘B’ routine. Again, this is nothing new – athletes do this all the time.

Let’s imagine that you have the following areas to work on:

  • Sight reading
  • Arpeggios
  • Repertoire

Now let’s think about some of the possible variables for each of these areas:

i. Sight Reading

  • Rhythm reading (no pitch variation)
  • Pitch recognition (no rhythmic variation)
  • Combination reading (‘real’ music)
  • Reading in different clefs (treble/tenor/alto)

ii. Arpeggios

  • Different chord types (major/minor/augmented/diminished/suspended)
  • Transposition through all keys
  • Single string vs. multi-string (2-6 string, depending on your instrument)
  • Inversions

iii. Repertoire

  • Transcription of material to be learnt
  • Memorisation of new material
  • Revision of existing repertoire

If we combine the idea of rotating with some ‘chunks’ we begin to get an idea of what an alternating practice schedule looks like.

Here’s a sample ‘A’ routine:

-15 minutes on rhythm reading

-3 min break

-15 minutes on arpeggios in 6 keys (#s), single string and multi-string

-3 min break

-15 minutes on learning new repertoire

The sample ‘B’ routine might look something like this:

-15 minutes on pitch reading

-3 min break

-15 minutes on arpeggios in 6 keys (bs), single string and multi-string

-3 min break

-15 minutes revising existing repertoire

Splitting your practice routine in this way means that you can still make significant improvements to your playing without having to work on every element each day.

This is a very brief (and simplified) overview, but it should give you an idea of how to apply the concept to whatever you’re working on. It may seem really obvious, but I’m surprised at how many people who come to me for lessons complain of not having enough practice time because they’re trying to do everything every day.

6.TRACKING

This is one of the most crucial areas of any practice routine – and one that is often overlooked by many players. The act of keeping a record of what you practice helps to keep track of your progress over a given period of time and make adjustments if necessary.

I have two methods of logging my practice time: a practice diary and a checklist. These represent the micro and the macro aspects of practice. In the diary I keep a record of the exercises I do every day, together with notes on which keys/chord types/tempo ranges I’ve worked on:

This has largely replaced my short term memory...

I find this really useful on a purely practical basis, as my preference for ‘chunking’ means that I tend to be working on lots of different things and my short term memory is terrible.

The purpose of the checklist is for tracking progress towards longer term goals – mostly related to repertoire, transcriptions and technical exercises. I keep the checklist on a whiteboard that stays in my office as a visible reminder that I always have things to be working on…

DESSERT

7. MOTIVATION

One of the biggest sticking points that I’ve encountered when it comes to practising is maintaining motivation. When I’m busy with teaching and gigs and I get a few hours off, practising is not always the most appealing option. I have a number of strategies that I use to make sure that I keep pushing myself:

i. Visible Reminders

This is the first thing I see when i wake up. It helps set the tone for the day:

Bass wall hanger

Along with the Whiteboard Of Doom (see ‘tracking’), these are part of a series of things that I have around my house to remind me that there’s always work to be done.

Awkward confession time… I’m also one of those people that owns motivational crockery:

SmugCringeworthy, but surprisingly effective.

ii. Books

All of these have helped to shape my musical development in some way:

LibraryYes, there’s a cookbook in there. And yes, that is Arnie’s biography. Both have proved to be unusual sources of wisdom.

There are several books in particular that contain great advice on strategies for keeping to your resolutions (musical or otherwise); Richard Wiseman’s 59 Seconds and Switch by Chip & Dan Heath both include strategies for making resolutions stick, while Outliers and The Talent Code are both great for reminding yourself that great players are made, not born.

An area that I’d strongly recommend looking into (before you investigate anything else in this post) is time management-The Four Hour Work Week and No B.S. Time Management for Entrepreneurs are good starting points (my mentor put me on to the second book after I complained that I didn’t have enough time to practice…).

So there you have it – try some of these ideas and let me know if they work for you.

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