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Tag: time management

How Habits Happen: 7 Ways to Maintain New Behaviours

How To Form Positive Habits (and Make Them Stick) One of the things that I have consistently tried and failed to do is adopt and maintain a set of positive…

How To Form Positive Habits

(and Make Them Stick)

One of the things that I have consistently tried and failed to do is adopt and maintain a set of positive behaviours that would improve my day to day life if I actually stuck to them. These include meditation, exercise and – of course – practice. In spite of the time I spend making video lessons and blog posts telling others how to do things better, I’m terrible at taking my own advice and although I can do a very good impression of an effective human being, I freely admit to being frequently disorganised, lazy and ineffectual.

Here are 7 strategies that I’ve found to be effective in disrupting the patterns of a master procrastinator; it doesn’t matter if you’re looking to lose weight, increase your creative output or improve your bass playing, these tricks should work for just about any positive habit that you’re looking to form:

1.The Power of Daily Rituals

My working life is often unpredictable, which has led me to pursue a self-imposed structure as a means of creating order from chaos and to prevent going completely insane from juggling numerous projects. If you’re a self-directed individual and don’t have anyone telling you what to do and when to do it, then it’s vital that you create your own routine.

I try to begin each day with a series of small steps that are designed to ensure that I make the most of every day and don’t fritter away precious time pursuing things that aren’t important.

My Morning Routine

  • The first thing is that I do my best to get up early, regardless of how much sleep I may or may not have had – I find that the morning is the best time for me to go through my various rituals without interruption from the outside world, and that my willpower and focus are strongest at the start of the day. I’ve also found that if I do the right things in the first hour of the day, then I’m more effective later on.
  • I begin with journalling, which helps to clarify both what I’m doing and why I’m doing it – I write down 3 long term goals, and three things that I’m going to do today to move myself closer to those goals. At the end of the day, I come back and note 3 positive things – no matter how small – that I did today and 1 area that I could do better on tomorrow. Again, if you’re the one who’s in charge of your time then it’s really important to feel that whatever you’re doing is the right thing.
  • After the journalling I do some sort of mobility work and/or exercise, which is designed to mitigate the damage that I’ve done from 18 years of playing and 30ish years of having bad posture.
  • I then meditate for 15 minutes.

These steps help to get me in the right frame of mind (and body) for whatever work I have to do, and I find that I’m much more productive on the days when I complete them compared to days when I rush out of the house without having completed any of them.

I also have a morning playlist of music that puts me in a positive frame of mind which I listen to if I have to travel anywhere – this acts as a universal ‘reset button’ and is useful in getting into a good emotional state at short notice (see ‘resources’ for more on this)

2. Script Everything in Advance (Don’t Leave It To Chance)

I find myself much more likely to carry out a task if I’ve told myself exactly how and when I’m going to do it. This requires some forward planning, but it’s well worth doing as it prevents excuses as to why I haven’t done things.

Ideally, I’ll sit down for 10-15 minutes on a Sunday and script as much of my week as possible in advance in iCal; where I’m going to be and what I’m going to do. At the very least, I’ll spend some time each evening working out what I’m doing the following day and prepping for it – this removes the mental burden and wasted time taken up by deciding what you’re going to do when you get in the practice room or the gym in the spur of the moment.

The key with this is to allow yourself a degree of flexibility – things always take more time than you think they will, and tasks can be rearranged and rescheduled. It might be that you only have 10 minutes to spend on something that you wanted to work on for half an hour, but 10 minutes are better than zero minutes.

3. Quantify your goals

This may sound too obvious, but you want your habit to be easily verifiable – ‘have I done X today?’. It should be something that’s easy to do and it should have a very ‘black or white’ outcome – either you’ve completed the task or you haven’t.

Goal setting can easily become vague, so it’s important to be as specific as possible when identifying habits and outcomes. A classic one is ‘I want to get fit’ or ‘I want to lose weight’; a better way to phrase these goals and track your progress towards them would be as follows:

  • I will lose 5kg of fat by a certain date

Or (even better)

  • I will work out 4 times per week
  • I will give up alcohol/bread/refined sugar for 30 days

If your progress towards a goal is easily measurable, then you’re more likely to stick to the new habit.

4. Start With 5 Minutes

Another obvious point, but if you really want something to become a habit, then you absolutely have to do it every single day – I’d say for at least a month. To that end, if you tell yourself that you’re suddenly going to start practising 8 hours a day or radically alter your diet overnight then you’re setting yourself up to fail, because those things require a massive change to your existing lifestyle; you don’t begin training for a marathon by trying to run 26 miles on the first day.

It’s much better to start small and give yourself an easy win – as you strengthen whatever habit it is you’re trying to develop then your minimum time will naturally increase.

To phrase it in other ways: A diet that is 70% of the way to being perfect but has 100% compliance is way better than a diet that is 100% perfect but only a 50% adherence rate. Doing 5 minutes of sight reading every day is much more effective than trying to do an hour but only managing it on one day a week.

Whatever you’re trying to do, start with 5 minutes, but do it every day. Some days you’ll manage more, which is great, but stick to that minimum standard of 5 minutes.

5. Make Your New Habits Visible

Our natural tendency as human beings is to avoid hard work and gravitate towards lying on the sofa in front of Netflix while inhaling Doritos. We’re also really good at justifying to ourselves why we don’t have to do the work. The way around this is to hold yourself accountable for your new habits, even if it’s just to yourself. Make your new habits visible and track your progress. Here are some techniques:

The ‘Chain Method’ (aka the ‘Calendar Method’)

Jerry Seinfeld once told an aspiring comic that the way to be better than the competition is to have better jokes, and the way to have better jokes is to write material every day – he suggested putting an X on a calendar on every day that you write – pretty soon you have a chain going and build up momentum; that calendar serves as a powerful motivator to not break the chain.

Author Austin Kleon has a neat variation on this that can be found in the ‘Resources’ section.

The Habit Sheet

This week, I’ve been trialling a variation on this which I got from a friend of mine who is an NLP trainer – it’s called a ‘habit sheet’ and it works like this: you list the habits that you want to develop along with a box for every day of the week. Simple, but it works – I’ve kept this in my laptop case to make sure that it goes everywhere with me and it’s been surprisingly effective in making me get things done. Writing out the sheet rather than printing it off seems to have a more powerful effect – this is also true of the journalling – when I write things down they tend to have more of an effect than if I type them out on a computer.

6. Create A ‘Cadence of Accountability’

Having a blog, website or a Youtube channel is a great way to force yourself into doing things regularly – I try to get something new out at the end of every week, whether it’s a transcription, blog post or a video lesson – it doesn’t really matter what it is, the important thing is that I’m creating what author Cal Newport calls a ‘cadence of accountability’.

I do a similar thing with music – I get together once a week with like-minded musicians and absolutely butcher jazz standards. None of us grew up playing jazz and our main gigs are all mainstream pop stuff, but we’re holding each other accountable and if I haven’t learned the new tune for that week then I’m not just letting myself down, I’m letting down 2 other musicians. It also makes me works on certain things more because I don’t want to totally embarrass myself when it comes to the bass solo.

7. Don’t Go It Alone

Related to accountability is making sure that someone else knows about the habit that you’re trying to form – they’ll act as your ‘sponsor’ and check in with you. Having to make excuses to someone else apart from yourself is much harder, so make your new habits as public as possible to increase the chance of making them stick.

 

Resources

These are books/websites that I’ve found useful in clarifying goals, changing behaviour and staying motivated:

Daily Rituals by Mason Curry – This book details the daily routines of numerous prolific artists, writers and composers and offers a fascinating insight into what makes great minds tick.

The Daily Stoic – This is also an essential part of my morning routine containing short pieces of wisdom on how to deal with daily life. If you are prone to complaining or falling into a negative mindset then this is a must.

The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin – The chapter in thos book titled ‘Building Your Trigger’ was the inspiration for the morning playlist.

The Tim Ferriss Show Podcast – sure, he’s really quite annoying, but he does interview some extremely successful people and gets them to disclose their secrets to being effective; an absolute goldmine of information AND totally free.

Deep Work by Cal Newport – If you only read 1 book on this list, make it Deep Work; this is pretty much my Bible for getting things done and staying on track.

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield – Ever avoided doing something creative? This explains why and helps you to stop sabotaging your own progress

Getting Things Done by David Allen – A time management book for serious productivity nerds; whenever I use the methods in this book I definitely feel less overwhelmed by the things on my ever-expanding ‘to do’ list.

Austin Kleon’s 30-day challenge – pdf version of the ‘calendar method’ explained above in point 5.

Habit Sheet – my friend JB is not only a great drummer, he’s also a certified NLP trainer who occasionly posts some very useful and insightful blogs. This is where I stole the ‘habit sheet’ idea from.

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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

Getting Out Of Your Own Way This series of posts on how to practise has already dealt with how to get your brain back on track, refine your posture, find…

Getting Out Of Your Own Way

This series of posts on how to practise has already dealt with how to get your brain back on track, refine your posture, find the right teacher and track your practice. This final 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.

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.

For more practical solutions to making the most of your practice time in order to accelerate your musical growth take a look at the Better Bass Practice ebook.

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How To Track Your Music Practice

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 music 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.

2. 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.

2. Forest App

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.

For even more tips and tactics for maximising your practice time and accelerating your musical growth take a look at the Better Bass Practice ebook.

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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 habituated 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.

Want to fix your rotten brain and improve the quality of your attention? The Better Bass Practice ebook contains proven strategies to help you improve your levels of focus and make sure that you’re not a slave to your digital devices.

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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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