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Peter Lindemere B.Mus PGCE. Bass Teacher. uk-guitar-teachers.com

Bass teacher based in Hampshire

4 - 6 string electric fretted/fretless bass and double bass. 25 years experience in music, teaching privately for 20 years. Studied music with some of... read more > >

 

Peter Lindemere B.Mus PGCE

Practice Methods

29th April 2012

 

Practice Methods

 

What and how to practice as well as for how long and how often are questions I am often asked by my students. There are no straightforward answers here as it all depends on your ability at the moment, your goals as an individual for the future and of course, how much time you have to spend each day!

 

However, it is all too easy to get side tracked into practising or playing along with the same old things – this is not really practice, it is just maintaining your level. Therefore the things to practice are the things that you find challenging and will take your abilities to the next level.

 

How often and for how long to practice?     

 

The simple answer to how often to practice is every day, even if it is only for five minutes – you will at least be five minutes better than you were five minutes ago! Practising every day for an hour will have far more of an impact on your playing than practising for seven hours at the weekend – although it is also good to take a break now and then as you will always come back to your instrument feeling refreshed. Think of it as water dripping through metal; it will not happen overnight, but constant application will have a profound effect over time. Remember, your skill level on any instrument is directly proportional to the amount of hours that you have spent practising and playing. Many professional musicians have accumulated over 10000 hours of practice to achieve an expert level.

 

Calluses

 

As for how long to practice, that will be up to you as an individual. If you are a beginner I would suggest twenty to thirty minutes a day and then build up gradually from there; this will allow calluses to develop on your fingers which will become thicker over time. If you overdo it, you may well end up with blisters – we have all been there! If this does happen to you, do not burst them, you can still play with blisters but do it very gently, this will give the skin underneath a chance to harden as the fluid eventually dissipates and the dead skin wears off.

 

For more advanced players, you by now are probably well aware of calluses, but if you do want to make then thicker then the only answer is to play more, there are no short cuts I’m afraid!

 

Length of practice time

 

The length of practice time for more advanced players could be anywhere between one to eight hours a day – if you are that dedicated and have that much time to spare! I spent two years un-employed once when I was learning bass; a bad time financially, but one of the best things to happen to my playing as I did indeed manage a lot of eight hour practice sessions which benefitted my playing and technique enormously.

 

Of course not everyone is in a position to spend this much time with their instrument; I would certainly not suggest giving up your day job just yet! An hour a day is a good figure to work with, as you can pack a lot of worthwhile exercises that will improve your technique into this time. If you can spare more time than this then it is usually best to break up your time into smaller chunks throughout the day as mentioned in “memory techniques” above, especially if you need to learn new material. However, be aware that extended practice periods can result in aches and pains, or worse still injury – so staying relaxed at all times and breaking up your practice time with rest periods is of the upmost importance.

 

Remember, you are not likely to spend more than two hours performing on stage without a break, (although it could happen in rare circumstances) so you do not really need to practice for stamina – this should come purely from relaxing. Any time spent practising should be used for improving and learning new skills.

 

Conscious Practice

 

For most of the time, the act of practising should be a very conscious one, in that you should be constantly monitoring and analysing your playing actions. Always question why something is working well for you, or if things are not going well and you are making mistakes, then STOP!

 

It is very important to stop during conscious practising in order to find the root of any problem, or to consider how to make improvements to your playing and technique. Question everything – is it the fretting hand? Is it the picking hand? Is it a problem with timing? How can I play something more efficiently?

 

Most of the time constant repetition at slower tempos (the slower the better – as this builds accuracy!) will cure the majority of problems, improve your technique and help you to play faster. Even just being aware of any unwanted tension and relaxing, a change of fingering or a positional shift on the fretboard can completely alter your approach for the better. Practice things in time as much as possible, but also practice things out of time in a step by step, mechanical manor to really focus on the physical side of your technique.

 

In order to solve any musical or technical problem, thoroughly learn new material and make significant improvements in the mechanical side of playing, then conscious practice is the way forward. Conscious practice means to vigilantly observe every physical action that you make and listen intently to every sound coming from your instrument with the upmost concentration – which will often mean stopping frequently!

 

Subconscious Practice

 

On the other hand this does not mean that you should stop every time you make a mistake; you also need to practice performing, in that you should cultivate continuing to play no matter what goes wrong – on no account should you stop!

 

The goal of practising is not only to improve technique, learn new material and become a more rounded musician, but also to transfer all playing actions into the subconscious where they belong. By this I mean that the act of performing live or in the recording studio should have reached a certain level of automization; in other words you should be completely comfortable, relaxed and at one with the music and your instrument. You should not need to think about your technique or which note comes next – it should all be second nature.

 

This is reached by subconscious practice, in that you should sometimes practice as if you were playing live or in the recording studio, which means DON’T STOP! – You would not want to do this live on stage!

 

Try to put yourself under a bit of simulated pressure and imagine that you are performing in front of several thousand people, or recording in front of a very unforgiving record producer in an expensive recording studio. It is usually best to work this way playing to backing tracks, you could put a CD together with a list of tunes that you need to work on. Working with the metronome or drum machine, or working solo on whatever bass part you need to practice is also equally as effective.

 

Practicing this way is also an effective method of relieving stage fright, or performance anxiety – if you have lived (visualized in your imagination) the gig situation, the audition, or recording session several times already, then you will be far more relaxed at the real event!

 

Performing is the very opposite of conscious practising, as undue conscious striving can lead to tension, which can get in the way of a good performance; this is where subconscious practice comes in, as you are practising the art of performance itself – think of performing as a peak flow experience, the best of you in fact, which is the result of effective practising over a long period of time allowing the music to flow from your subconscious.

 

Practice schedules     

 

Making the best of your practice time can be very difficult; it does take a certain amount of discipline and self control to not play things other than that which you intended to practice – it is hard to practice one thing for ten minutes, drop it and then move on to something completely different – but this is the best and most efficient way to practice, so make sure that you are strict with yourself and practice with a plan or a goal.

 

One way to structure you time is to put a practice schedule together and stick to it; practice certain things for a certain amount of time and then move onto the next technical exercise – it does take a certain amount of will power to stop one exercise and move on to the next, but it is the only way to cram a lot of technique into a short time!

 

One of the strange things about being a musician is that you will need to practice mechanical motor patterns and technical exercises almost robotically for maximum efficiency and accuracy in order to reach the point where you can play musically with feeling and spirit – you will practice things that no one wants to hear in order to perform the music that everyone wants to hear – this is what practising is all about.

 

Below is a practice schedule that covers an hour of playing, it is divided into four parts covering warm up and stretching exercises, scales, arpeggios, improvising and playing bass lines along to a CD. This is of course only one way to spend your practice time; there are many different variables and possibilities depending on what skills or techniques you need to work on.

 

Warm up and stretching exercises – 15 minutes     

 

Spend the first half of the exercise on the right hand only, using open strings, harmonics and dead notes as described in “Right hand techniques”. Concentrate on timing and accuracy, so use a metronome and then repeat the exercises without to focus on your own timing. Cover as many different rhythms as you can across all strings in the time allowed.

 

Next, concentrate on the left hand – begin with isolation exercises on each finger and then move onto stretching exercises as described in “Left hand techniques”. These do not need to be in time to begin with, as you are focusing on independence and mobility within the fretting fingers – try them without a metronome first and then repeat with the metronome when you are comfortable with the exercises. Using a mirror to keep an eye on your hands and technique to make sure that your fingers are doing what they should is a good idea at this point.

 

Scale exercises – 15 minutes     

 

Choose a key and play as many scales or modes as you can in all positions, e.g. starting on a different fingers or positions on the neck. Incorporate single string scales and two octave scales over two, three and four strings (5 and 6 for multi string players) using different rhythms as much as possible. Break the scales up by playing fragments up and down in pitch or missing notes out – improvise with some of these patterns using different rhythms. Say the note names out loud as you play them, try singing them as well – this will improve note name location memory and will also aid fretboard fluency. Singing what you play is also an excellent way to improve ear training.

 

Arpeggio exercises – 15 minutes     

 

Stay in the same key that you were using for the scale exercises, this time play arpeggios – triads, 7th chords and extended arpeggios, e.g. up to the 9th or 13th – in the same positions as you played your scales, this will re-enforce the relationship between scale and arpeggio. Move on to playing staggered note (playing fragments up and down in pitch) and two octave arpeggios, again using different rhythms. Finally, play arpeggios over a chosen chord progression. Say the note names out loud and sing them as well.

 

Play 3 songs – 15 minutes     

 

Play the first two songs (of your choice and songs that you know well) experimenting with the scale and arpeggio patterns that you have just practiced over the top of the songs (make sure that you are in the same key as the song that you are working with!) – Which scales fit with the song? Which notes sound good? Which ones do not fit the harmonies of the song? Try to be inventive and do not worry about any mistakes, sometimes they can be educational!

 

As you can see, experimenting with technical exercises (scales / arpeggios) in this way is a very good method of getting into improvising; it will teach you a lot about how scale and arpeggio patterns can work over a given harmony and at the same time it will tap in to your inventive and creative side.

 

Finally, play the bass line of the third song as if you are playing a gig or performing in a recording studio session (recording yourself at this point is a good idea), so no mistakes – do not stop, it has to be right the first go! This puts a little simulated pressure into the practice session and is very good for the discipline; after all, it could be happening for real one day!

 

Practice schedule variations     

 

This is an hour well spent my opinion, as it has covered most aspects of bass playing from technique and technical exercises, conscious and subconscious practice, to ear training and improvisation. Obviously you could spend a longer or a shorter amount of time on each of the four sections mentioned above; you could spend the whole practice session focussing on just one area – sometimes it is a very good idea to do just that!

 

You may or may not want to set aside a certain time each day for practising – this is not always easy to do as you may feel tied to it, or feel guilty if something gets in the way of your practice session – do not get too serious about it, it should always be fun! It is always better to be flexible and fit in the time when you can. However, you can always make things easy for yourself by leaving your instrument out of the case and having your equipment set up and ready to go. A lot of the time I will practice with the electric bass just acoustically – this has the advantage of speed in not having to plug anything in and it is also good for developing picking strength in producing enough volume to make yourself heard.

 

Any practice schedule should not be written in stone of course; you will need to tailor it to your individual needs, I have not included any sight reading for instance, which could well be an important goal for you (as it should be!) if you are interested in a life as a professional musician / session player. I have also left out any specific technique; for example, you could spend the whole hour on slap technique or any other physical technique that you know you need to work on, which again would be an hour well spent. These are, however, just starting points that you as an individual should expand upon to suit your needs.

 

Therefore you should construct several practise schedules that cover a range of finger exercises, technique, technical exercises, theory, improvisation, ear training and sight reading (sight reading may not be one of your goals, but even learning how basic rhythmic groupings are written and being able to play them at sight will be of enormous help to your musical memory). Try to rotate these schedules on a daily basis so that you are always challenging yourself with new ideas and new techniques, as well as giving equal time to each technique you need to work on – this is the way forward for musical growth and development. Remember: the most important thing to practice is being positive and enjoying it!

 

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