Stuck In A Practice Rut?

There are many approaches to practice and while there is not only one fixed, rigid way to do it, it may help to have some guidelines to ensure that you are not stuck in a practice rut.

 

“I Don’t Seem To Be Going Anywhere With My Practice.”

Many of my meetings with students over the years have opened up with a statement along the lines of; ” My practice is going nowhere at the moment. I don’t seem to be improving. Can you help?”.

Well, first things first; How do you define practice?

What is it that you are actually aiming for when you direct your energy to practicing your Bass Guitar (or any other instrument, for that matter)?

If we haven’t defined this simple but important question, the chances of being
stuck in a practice rut are much higher.

There are many ways to look at practice. Some see it along the lines of a gymnasium; If they put in lots of hours, sets and reps, this will lead to improvement.

As common as this approach is, I tend to put this in the same bin as hand strengthening exercises, string crossing exercises and those gimmicky finger conditioners that claim to make each finger stronger.

I can’t vouch for the validity of finger strength builders but what I can say is that if you’re playing your instrument properly, you don’t need strong hands. If you are working with musical content, every combination of crossing strings will be explored anyway plus you’ll have a musically contextual reason for doing it.
Maybe a better way to see practice is as a process of problem solving.

 

“What Should I Practice?”

The answer to “what to practice?” usually comes in the form of problems that arise in your current playing situations (or the situations you’d like to be playing in).

As a beginner, the problems you need to solve are things like the geography of the instrument (knowing where the notes are, focussing on chord tones and how they relate to chords), whereas intermediate or advanced players may need to negotiate a particular chord sequence (All The Things You Are, “I Got Rhythm” changes, Giant Steps, etc) or
look at a specific rhythmic phrase and try it from various points within the bar.

 

“How Many Hours Per Day?”

From the very first time I started hanging out with “serious” musicians, I’ve been hearing statements such as;

“Charlie Parker/John Coltrane/Jaco (insert other legend here) practiced 8-12hrs per day!”.

Maybe that’s true but hearing that was quite disturbing for me, partly because I had achieved a reasonable standard on Bass Guitar without putting in 8hrs per day of practice. In fact, I didn’t even have a Bass Guitar to practice on.

I’m not vastly different from anyone reading this, certainly not superior, so how was I able to acquire my modest achievements without this austere approach?

It struck me that I was practicing but not with a time-based approach but with a focus on problem solving.

This meant that if I needed to “fix” something in my playing, I’d work on it a little every day. Even as a 17 year-old living with my parents, I didn’t feel I had 8 “spare” hours to dedicate purely to music. I certainly couldn’t find 8hrs worth of problems to solve every day. Most people I’ve probed on their 8hr schedule are noodling and impressing themselves for a lot of it.

As a 48 year-old touring musician with a mortgage and children, I certainly don’t have that time luxury now.
It’s not a problem, though, unless your paradigm is still fixed on “Hours equal excellence”.

 

 “Do I need An Instrument To Practice? “


As mentioned earlier, to begin with, I had no Bass to practice on. Most of my studying was looking at other players and where they put their hands and copying that. Sometimes on a cardboard Bass neck that I made, mostly either miming (yes, Air-Bass!) or largely just in my head.

“I Know All This Stuff… Show Me Something New!”


This is a classic line, heard many times a day in any field of study.

Let’s break it down and really look at this phrase that says a lot about the approach and attitude of the student who utters those magic words.

“I know all this stuff”. Think about it.

If I say ‘learn the location of all the notes of your fingerboard’, it’s easy to say that you know this until you are asked to play F# on the B string or C# on the E string?

Most students (whether beginner, intermediate or advanced) have not systematically learned their note locations to a point that they could play, for example, all of the G notes, along each string, moving to the next highest string, all the way up and then in reverse comfortably at 100bpm. Or take a major 7th chord. What’s the 6th of Fmaj 7? Or the 4th of Gbmaj 7?

So “knowing” is a matter of degree, isn’t it?

As for “Show me something new!”

Our hunger for novelty often costs us growth as we fail to see the value of squeezing as much juice as possible from a single, apparently “simple” principle.

It takes real focus to explore an exercise to it’s full potential before throwing it out in search of the next hip thing.

 

Get Out Of That Practice Rut!

 

Define Your Practice Goals. What is it that you feel needs improvement in your playing?
If you don’t know, ask the people you play with!

Focus On Problem Solving, Not Hours Per Day. Enough said!

Open Your Mind. Practicing mentally will free you of habitual finger patterns and familiar licks. Think in terms of harmonic function, chord tones, etc.

Have Fun! Don’t forget you got into music because you enjoy it! Keep that sense of fun and wonder while you stretch your musical boundaries on the Bass Guitar!

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Leave A Reply (4 comments so far)


  1. Mark Foster
    4 years ago

    Quality of practice, not quantity of hours practiced.. .
    Pithy, succinct article!
    Thanks 🙂


    • Mike
      3 years ago

      Hi, Mark.
      Absolutely. Plenty of players are focussed on
      “Clocking in hours” rather than problem solving.
      Nothing wrong with conditioning your body to play
      by means of repetition, the issue is when you’re
      racking up hours “spinning your wheels”,
      impressing yourself with things you can do already.

      Solving a musical problem in the practice room is
      generally not an 8-12 hour process but for those
      of us who have the time for those marathon sessions
      (I’m definitely not one of them!), they can be quite
      intoxicating and addictive, whether actual musical
      progress is made or not.

      We all need to be aware of whether our practice
      is taking us to our next musical level or if
      we’re just filling the time.

      Enjoy your practice time, Mark 🙂


  2. Greg von Seeger
    3 years ago

    Does it matter if you try to stick to a particular time of day to practice. I try to practice in the afternoon at about 3:00pm but there are times when the day gets by me. Then I get mad at myself for allowing the day going by me without meeting my practice time. I’ve been thinking about starting early in the morning before the day really starts. This way very few things get in the way before I practice.


    • Mike
      3 years ago

      Hi, Greg,
      I don’t think there’s a hard and fast rule about when people should practice. People should know themselves enough to choose the optimum time to do it.

      That said, generally, developing a habit of some level of practice first thing in the morning, maybe after exercising (if you do that?)and before breakfast, could set you up for a good day.

      To try to establish a habit in the middle of the day seems a little like you’re setting yourself up to lose.

      You’ve already woken up, eaten two meals plus done (possibly) a bunch of other things with your energy before you’ve even taken your instrument out of the case?

      What are the chances you’re going to be not as energised and then feel like “I’ll skip it this time and do it next time”?

      As I said, I don’t know if there’s a definitive answer to this but ultimately, you have to be honest with yourself about how much you want to improve and then manage your optimum energy levels to get it done.

      Only you can know what that is for yourself.

      Hope that helps?

      Anyone else reading this, feel free to comment and help Greg and others with this question.

      Thanks,

      Mike

About

MICHAEL MONDESIR

Michael is a freelance Bass Guitar player, who studied at the much lauded

Bedroom School Of Music.
(just means he's self-taught, don't panic!)

He began his professional music career in 1983, playing Bass Guitar with his brother, drummer Mark Mondesir
(John McLaughlin, Jethro Tull,
Glenn Hughes),
forming a trio with guitarist

Hawi Gondwe
(Amy Winehouse/
George Michael).

Since then he has performed with
artists as diverse as;
Jeff Beck, Billy Cobham, Ginger Baker, Eddie Harris, Jack DeJohnette, John McLaughlin, Oumou Sangare, Usher, Whitney Houston, Imogen Heap, Sir George Martin, State of Bengal, Hermeto Pascoal, David Garibaldi, Jan Hammer, Ty, Zoe Rahman, Jim Mullen, Ronnie Wood, John Serry, Andy Summers, Django Bates, Gary Husband, Chante Moore, Lulu, Nitin Sawhney, Lenny White, Chad Smith, Courtney Pine, Jocelyn Brown, Jason Rebello, Brice Wassy, Neneh Cherry, Nikki Yeoh, Bernard Purdie, Iain Ballamy, Bill Bruford, Julian Joseph, Leni Stern, Mory Kante, Keith More, Trilok Gurtu, Aster Aweke, S-Club 7, Talvin Singh and Pee Wee Ellis.

Michael entered the Pop, R&B, Funk and Dance music world, composing tracks on albums by funk trombone legend Fred Wesley and singer/songwriter, Lewis Taylor.

In September 2009, Michael joined the
Thriller Live world tour.
He is currently part of the visiting faculty of various education establishments including the Royal Academy of Music, Rhythmic Conservatory of Copenhagen and British Academy of New Music as well as teaching privately at home
(schedule permitting).

Michael Mondesir uses:
Yamaha Basses, Costalab Pedals and Elixir Strings.