Practice in perspective

Yeah, practice is essential for musicians or for anyone trying to get better at anything. A writer on language once told me that unless you are serious enough to spend half an hour a day on something – you aren’t going to progress. My own experience with practice has been more up and down.

Those people who are so passionate and curious and driven about what they do practise a lot. That makes the difference more than any gift or talent in my opinion – though natural talents and aptitudes do play a part. It’s convenient for us to label people as a geniuses and allows us to take the easy option rather than pursuing our own paths.

Right now I’ve played bass for 26 years and that adds up to a lot of practice. For 20 or so of those years I was never satisfied with my own playing but now I tend to sit back, relax and enjoy the music more and let it flow. I’m also technically at a better level than ever.

I never wanted to be a shredder though. I always hated those widdly, widdly music-as-athletics bass solos that said ‘Look at me; I have chops; I spent years practising this and now I have a solo I’m going to show the world!’ I always wanted to be the Miles Davis of bass soloing (if only!) – to focus on melodies, emotions and music rather than my solos being formed by the physicality of the instrument and finger patterns and practised licks.

Being a father, husband, full-time teacher/manager and musician I have to make the best use of limited practice time nowadays – I even though of taking a bass to work for lunch breaks but I usually make do with a beat-up acoustic guitar. While you’re young and free you should take your practice opportunities and live the bass – but not to extremes – and not 24 hours a day.

When I was learning to skate a guy advised me to wear my skates all day and every day around the house and then they’d feel natural and I’d learn quickly – I took this to heart – though the missus drew the line at skating around the house and I did get better. For musos new to bass, the all day every day approach is a good one for a while.

Then you have to get practice into perspective. If all you do is practice there are two dangers:

  • You become a shredder – aaaaarrrrrrggghhh!
  • You practice the wrong things and then don’t listen in group situations
  • You have nothing to say in your music so it just becomes physical movement rather than art
  • Of course practising the right things helps and I’ll return to that later. It is important to remember that musicians are both artists and craftspeople . If you just develop the craft, your work lacks the aesthetic, artistic, emotional sense and becomes a work of craft – it does a job but it lacks soul.

    This is why I believe practise is less important than living a varied life; listening and emotionally responding to a range of music and art; books; having relationships; gigging; developing your spirituality and living a healthy life. Yes, practice is important but you need to have something to say musically beyond licks and tricks.

    Playing music is about listening, responding and creating. Do your practice sessions incorporate those three elements? Do you focus too much on the notes or do you spend as much time on groove, listening, phrasing, articulation etc.? Do you focus on other players of your instrument or do you study the greats on other instruments?

    Whatever instrument you play I would recommend studying Dave Liebman who has a lot to say about music and says it so well. You should discover other greats of music education too whether it’s book writers like Mark Levine and John Goldsby or great teachers you can study with.

    Nowadays I try to play bass every day. Some days it’s 5 minutes, some days it’s 3 hours. When I have a 4 hour gig I occasionally feel the need to put the bass away for a few days and I have stopped playing for a week or so and come back refreshed. Keep practice in perspective. You’ll learn way more at a gig or in an art gallery or at a movie but practice is still vital. You want to have the technique to play all those great sounds you hear in your head!

    Ideas for practice:

    • Incorporate creativity and improvisation into your practising by generating exercises to apply a concept
    • Practise in context – especially in terms of rhythm
    • Vary what you practise
    • Keep a log
    • Listen to anything you are learning/transcribing a bunch times before you play it
    • Sing it before you play it
    • Focus on the sounds of scales/arpeggios/substutions/clusters so that they get stuck in your head as a usable sound for when you improvise
    • Get deep into everything – a friend of mine spent a whole year studying ii V Is – get deep down into it and study, experiment and listen
    • Transcription is good – don’t overwhelm yourself, start with small parts
    • Read what Dave Liebman has to say on transcription
    • Take some lessons
    • Play/study some great tunes
    • And most importantly challenge yourself!

    2 thoughts on “Practice in perspective

    1. Really interesting stuff, Phil.
      I think it’s important to remember that all playing is practice. Gigging, composing, playing with mates just for fun, recording, experimenting with new ideas are all just as useful as more formal practice. I actually found that the period of time when my playing progressed most was when I was too busy doing other playing to “practice” at all.
      Strangely, I have found over the years my playing improves just as much when I spend lots of time playing music that I find easy as when I struggle with more difficult stuff. But perhaps that’s just me.
      I’ve never really tried transcription as practice. Maybe I should give it a go. I can see how it could be helpful, but I fear it could be a bit too much like hard work!

    2. A fine article on an often over-looked subject.

      There many ways & purpose to practicing.

      Mechanics: Often involving repetitive ‘motor learning.’ This would include Scales/Chords/Arpeggios & the like. Gaining some control over your instrument.

      Content: Listening: Focused “Active’ Listening, Transcribing (The ‘Magic Wand’ of practicing), Composing, Improvising.

      Interaction: The co-existing musically with external stimuli: Other musicians, your environment.

      People tend to play whatever they practice: Practice notey runs, that’s what you’ll get–practice poignant melodic construction or ensemble interaction…

      Much the same way that speech patterns can inadvertently make their way (even if temporarily) into our own daily language–our ‘internal dialog’ of what music sounds like, in large part, can dictate what we play. This my be more true of beginning and advanced students and to a lesser degree the intermediate one.

      Fascinating topic.

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