Spider exercises, chops building exercises, left & right hand gymnastics, tablature, finger combination drills, technique builders, rubber band assisted finger exercises and grip strengthening exercises all belong in one place- the TRASH! That’s right- anything you practice that does not include musical content and/or context which isn’t engaging the mind as you practice is useless and will not improve your bass guitar playing skills one iota. Oh, I can already hear some of you saying, “What about all of those warm up exercises that I practice?” Let’s first discuss the problem before I prescribe the solution.
“I cannot teach anybody anything; I can only make them think.” – Socrates
Thinking vs. Self Expression
Contrary to popular belief, there is a huge divide between the dynamics of performance and practice. Practice is a life-long pursuit that will enable long term progress and improvement as a bass guitar player. Performance relates to our “self expression”, which literally means: “Expression of one’s own personality, feelings or ideas, as through speech or art.” With that said, it makes perfect sense to categorize practice as the science and performance as the art behind the curtain of our overall musicianship. As Ghandi so aptly put: “Live life as you were going to die tomorrow, but learn as you were going to live forever.” The way that I interpret this is: “Play with passion as though tonight is going to be your last gig, but practice with focused concentration as though you will never stop learning.”
Now that we are all on the same page- establishing that effective practice involves the act of thinking or engaging the mind, while performance involves a disengagement of thinking in order to express one’s art, it interests me as to why so many music students (this is based on over 30 years of teaching)progress backwards within this succinct equation. Think about it- most people do not like to practice, so they spend an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out ways of practicing that shuts the mind down resulting in a non-thinking approach. Practicing while watching TV is a perfect example of how people do this. Another example is – what the student interprets as – technique building exercises that do not include any musical content or context within the exercises themselves or in some cases are even executed completely away from the bass guitar using gimmicky gizmos and gadgets promising virtuoso technique. So, where they might be getting a modicum of benefit in regard to simple motor movement of the fingers, they are pretty much wasting their precious practice time related to any concrete long term improvement in their bass playing skills. Conversely, by the time these same people end up on the bandstand, they are suddenly forced to adopt a “thinking approach” because they didn’t engage their mind while practicing beforehand in order to learn and internalise the musical content and context effectively and functionally. When placed in this precarious position, they immediately start to sub-vocalise, “What’s that scale over that chord…and oh, what are the chord tones in this position.” Bang, it’s too late; the moment is gone because within a performance context the music moves forward in real-time. Without the skills already established through your practice that is out of time (which involves engaging the mind) you will run into trouble when placed in a scenario that requires you to draw upon those musical skills in order to compliment the music artistically.
Musical Content is the Solution
A much better mouse trap for long term improvement is to allocate your precious practice time to material which includes musical content and context comprising of melody, rhythm and harmony. Find a good teacher who teaches music as their primary source of bass guitar instruction. Learn to read music, ear training, generic chord progressions, improvisation, transcription, flesh out chord tones for all chords in every inversion, all keys, in every position of your fretboard and remember to do so “out-of-time” when you are learning something new so you will be able to correct any mistakes that you are making along the way.
Please remember that the practice room is where you should become a “mistake breaker” not a “mistake maker.”
Warm up exercises did you say? You don’t need them period! If you are practicing material regularly that includes musical content and context, you will not need to become co-dependant on any “warm up” exercises that mysteriously and suddenly enable you to play to your fullest capacity. This is a myth that dominates the bass guitar discussion forums and bass guitar magazines. The goal is to train yourself to be ready to play anytime, anywhere and with anyone; but of course this is based on the supposition of regular practice and practicing material that focuses on musical content as a primary objective.
Let me leave you with one final thought that will help you to capture the essence of what I am saying:
All technical problems that you are experiencing on the bass guitar are easily solved by focusing on exercises that include musical content and context above all else.
Please leave your comments below- I look forward to answering your questions!
Good article which makes a lot of sense & contains a lot of good advice.
I do have a question though – when you use the term “out of time”, is this a case of not using a metronome whilst working on chord tone exercises etc?
It is the case of NOT using a metronome while learning new material.
Joe this makes perfect sense and it is amazing that more people are not aware of this approach. There is a direct coefficient pertaining to what is practiced and what is performed in terms of developing as a musician learning the right material in the right way to gain ability.
You need to spend time learning and concentrating- you wouldn’t learn to drive watch TV.
In computing Garbage in =Garbage Out (Inputting garbage results in outputing garbage on a computer) – unfortunately many players are practicing exercises that are purely Garbage – just physical exercises and have no relation to music- maybe they should join a gym.
You have to know the territory on the neck in a systematic manner- slowly and surely.
I’ve tried Joe’s ideas and seen my playing grow exponentially- the guy knows what he is talking about..David
Musical content and context is the key here along with actively engaging your mind while practicing. Once you hit the bandstand it is all about playing!
There is a Zen concept called Mushin which means “no-mindedness.” Mushin is achieved when a person’s mind is free from thoughts of anger, fear, or ego during performance. There is an absence of rambling thought and judgment, so the person is totally free to act and react to the situation without hesitation and without disturbance from such thoughts. At this point, a person relies not on what they think should be the next move, but what is their trained natural reaction or what is felt intuitively as a result of that training. It is not a state of relaxed, near-sleepfulness, however. The mind could be said to be working at a very high speed, but with no intentions, plans or direction. This is a direct result of practicing combinations of movements and techniques repetitively many thousands of times, until they can be performed spontaneously, without conscious thought, thus changing your natural reactions to be more effective in performance.
In order to be able to achieve a no-mind approach towards your bass playing, you first have to achieve what I call a “know-mind” approach- this is where the mind is actively engaged through thousands of repititions of musical content and context.
Thanks Joe-this makes so much sense. It took me 20 years to find out, but there is no point in practicing without focus (equals ‘listen to oneself without judgement’). And why should I listen and develop focus? Because the key is not to ‘be a bass player’, the key is to ‘make music’.
We all have heard the sentence with “as a bassplayer you should…”. Nobody talks to pianoplayers or violinists that way- but for some reason we started to believe it ourselves (practically every book/resource out there lures us in that limiting ‘bass players’ idea), and we owe it to ourselves to identify ourselves as ‘musicians’ (who happen to hold a bass guitar), instead of ‘bassplayers’. No, I am not the ‘gatekeeper’ -just like ‘melody’, ‘groove’, ‘pocket’ and so on, is a collective concept whose validity depends on each band members’ contribution (including myself, of course).
Thanks again for your great advice, and a cool website -Jochem
Thanks for this article!
Can you elaborate on, “flesh out chord tones for all chords in every inversion, all keys, in every position of your fretboard,” or do you have any pointers on where to go for this?
Sorry for the newbie question – trying to learn!#
It simply means to learn the notes within a given chord. There are numerous chord types in the Western music major/minor tonal system. My advice is to get a teacher who knows and is able to teach you the principles of jazz theory as applied to harmony, rhythm and melody.
Hope that helps.
Perfectly put Joe
All The Best x
this is a very good article and i agree that i myself included spend too much time doing things not in a musical context, but to say you don’t need to just sit there doing chromatic scales for 30 mins day or picking exercises is silly and avoids the hard work on becoming proficient on your instrument, i can attest that 30 mins of picking practice on guitar will make your speed and accuracy for the rest of the day go through the roof, they key is to pay REAL attention to what you are actually practicing, who said music should always be fun? the most fun will be had when you develop the technical ability to express yourself
years ahead..thanks for the direct no-nonsense reality of learning period!
Joe; I’m an old rocker who got away from music and remained so for 35 years. Just starting back for fun with a Fender P-Bass. My old stage axe was a 1969 Fender telecaster; my baby. The chops need work. I agree with your observations – Feel the music as you play. Not just see the notes on the fretboard but feeling the Bass with your heart. I loved playing on tour because of being able to effect people with something you had created. I simply would get lost in the creation of the sound. There’s nothing like it. It moves your soul