At a recent bass camp I co-taught at, a student shared her frustration with me. She had been playing for a while but felt that she was not really making progress. She told me how inspired she was hearing all this amazing playing at the clinic and how she wanted to feel measurable improvement. After a while she said a sentence that I have heard so many times in various variations: “If I just keep playing I will get better somehow, right? I hope I have at least a little bit of talent!”
The hope is prevalent that, if we just keep playing and practicing and keep doing what we are doing, things will somehow get better.
This view is understandable – after all, some of our heroes seemed to skip all schools and “just played” and miraculously ended up being so good. So if we just do more, more, and even more playing, we, too, will eventually get better!
- If we play a lot.
- If we got talent.
- Do we have talent?
This thought process sets you up for unnecessary frustration and disappointment.
It does not work like this: have talent -> play a ton -> get better.
Playing for years does not necessarily guarantee success. I have seen literally hundreds of students who have played for decades lingering on a plateau that enables them to play songs in a band. But they are unsatisfied with their performance and just playing more and more did not make things better, clarify how the bass worked nor improve their technique; nor their reading, music theory, improv nor timing. Not their groove. Nor their fills…
- So if just playing more does not work, then it must mean there is something inherently wrong with them or they tell themselves: “I suck. I don’t have any talent”.
It breaks my heart to encounter glimpses of such heart-wrenching internal dialogues over and over.
Instead, I propose a different way:
I was incredibly lucky to have had the education I had had early on. It focused on the basics – technique, timing, knowing the instrument, theory, reading.
All of these need targeted practice. Not a ton, just regular drills.
It does work like this: wherever you are -> practice short, focused bursts according to a systematic plan -> get better!
A good, solid program does the trick, maybe feedback from an experienced person here and there. A bit of patience.
Knowing modes, scales, arpeggios or what an eighth note is will – by itself – not make you sound any better on the bandstand. You need to know how this all connects. You need to have it under your fingers. As Victor Wooten says, Music is a language, and when learning a new word, it is only yours when you can use it in a sentence. Translated into music, this means, take that scale or interval or whatever it may be and create a groove with it over a chord progression. In all areas of the bass. From any string.
After a bit of this, you will feel at home on the fretboard.
And most importantly – you will know what a note or rhythm will sound like before you play it. That is knowing versus trial and error.
Someone shows you a major scale from the root to the root an octave up somewhere on the bass. You keep playing exactly this until it feels like you got it. You now know one way of playing this scale in one position. Nice, but that’s just the start before things get really interesting.
Now imagine this:
you take that same scale, but now:
- We play it from the lowest to the highest note in every area of the bass (there are six areas and five basic shapes that repeat over and over, it is a neat system).
- We do this with the same fingering each time (yes there are best fingerings for this).
- Then we do it in all keys.
- We change certain notes and watch what happens.
- Let’s improvise with it playing a bar of groove and a bar of fill.
- We break it down in targeted interval studies.
- How about a bit of arpeggiating over changes using this scale?
- Today some technical drills like virtuoso sounding pedaling.
- We use this over a song in ever bar, just to practice it (and the song, too, while we are at it!)
Do just a little bit of that for a few weeks. Not all of it every day. A few minutes with focus every day, according to a well thought out program…
It is beginning to make sense. It is beginning to feel familiar. All of this stuff will now start to come out in your playing when you jam with your buddies. Or when you search for a cool fill for your bass line. Or when someone yells “bass solo”!
I have never not seen this work! You do the exercises -> you get results!
There are a few obstacles that may sometimes (not always!) raise their heads. If you expect them they are easy to nib in the bud. They are:
A good program will keep things varied, applicable, and moving. Music is vast and big and after all we are sleuthing out who we are as musicians, discover our own musical voice by building our tool kit. If you bore yourself as you do that, take responsibility! Adapt the program to your style of music. But don’t skimp on mastering all the basics.
I get it, it is scary. We are afraid to fail, old voices may become awake in our heads and we have doubts. It’s cool. And part of the journey. Also, it’s normal, most of us have judgmental negative voices inside. Keep your eyes on the prize and keep going. If you are very hard on yourself, get a sensible and encouraging teacher who is on your side. Whether you think you can or you think you can’t… Yes. That!
Also beware of negativity coming from the outside. Learn to distinguish between good feedback, which can contain critique, and somebody just trashing what you do.
Here is a simple remedy: instead of looking at your immediate outcome (knowing a song or playing a passage at a certain tempo, for example), focus on the fact that you set out to practice a certain amount of time and you did it. Warrants a pat on the back. Do it. It creates a positive feedback loop!
When it comes to music, every single one of us has their own pace of learning. It depends on our back ground and preferences.
For some, rhythm is easy, but technique is hard.
For others, hearing notes is easy, but theory is a mystery.
And then yet others, reading music is a piece of pie, but improvising seems impossible.
It is all good. Wherever you are in your journey, there you are. First figure out where you are. Then know where you want to go. Get a map and plan a route – no need to get this perfectly right. You will keep adjusting and refining. Be on the path. Don’t lose too much time looking left or right, which means comparing yourself to others or looking for the perfect method rather than getting the most out of your current one. All that matters is that you sense you are moving forward. So give yourself some credit and make it a practice to feel good about being on the path!
Okay, so it will take a bit of practice, time, and dedication. Nothing outrageous, say, 45 minutes five times a week practiced in the way I am talking about here; this will get you consistent progress. If you got more time, go for it, sure. The important bit is to trust the process!
- Imagine this: you plant a seed into the ground and dig it up every few hours to look if it has sprouted yet. What happens? No sprouting and you’ll eventually kill the plant to be.
- Instead: plant it, give it water, sunshine, patience… trust nature and behold the miracle of life.
While you are in the learning process, you might not see the big progress you are making quite yet. Record yourself, make a video. I find it really motivating to look at “before” and “afters” after a few months!
- What if there is a better program out there?
- If I studied Jazz, then I could really impress everyone!
- What is a triple tritone backwards flip? (Surely I need that right now).
- This program over there is on sale, I better grab that before it ends.
- This thing promises to play bebop tonight, I better not miss out.
- This guy over there plays with a flying thumb/does triple flips with a pick/solos with their teeth, I need that right now!
- Or, my “favorite”: Where is that magic sauce that makes it all easy? It’s gotta be out there somewhere!
This sort of thinking can keep you trapped a lifetime. Stop. Break out of it. Decide on a program or regimen, stick to it for three or four months, then evaluate. (Yes, I offer programs, but that is not what this post is about.) In those four months, give whatever method you decide on YOUR ALL. Then evaluate and tweak.
And yes, the magic sauce you are looking for exists:
- it is called practicing.
- Short frequent bursts.
- => Results!
Myths to bust:
- “Just playing” will make you better with time.
- If you don’t get better by “just playing more” this means you don’t have talent.
- Talent is overrated. Consistency and short focused practice sessions are underrated. Change your routine and win.
- Quantity of practice is overrated, quality is underrated. Change how you practice and succeed.
Wish you a great bass adventure!