In the 1994 movie ‘Forrest Gump’ there’s a scene where Forrest is running and steps in dog crap. Someone asks him if he knows that he’s stepped in dog crap and Forrest replies: ‘It happens.’ The guy says: ‘What, shit’ and the movie makers cleverly cross cut to a truck with a bumper sticker that says ‘Shit Happens’ that’s just about to get blindsided at an intersection by another vehicle.
If you’re anything like me then you’ve got a library of bass guitar material at home – books, DVDs, old VHS tapes, bass magazines. And there’s bass guitar information available in digital format too – YouTube lessons, bass podcasts, PDFs, eBooks, not to mention the tens of thousands of bass tabs that are available on the Internet.
And if you’re anything like me you’ve barely scratched the surface of this information. Some of my DVDs are still in their cellophane shrink wrapping, some of the books I’ve maybe glanced at once or twice and that’s it.
But it wasn’t always like this.
How It Used To Be
What do you do every night before you go to bed? And every day when you wake up. Some of us even do it in the middle of the day too. And I even do it on nights when I’ve had a Guiness or two with my friends, or been out on a gig and got in at 4 in the morning and I’m so tired that my vision starts to blur.
We clean our teeth.
Why do we clean our teeth so regularly?
We clean our teeth twice a day, or three times a day, because it’s a habit. It’s something our parents forced us to do when we were young. Before we went to bed: ‘Go and clean your teeth.’ In the morning when we woke up: ‘Go and clean your teeth.’
And we’ve done it so regularly that it’s become a habit.
Cleaning teeth? Playing da bass? What’s the connection?
Imagine you get a chance to see your favourite tennis player train.
And one player is on the court. But your favourite refuses to go on court.
His reason?: I had to file a VAT return for my accountant and I don’t feel like training.’
You’d feel cheated right? Because these are professional athletes. Training is part of what they get paid vast amounts of money for. It’s part of their job. In reality they’d only get out of training if they were injured. Or ill
What’s this got to do with learning to play the bass?
Mozart was a musical genius right? Most of us know this to be true. He started composing symphonies at the age of 5. Take a second and think about that. Not simple melodies with accompaniment. But full blown orchestral symphonies.
And bassist Victor Wooten is a similar story. His eldest brother started teaching him the bass when he was 3 so that he could hold down that role in the family band. By the time he was 5 he was playing professionally in nightclubs with the family band..
The common feeling is that these guys were blessed with talent when they were born. And it was sure to come out.
Most people like to believe in the ‘born talented’ concept because it gives them an excuse to fail
You can hear an echo of this feeling when bass players talk about other bass players: Wow, that Victor Wooten is so talented. I wish I was as talented as him. Or: I love Geddy Lee’s playing, that guy rocks. I wish I could play like him.
And what they leave unsaid is this unspoken belief: [Read more…]
I wrote in a previous article that when we’re practicing it’s important to focus on the practice and not get distracted by ‘noodling’ on our basses. And in that article I concluded that only focused, disciplined practice would make us better players.
Remember the adage: “Perfect practice makes perfect?” Not perfect noodling. Perfect practice.
Well, I didn’t tell you the whole story
I wanted to focus attention on the fact that practice can be hard. And needs to be deliberate.
You need to know what you’re going to practice before you even unsnap the catches on your bass case.
And then you need to go through the exercises that you’ve decided to practice, time them and tick them off.
And noodling gets in the way of that, right? It’s a distraction, and doesn’t have any beneficial effect on your instrumental skills
That’s all true, there’s no arguments from me. Noodling on your instrument will not make you a better player. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not next week. Not ever. Period.
Every day that I practice on the instrument we all love, I noodle. And not only that, noodling is a pre ordained part of my practice schedule.
If noodling has no benefit, then why do you do it?
It’s true there’s no benefit to a spot of noodling. But you can deliberately use in as part of your regular practice routine, and not only that but you can use it to make your practice routine work more efficiently.
Now you’re confused right? First I said: ‘Don’t noodle, it’s not productive.’ Now I’m saying: ‘But actually, you can use noodles efficiently.’ So which is it?
First you have to understand what noodling really is. It’s when your brain has got no direction. You’re sat with your instrument, and you know you should be practicing but your brain doesn’t know what to practice, and so it instructs your fingers to play something.
In short, it instructs your fingers to noodle.
So that your hands are doing something whilst your brain is thinking about what comes next.
So here’s my real definition of noodling: it’s something your fingers do whilst awaiting more concrete instructions from your brain.
And knowing what noodling is, now we can slot it into our practice schedule
Practicing can be mentally tiring. Intense, focused concentration on a timed series of exercises can be hard work on the brain.
And that’s where noodling comes in.
So the first part of my practice routine goes something like this:
Exercise 1: Sing and play ascending minor 7ths from random root notes – 10 minutes.
Exercise 2: Sing and play ascending major 7ths from random root notes – 10 minutes
Exercise 3: Sing and play descending minor 7ths from random root notes – 10 minutes
And it goes like that for another 60 minutes. There’s a lot of concentration and focus involved. And at the end of an exercise I cross it through so I know it’s done, reset my digital timer and then – right before I start the next exercise – I’ll noodle.
For 10 seconds.
And then I’m ready to carry on. So I set the timer going, and carry on with the next exercise.
So noodling is a way for my brain to relax for a short period of time in preparation for another period of intense concentration.
And that’s how noodling can make your practice more efficient – it breaks up dense periods of focused activity and gives the brain a chance to draw breath and then buckle down to the next exercise.
Since I started deliberately doing this I’ve found sitting down to practice far less daunting.
So whilst I wholeheartedly recommend that when you’re practicing you focus 100 per cent on practicing, there’s a short space between exercises where I now make it mandatory to throw in a noodle or too!
You’ve heard the phrase: ‘Practice makes perfect’ a million times.
And it’s variation: ‘Perfect Practice Makes Perfect.’
I bet you’ve never heard this variation: ‘Noodling makes perfect.”
What is noodling?
Noodling is when your fingers fire off a phrase on your bass. There’s no conscious thought behind it.
You just play something. Often a figure or a phrase that your fingers are comfortable playing.
Or a slap lick. Or something.
Why is noodling bad?
There’s a really good reason why people who want to lose weight achieve their goal if they go to a group meeting, like WeightWatchers. And their success is not to do with this being a shared experience – most people are strangers at the start of the Weight Watchers experience.
But what the WeightWatchers Group Meeting has in spades is a factor of accountability. And when you want to get something done if you feel that you’re accountable to an individual, or a group of people, it can really help motivate you on those days when you just don’t want to do anything.
And this works for Weight Watchers. It can also be applied to learning the bass guitar. Before we look at how we can apply it to the bass, let’s examine exactly what this factor of accountability is, and how it works.
What Is This Factor Of Accountability?
OK you’re at a gig, the rhythm section is kicking, the guitarist and vocalist are wailing, the mosh pit if full, sweat is dripping from the ceiling. Suddenly there’s this ear splitting wail that derails the music.
What do you do?
For this article I don’t really care. There’s two types of feedback. One we can cut out. The other is a vital ingredient in our continued search to get better.
It doesn’t matter what ability level you’re at on the bass, constant and regular feedback is something that helps keep us getting better and without which we’ll quickly find that we stop improving because feedback is required to keep us practicing in the Learning Zone and stop us playing it safe in the Comfort Zone.
Getting Feedback From A Teacher or Mentor
So there are fast and/or complex tunes that we ALL want to learn to play. If you’re into rock it might be YYZ by Rush. If you’re into Jamerson it might be For Once In My Life. Or maybe it’s What Is Hip by Rocco. Or Classical Thump by Victor Wooten. Or it could be any one of a hundred tunes.
And here’s what most guys do. They find a transcription of the tune, or a tab of it, and they’ll put some parts of the tune together. But then they’ll make a fatal mistake, they’ll start trying the play the bits of the tune they know at the song’s tempo, or close to it.
Why Is This A Fatal Mistake?
The reason that trying to play the different parts of the tune too fast too soon is a fatal mistake is this: it doesn’t take advantage of how the brain learns best. And because you’re not taking advantage of how the brain learns best, the brain hasn’t actually learned how to play the tune yet.
And that’s why when most people try to do this they make lots of mistakes, their fingers trip over each other and they either give up in frustration wishing they had the ‘talent’ to play that song, or they have to find another way of learning the tune – a way that takes advantage of how the brain learns best.
So How Does The Brain Learn Best?
When we want to learn something new – whether it’s computer programming, or speaking a language, or ski-ing – the central processor part of the brain has to send messages to other parts of the brain telling them what to do, whether that’s mental or physical.
And the brain sends these messages by electrical pulses that are transmitted via neurons. But here’s the thing, the more the brain repeats the same – or very similar – message the easier it becomes. So that you can learn to just do things.
If you think of any activity or skill you’ve learned, it’s always awkward to start with. But as you get repeated practice you become more ‘natural’ at it. Until you acquire competence.
And this is how the brain learns.
How Can We Apply This To Learning A Fast And/Or Complex Tune On The Bass?
The first thing you’ve got to do is to slow down. You’ve got to play through your complex piece of music slowly enough so that you can be sure you’re playing it perfectly.
And then you need to repeat it. Over and over so that your brain truly learns how to play it. And when you can play this complex piece of music flawlessly at a slow tempo – that’s when you can start increasing the tempo that you’re playing the tune at. But you still need to ensure that you’re playing the tune flawlessly.
That Kind Of Makes Sense – But What’s The Deal With All The Repetition?
The repetition is what makes this work. If you can remember back when you learned to drive your first lessons were probably quite stressful – because there’s a ton of things you have to do (look in the mirror, manoeuvre the car, change gear, apply different levels of pressure to the clutch, brake and accelerator pedal, look in the mirror again, ooops STEER the car, etc etc).
But if you drive now you’ve done it so much that the hundreds of tasks you have to do in just driving a few hundred yards have all sunk into the subsconscious and you can do it without really thinking about it. And that’s the power of repetition in action.
And it works with ANYTHING. If you repeat it often enough slowly your brain WILL get it, and you’ll ‘know’ the piece of music. That’s when you can start putting the tempo up. And working the tune towards what they call in classical music circles ‘the performance tempo.’
The Mistake Most Bass Players Make When They Try And Learn Using This Technique
Now I’ve personally taught this technique a bunch of times to my bass students. And despite what I tell them, and how often I mention this, and how specific I get about it, nearly every one of them makes this mistake.
Their ‘slow’ tempo that they start learning the tune at is too fast. And usually it’s waayyyy too fast. By 30 or 40 BPM on the metronome. And when I ask them what tempo they’re trying this technique out on – and then tell them to drop it 30 BPM they react as if I’m crazy.
And I tell them: trust me. Take the tempo down. Do the work. And sooner than you think you’ll be playing the tune. And there’s a reason why you have to start out really slow: you’ve got to be able to consciously control your fingers so that you’re playing the piece flawlessly.
Because if you learn a song ‘badly. (ie with mistakes in it), all that repetition will do is engrain those mistakes. And you’ll find that as you get near to performance tempo you start to struggle – because those mistakes are still there and are now ‘coming out’ to hinder your playing.
So if you want to learn a fast and/or complex bass line here’s what you have to do:
1) Take the tempo waaaayyyy down. Slow enough that you can exert conscious control over your fingers as you play through the different parts of the tune.
2) Play through the tune a bunch of times. Strive to play it flawlessly.
3) When you can play it flawlessly – but slowly – think about upping the tempo on your metronome or drum machine a notch or two.
4) I always make sure I’ve played a tune flawlessly at least 5 times before I up the tempo.
5) Start working towards performance tempo.
And yes, this process takes time. But it GUARANTEES that if you put the work in, that in time you’ll be able to play a tune that you may have thought was beyond your ability level. And in doing so your ACTUAL ability level will go up a notch or two too. So it’s a win-win scenario. [Read more…]