Here’s the background for this article: one of the subscribers to my weekly magazine First Bass And Beyond posted this in the private Facebook group that I set up for subscribers:
“Paul, another question about Deliberate Practice. If on any given day you have only five minutes to practice, how would you use those five minutes? For example, if I am doing the 16th note course, it takes at least five minutes to set myself up, review where I left off, and then get warmed up.
Obviously five minutes is not enough time for a real practice session, but instead of noodling for five minutes, how would you approach it? Perhaps it is better just to practice 16th note counting away from the bass, or just take the most recent practice material and work on it without a metronome or a recording device. Right now I am on holidays and can take time to practice, but once I return to work, time during the week is very limited.
Now thinking about this question led to some interesting ideas – and as you’ve probably guessed from the title of the article I’ll be suggesting 20 ways you can practice in 5-minute increments.
Before we look at these 20 different ways, I want to talk about three topics first: accumulation of practice hours; bass playing goals; and ‘domain knowledge.’
Accumulation Of Practice Hours
For those of you who’ve read anything about deliberate practice you know that one of the most important things that you need to do to make progress is to get practice hours in.
Now if you’re anything like me (or the majority of my subscribers) you’ve got a busy life with work and family and friends. So putting in hours and hours of practice in your practice area isn’t always straightforward.
However – as you’ll see shortly – there ARE ways that you can sneak in small units of practice time into your busy life. And even better, you can do this even if you don’t have your bass guitar to hand!
Let’s say for sake of argument that you can find ways using the ideas we’re going to talk about in detail in this article to add just 30 minutes of ‘practice’ a day, 5 days a week.
That’s an extra two and a half hours of practice time per week. Over the course of a year that totals up to an extra 125 hours of practice! I think any semi-serious bass player who could grab that kind of practice chunk without impacting on any other areas of his life would grab that opportunity with both hands!
So an important idea to realize here is that small gains made consistently WILL compound and produce results over time.
However it’s important to realize that all practicing that you do should directly relate to your bass playing goals. Also, it’s just as important to realize that you’re not bound to practicing in some of the ways I’ll suggest for just five minuets, how much of this practice you do will depend on the pockets of ‘dead time’ you can find in your daily life.
Bass Playing Goals (And Practicing)
This is one of the most common mistakes I encounter when I’m teaching students.
I ask the student to tell me what he wants to achieve on the bass. And then I ask the student what their regular practice schedule looks like.
And often there is little correlation between the two.
So before you add any item of study to your practice regime you must be 100% sure that it will contribute towards your stated bass playing goals.
If you’re interested in practicing and more effective practicing, then a book that should definitely be on your reading list is “Talent Is Overrated” by Geoff Colvin. And I got this concept of Domain Knowledge from there.
In a nutshell, Colvin points out that one of the things that separate virtuosos from journeymen is the amount of domain knowledge they have. So in one of Colvin’s examples – that of chess grandmasters – for every potential move to make in a game, a grandmaster might have 100 different options based on their knowledge of prior games.
Whereas a journeyman’s options will be much less due to not having put in as many hours of study.
This translates to the ‘domain’ of the bass guitar. If you ever read interviews with the greats and look for this, you’ll find that they have a wide appreciation of the instrument. They’ll know (for example) what tracks their favourite bassists have played on. Or they’ll know that specific players played with a pick. Or that specific bassists sight read all their parts. Or that a specific bass line was created in the studio from chord symbols. And so on.
Acquiring domain knowledge is something that I’ll talk about in more depth at a later date – but it’s relevant because it’s something that I’ve included in these 5-minute routines.
How To Include The 5-Minute Routines In your Daily Life
Preparation is the key to including these 5 Minute Routines into your daily life.
Some of them require specific preparation – e.g. creating MP3 files to put on your iPod or MP3 player of choice. Some of these routines require an MP3 player to play files that you’ve created. Some of these routines require music paper to write on, or flash cards.
The point is that you should choose practice routines that contribute towards your overall practice goals AND that you have things to hand to implement these routines when appropriate time crops up.
Additionally it helps if you have material stacked away in your backpack or tablet case or whatever you carry around with you on a daily basis. That way if time unexpectedly presents itself – you can use that time productively.
One final caveat before we look at the twenty 5 Minute Routines: none of these routines should take the place of time with bass in hand. They are supplemental exercises that you can do at times when you CAN’T have your bass in hand – e.g. when commuting to work on a bus or train, or in a car; when waiting for an appointment and so on.
I’ve split the 5 Minute Routines into 6 different topic areas – so let’s get started with our first topic area:
5-Minute Ear Training Etudes
Everyone knows the importance of training their ears, right? Well this is an area that lends itself well to being done away from the bass.
There are Apps that you can get for your smartphone – or you can prepare MP3 files using Band In A Box, Garageband, Cubase or similar software. There are four primary areas that I would suggest:
5 Minute Routine #1 – Intervals
Hearing intervals is where musicians usually start with ear training. If your ‘dead time’ occurs in a vehicle where you’re on your own, you can create tracks to play in the car that you can sing along to – if you can’t sing an interval you’re unlikely to be able to hear it!
For situations where you won’t be able to sing out loud, you can identify what intervals are being sounded. Check out smartphone apps for this.
5 Minute Routine #2 – Chord Qualities
Being able to tell the quality of a given chord being played is another important skill. At it’s most basic this routine is tell major from minor from dominant chords. But it can be extended with more chords – e.g. minor7b5, sus chords, 6th chords and so on.
5 Minute Routine #3 – Hearing Chord Progressions
There are a number of ‘common chord progressions’ that are used in pop, rock, soul, r&b, country, blues and more. Being able to hear a chord progression and identify it is another important ear training skill that’s easy to work on with some backing tracks, a portable MP3 device and a pair of headphones. You’ll have to program some tracks in your DAW software for this…but once they’re programmed you can use them ad infinitum.
An advanced variation of this is when your hearing of chord progressions (and chord qualities) is sufficiently advanced is to cue up random songs on your MP3 player and work out the chord progressions in roman numeral terms (e.g. I-IV-V) by listening to the song. (And don’t forget to check your work when you get back to your practice space and have a bass to hand!)
5 Minute Routine #4 – Identifying Notes By Function
Hearing a note sound against a chord and knowing whether it’s a root note, or a third (major or minor) or a fifth is another skill you can work on. Again this will require track preparation – but again, once the tracks are prepared they can be on your MP3 player for as long as you need them.
Being able to identify notes by their function – especially the principle chord tones – is great for transcribing because you can listen to a bar and say to yourself: OK, that starts on the root note, hits the 5th on beat 2 and goes to the 3rd on beat 4 before hitting the next chord – and then you can isolate the different sections of the bar and work out any notes BETWEEN the principle chord tones being used.
5-Minute Dexterity Routines
Finger fitness, strength and independence can all contribute to your overall playing.
5 Minute Routine #5 – Gripmaster
The Gripmaster is a device sold at sports shops for climbers – but you can find it on Amazon too. And it’s pretty cheap. You can use this for working on fretting hand independence – set the resistance low and go through the 24 different finger permutations of 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th fingers.
E.g. press with 1st finger, then 2nd, then 3rd then 4th. New Set. 1st finger, 2nd finger, 4th finger, 3rd finger. New set. 1st finger, 3rd finger, 2nd finger, 4th finger. And so on.
5 Minute Routine #6 – Work On The Recovery Muscles
There’s an old Billy Sheehan VHS (with Wolf Marshall) that you can find on YouTube if you search for it, it’s worth watching for the short clip where Billy talks about how he worked on the recovery muscles of his fingers by putting elastic bands on his hands and stretching.
Simple exercise. It worked for Billy….
5 Minute Routine #7 – Magic Exercises And Finger Extension Exercises
Depending on how you feel about your finger strength, co-ordination and independence there’s a whole raft of finger exercises that magicians use that you can lift to work on your finger fitness. Either Google ‘Finger Fitness’ or go down to your local Magic Circle and speak to any close up hand magicians.
5-Minute Routine #8 – Plucking Hand Exercises
I’ve got a unit – had it for several years, but no idea what it’s called! – that I sometimes use to work on plucking hand when I’ve not got my bass to hand.
Here’s a picture I found of several of these units:
You can then work on your plucking technique by either playing continuous streams of notes (for stamina), specific rhythmic patterns, ‘sprint’ exercises (for speed), or whatever needs working on.
5-Minute Sight Reading Routines
I’m a huge believer that every bass player should be able to read music – that includes treble clef as well as bass clef! I once read an interview with Marcus Miller where he said something along the lines of: “If you spend three or four weeks nailing it, you’ll have that skill for life.”
Sight Reading isn’t rocket science – it just requires a bit of learning and practice (like anything). You can do some of that practice away from your instrument.
5 Minute Routine #9 – Flashcards Or Sight Reading App
There are sight reading apps available for smartphones or tablets. Or you can buy commercial flashcards. Or you can make your own. Things that you can test include note recognition, key signature recognition, note durations, the two notes making up a double stop and so on.
One of the advantages of making your own sets of flashcards is you can prioritize areas that you’re weak at: so identifying notes using ledger lines could be one example.
Remember – once you’ve learned to read you’ll KNOW how to read forever. And if you’re a Working Joe it will give you a competitive advantage over the large number of bass players who DON’T read.
5 Minute Routine #10 – Tapping Out Rhythms
This is a great exercise not just for recognizing rhythms from a sight reading perspective, but for internalizing rhythms too. To do this you’ll need your MP3 player, a track with a drum beat that has the consistent rhythmic pulse that you’re working on (say 8th notes or 16th notes), and either specific rhythms to tap out in turn. Or multiple sheets of random rhythms of the rhythmic pulse you are working on.
THIS IS ONE OF THE MOST EFFECTIVE ‘5 MINUTE ETUDES’ OF ALL THE ONES LISTED!
5 Minute Routine #11- Create Your Own Sight Reading Etudes
One of the difficult things about learning to read and constantly testing yourself is that you need lots of practice etudes that you’ve never seen before. Currently there aren’t really any collections of these kinds of etudes available commercially (though I’m working on remedying that!). So you may need to create your own.
The simplest way is to take any kind of commercial song book and create blank chord sheets using some kind of software. (The reason for using the software if you have it is so you can change the key at the touch of a button and print out your chord chart in the new key).
Then simply use the chord chart to create a sight reading etude using the kind of rhythms and the range of notes that you are currently familiar with. The completed etude can go into your ‘black book of sight reading material.’
This exercise also has beneficial side effects in that it forces you to think about creating bass lines and how to put lines together and it’s a kind of deliberate composition so it helps train the brain in thinking in this manner.
ANOTHER HIGHLY RECOMMENDED EXERCISE!
5 Minute Listening Routines
There are also ‘routines’ that you can do that just involve listening to tracks on your MP3 player that can feed into your practice hours and/or your acquisition of domain knowledge:
5 Minute Routine #12 – Listening To Inspirational Tracks
It’s a natural tendency to get jaded with practice at times. One of the ways to overcome this is to take a break for a day. Another way is to feed yourself a source of inspirational tracks from a bass perspective on a constant basis.
Set up playlists on your MP3 player that support this idea. These playlists could feature bass lines for a specific player, or a specific genre. You know what floats your boat….make a playlist that floats it and restores enthusiasm when needed or just lifts your spirits and has the effect of making you want to get back to your practice area and do your bass thang!
5 Minute Routine #13 – Listening To Tracks For Transcribing (Or Sections Of Tracks That You’re Transcribing)
If you’re transcribing a bass line from a song at the moment – or planning to transcribe a song – one way to speed up the process is to have that song on repeat on your MP3 player and start familiarizing yourself with the nuances of the bass performance.
One of the things you can do the app Anytune – which incidentally is my second favourite piece of software for bass players! – is to export an MP3 file of just a small section of a tune. So if there’s a really tough section you’re working on, you can export that and listen to it over and over.
Plus you can also slow that section down before you export it so you can really dig into it. AND you could also transpose it an octave and apply the bass frequency isolation preset before you export it so that you can really get to grips with it. This routine speeds up transcribing stuff exponentially. This is really effective for learning complex riffs too!
Another thing you could do if you’re in an environment where you can write things down but don’t have a pitch reference to hand is to go through a tune and pencil the rhythms of the bass line. That way when you have your bass in hand and are transcribing, you only have to fill in the pitches to complete the transcription.
5 Minute Routine #14 – Learning Songs Using Visualization
Here’s another routine that helps working and gigging bass players particularly.
Let’s say you’re learning five new songs for a gig at the weekend….if you get those five songs onto your MP3 player then you can listen to them in your time away from your bass and as you’re listening you can visualize where you would be playing in sync with the track.
I won’t go into the science behind visualization – you can google that for yourselves if you are interested – but Olympic class gymnasts use it to ‘practice’ complex and potentially risky routines prior to actually testing them out in real life! If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me.
One other variation you can do on this is to export your MP3s at a faster tempo – especially if you know the song well – so that you can visualize more songs in a given period of time.
5 Minute ‘Creative’ Etudes
I wasn’t sure exactly what to call the next three etudes. So I settled with creative etudes…..the first two are exercises that you CAN’T do with your bass in hand anyway…so they should be part of your regular routines. The third one is something that you can do with your bass in hand….but once you’ve done it a number of times it’s a great mental creative exercise to do AWAY from your bass (and is similar to Etude #11.)
5 Minute Routine #15 – Analyzing Bass Lines
Analyzing Bass Lines of transcriptions (that either you’ve done or you’ve purchased) is an essential activity for bass players looking to push on.
Analyzing Bass Lines will allow you to see how different players approach creating bass lines, how they approach connecting chords, what kind of rhythms they use, and much much more.
High class bass lines contain a mountain of information you can take to your practice area – but first you have to manually go through the transcription and work out how each part of the line relates to the harmony and so on.
This manual work is best done AWAY from the bass – all you need is a transcription with chords and some different coloured pens (to mark different devices and connectors). ANOTHER GREAT AND HIGHLY RECOMMENDED EXERCISE
5 Minute Routine #16 – Creating Practice Exercises/Practice Schedules
Another way to fill down time is to use it to create practice exercises. Some practice exercises don’t need to be written down in great detail on notation paper – but some do. Prepping to practice isn’t the same as practice and shouldn’t be counted as practice – so finding ‘time’ to do that prepwork that doesn’t affect your practice time ensures that you actually practice with bass in hand for the length of time that you plan to.
You can go beyond this as well, and use your down time to plan your next day or next week’s practice schedule.
5 Minute Routine #17 – Deliberate Compositions
Deliberate composition is an essential part of the process of improving as a bass player. I can’t sum up all the benefits here – I had to write a 120 page eBook for that!
But deliberate composition can be done with note paper and bass to hand – OR once you’ve done it a bunch of times, it can be done with just note paper to hand. So it’s another exercise that can be done in those sections of down time that we all have in our regular days.
5-Minute Reading And Domain Acquisition Etudes
The final three 5-Minute Etudes come back to acquisition of domain knowledge. One of the differences between a master and a journeyman – in any discipline – is the difference in domain knowledge that the master possesses. Acquiring greater domain knowledge also reinforces the commitment you have to your instrument.
5-Minute Routine #18 – Reading Interviews with Bass Players
The best resource for this is probably Bass Player Magazine. Some of the older issues from the early 90s have some great interviews. And sometimes reading an interview can change your perception on something, or help you come up with a new and innovative practice idea, or find a new playing device or technique.
I talked earlier about being prepared – I carry a backpack around with me. And there’s a pouch in the pack that’s actually designed for carrying a laptop – but it also makes an ideal place to keep a couple of tutorial books and some magazines. So if I’m waiting anywhere for anything I’ve got something to hand to read. (Imagine you are waiting at the Doctors or the Dentist – would you rather read the magazines in the waiting room there, or some bass stuff???_
Talking of tutorial books….
5-Minute Routine #19 – Reading Tutorial Books (And Other Books)
When I first started playing the bass there weren’t many tutorial books around….whereas now there are a veritable mountain. I have a library of them – and often I have a read through books to see what the author was teaching and why (and how). It can lead to practicing new things, or seeing existing things in a different way (which almost amounts to it being a new thing).
There are also other books out there that are worth reading – e.g. the Jaco autobiography, walking bass player George Duvivier’s Bassically Speaking, Kenny Werner’s Effortless Mastery, Victor’s The Music Lesson, Standing In The Shadows Of Motown (the autobiographical part). And so on.
5-Minute Routine #20 – Watching Videos/DVDs
If you’ve got a tablet (or you could do this on a smartphone), then you can also rip your tuitional DVDs or Videos to MP4 files and watch them on the go. There’s a slew of VHSs that were produced in the late 80s/early 90s that have never been transferred to MP4 – you’ll find some nuggets of bass-goodness amongst some of them!
Or you can buy concert DVDs that you could watch – e.g. among my favourites in this category are John Mayer’s Where The Light Is, Mike Portnoy’s Amazing Journey (music of The Who with Billy Sheehan on bass and Paul Gilbert on guitar!) and Chic At The Budokan (though that one is especially poignant as the late, great Bernard Edwards passed on just a few hours after that concert).
Anything that increases your domain knowledge or gives you ideas for practicing or gives you inspiration is worth watching.
Now It’s Your Turn To Try Out Some Of These Ideas
Everyone’s daily and weekly schedules are different – only you know what kind of down time you have in your life.
But my challenge to you is to pick one or two of these ideas and try them out for a couple of weeks (or longer if possible) and see how they impact your bass playing and practicing in general!
Remember though that it’s vital that all practice activities – whether with bass in hand, or in your down time – MUST contribute to the realization of your currently held long term and short term bass goals. If you don’t have a set of bass goals written down, that could be the first thing that you work out!
Enjoy, and if you have any other ideas please post them in the comments.