Back in the day when I decided that I wanted to become really good at the bass guitar I went about it like this: I found the bass teacher in London with the best reputation and made the time to allow from 4 to 6 hours a day practicing, 6 days a week.
But I made crucial mistakes. Firstly, although the teacher had an excellent reputation (great player, professional teacher, graduate of Berklee, Pino was one of his pupils, yada yada yada), he was the Arch Guru of scales. And arpeggios.
My second mistake was that I was young enough and naïve enough to put implicit trust in his method without checking it out. And though I’d put aside 20 plus hours a week to practice, I effectively wasted it because I was practicing a gazillion scales and arpeggios.
Now scales are important theoretical blocks in our understanding of music, but here’s something that I only, truly learned years later when I examined what I’d learned studying with London’s No 1 bass teacher : the rote practicing of scales will lead only to better facility at playing scales.
It won’t make you a better musician. Or a better bass player. It will just make you good at playing scales. If you don’t believe me go to your nearest music shop (or log on to Amazon or BassBooks.com) and buy a book of transcriptions of a bass player you admire. When you get hold of the book go through it and analyse the bass lines against the chord symbols – if you can find even a SINGLE instance of a scale being played email me and tell me what kind of music you like and I’ll send you a transcription in your favourite genre for free.
Because you won’t find a single example. Because the rote practicing of scales is an example of Random Practice.
So what is Random Practice?
Random Practice is a term I use to describe how the majority bass players out there practice. They read articles in Bass Player magazine, or pick up ideas from the thousands of tuitional bass DVDs , or they get well intentioned (but often short sighted) advice in the forums of TalkBass or BassChat, and they put a practice schedule together like this:
Some scales and arpeggios.
Some Marcus (or Jaco, or Rocco or whoever is flavour of the month) grooves
A bit of 16th note rhythm practice
Working on sight reading.
The latest cool bass technique they’ve read about/seen.
And that’s how a lot of guys actually practice. Hell, I’ve even practiced like this myself. Picked up my bass. Set the metronome ticking, ran a few scales. Tried them in 2 octaves for variations. Thrown on a Marcus playlist and slapped along with some of his grooves. Sight read a bit from the Jamerson book, tried a bit of double thumping a la Victor Wooten. Etc etc.
They all sound like valid exercises? What’s wrong with this?
Well the rote playing of scales and arpeggios to start with. But that’s a rant (and an article) for another day.
The missing ingredient to this kind of practice is the lack of structure. There’s no duration pre-planned for any of the exercises. There’s no attempt at any specific attainment built into the exercise (eg by trying varying metronome settings). By the very nature of this type of practice many minutes will be lost to ‘noodling,’ – when you have a finite amount of time each day to practice even the loss of just 5 minutes can cause massive frustration and resentment.
And the player’s who practice like that are all subscribing to a myth. That myth is this: that merely by playing different things on the bass and vaguely repeating it three or four (or even more) times a week that they’re going to get appreciably better.
The random practice approach to driving
To illustrate what I mean let’s apply the random practice approach to something else, in this case learning how to drive a car.
Imagine if your driving instructor decided to start with a bit of straight forward driving. Then he stops you and decides he’s going to get you to do a three point turn. Just as you’re about finished he whips out his Highway Code and tests you on some speed limits and the meaning of some signs. Next he talks about changing gears and double declutching (manual transmissions only) and on and on.
How quickly do you think you’d make progress practicing to drive in this manner? The truth is that when you learn to drive there is a clear, ordered sequence of steps that you practice to go from a complete novice to qualifying to being able to drive a car on your own on the public highways. Why should learning how to play bass be any different?
Why Random Practice won’t work
There’s two reasons why Random Practice won’t make you a better bass player.
Firstly the lack of any clear and defined goal as to what you are trying to achieve – and the way you are going to achieve that – means that progress is not only impossible to measure, but also meaningless.
Secondly the lack of any structured, measurable approach to improvement means that you are doomed to repeating the same types of exercise over and over without being able to make any kind of progression.
How can we avoid Random Practice?
The way to avoid Random Practice is simple:
1) Set realistic, measurable goals.
2) Construct a practice routine that systematically breaks down these goals into a series of daily activities that will lead you incrementally towards those goals.
3) Practice your routine until your goals are in sight.
4) Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
This is the basis of Deliberate Practice. If you understand the concepts of Deliberate Practice, and make sure you apply them to your bass you are certain to get better. The amount you will get better is directly related to how much time you can put in. If you’re in a position to practice 4 to 6 hours a day like I was don’t waste it by using random practice, make sure you leverage your time with Deliberate Practice.
EDIT 20th May 2010 – I found a scale in a bass line today! I transcribed Long Distance Roundabout by Yes for my Membership Ezine and found a complete descending Bb Major7 scale!!!