How to Practice

This pie chart often crops on social media, and while it is amusing, its also quite an accurate reflection of how many of us practice, or rather, mis-practice.

For many of us, our practice time, should really be called, ‘playing time’, as we tend to spend it playing music, rather than trying to improve our playing. There is of course nothing wrong with playing for enjoyment, and after all, that is the whole point of learning an instrument. The trick is make sure that our practice actually helps to improve our playing, and makes a better player.

The only change I would make to the this chart, is that I consider scales to be part of ‘actually practicing’, but if we combine those two segments, then that it’s still a very small percentage of the total in this example.

Before even thinking about what we do when we are practicing, it’s important to consider the practice environment. Ideally, this should be somewhere where we can be free from distractions. Do you really need to check your phone while your are practicing? Do you really need another snack break? Why are you staring at the wall?

Like most things, the key to effective practice is planning. Practicing needs to accomplish several things. It needs to keep us in shape both physically and musically. We need top make sure that things that we have learnt before are still learned. We need to learn new things as well, which might be a new piece of technique, or a new piece of music. I like to split my practice into actions like this;

  • Warm Up
  • Scale / Arpeggios
  • Technique
  • Song/Tune

Warm Up

It is very important to warm up before starting to play, whether that is in a performance or practice session. The double bass is a very physical instrument, and it is easy to strain a muscle if we don’t make sure our muscles are relaxed before we start. Your warm up should be similar to what you might do if you were about to start a session in the gym, concentrating on your arms, wrists and fingers. 

Scale / Arpeggios

Once I am warmed up, I pick up my instrument, and start some scale practice. This is always done with the metronome (see page on ‘How to use a metronome). Scales are the bedrock of our bass lines, and familiarity with them will help you to develop interesting patterns that you can use in your playing. I tend to pick an individual scale and work on it in different positions, before moving on to another one. How many scales you practice in a single session depends on how much time you have, but the more you do, the more keys you will feel comfortable playing in. For more details about scale practice, see the Scale Exercises.

Technique

While practicing I am continually thinking about the tone of my instrument, the intonation, and my posture. I practice in front of a highly polished upright piano, which helps me to continually check that my posture is correct. A large window or ideally a mirror will work just as well.

Its important to practice slowly and in time, so that you can check your intonation (tuning) as you play. I use a metronome constantly when I am playing, and there are more details on how to use this effectively on the How To Use A Metronome page.

Song/Tune

Most people will agree that it is more interesting playing songs or tunes than scales or technical exercises! For most of, we practice so that we can be good enough to play with other people, and part of that is learning new songs of tunes. 

For the bass player, it is vital to know what the chord sequence is, and then build up a bass line from that. When I am learning a new song, I try to write down as little as possible. It’s relatively straightforward to write out the chords and then just play from that, but that makes it harder to memorise the song later. I try to identify the chords by ear and then learn these by playing along to a recording, rather than writing the chord sequence down.

Of course there are times when you may find yourself reading chord charts or notated music, and it is not practicable to memorise it. This may be the case if you are preparing for a one off performance, or you have been little time to learn a new song. In this situation, the best approach is to break the tune down into separate sections, for example 8-bar phrases, and then learn each section separately.l Only move on to the next section when you are happy that you have learnt the first time. An accepted test is the ‘rule of seven’. If you can play something seven times in succession, without a mistake, then you have probably learnt it. This applies to everything, be it scales, arpeggios, songs or tunes. 

It is vital not to cheat! One good way to check this is to record yourself and then listen back. Ask yourself;

  • Am I playing the right notes?
  • Am I playing in time
  • Is my intonation (tuning) correct ?

Don’t just keep starting at the beginning and playing until you go wrong, and then repeating the exercise. All that does is mean that you learn the beginning but not the end sections of the tune. By breaking the tune downing sections and then learning each one in isolation, you will end up being able to play the whole of the tune correctly, not just the start!