Learning bass requires the right kind of discipline

Your (well intentioned) practice routine may be holding you back

By Jon Liebman

October 21, 2022

Now that you’ve decided you want to learn to play bass, you’re taking a grownup approach. You’re working hard to get better. You’re disciplined. You’re diligent. You’re following a stringent, regimented routine…

Hold it right there!

Despite your sincere diligence and having the best of intentions, your disciplined approach may actually be hindering your progress.

I had a great conversation with my old friend John Adams, published as this week’s FBPO interview. John is a longtime bassist and educator who’s played with everyone from Mel Tormé and Rosemary Clooney to Woody Herman and Chet Baker. 

But I’ve always done it this way

When I asked John to recommend a good a practice routine for learning bass, he had some valuable insights.

“Routine is good,” John says, “but it’s not supposed to be so regimented that (you feel like) ‘I can’t play if I haven’t done that (yet).’”

Discipline is an important thing. At this point in your life, you understand that you can’t get “something for nothing” and if you want to learn to play bass you need to put in the work. Just make sure you’re going about it in a way that’s going to bring you the best results.

For example, do you start your practice sessions the same way every time, following a regimented routine? 

You may have heard me talk about maintaining a practice log, notating what you’re going to work on and how you plan to allocate your time. You can make tremendous progress with your bass playing by keeping a practice log, but that doesn’t mean you should follow the same routine every day. You’ve got to mix it up.

It’s time to mix things up

“Sometimes,” John suggests, “start the session (with) something that you already know how to play that’s relaxed, that’s easy, that’s fun. Get your mind and body making music, and then go to the technical thing. Other times start on something technical.”

Blindly going through the identical routine day after day can play tricks on your mind and hinder your results. When you do that, John says, “What you set up in your brain is this false dichotomy. ‘Oh I don’t have permission to make music yet until I’ve done my ABCs.’”

During the interview, John told a story about a friend of his who got a last-minute call to do a recording session in New York. Since the player was only given about an hour’s notice, he didn’t have time to go through his morning ritual. As a result, didn’t feel like he was at his best. 

By making certain changes to your practice sessions, you can still accomplish everything you set out to do. Mixing it up can go a long way.

“Practice in a relaxed frame of mind,” John advises. “Sometimes it’s a simple scale thing, sometimes it’s something technical, sometimes it’s a piece of music. Or just starting by playing sounds in (your) head.”

Don’t let predictability work against you

Adding variety into your practice routines has other benefits too. I pointed out to John that I thought his suggestion had some similarities to doing physical exercise. If you go through the same motions every time you go to the gym, your body doesn’t get nearly as much benefit as it does when you mix it up.

“For sure that’s true physically for us,” says John. “If there’s a predictability, then our body kind of finds the bare minimum underneath that. Our body goes, ‘Well, this is all that’s required of me so, cool, I’ll be no stronger than that.’”

That concept has a definite parallel when it comes to learning music.

“I’m also thinking about how this applies integrating, understanding, feeling, playing musically,” John says. “We can problem solve by just changing the dial and then get this thing that’s more disciplined but not regimented.”

Something surprising should be able to happen

This kind of mindset can be an absolute game-changer for anyone learning bass, regardless of what level they’re at. Practice what you’re setting out to learn, but don’t follow a routine that’s too regimented.“The technical pursuit of it is great,” John says, “as long as you keep spiraling around to different ways to apply it.”

Discipline is good. Routine is good too, if it’s not too regimented. Try injecting some variety into your practice sessions. Change up the order of whatever you’re working on, with a goal of learning and growing.

“We want to be inspired or have a whimsical aspect to playing,” John says. “Something surprising should be able to happen, but we don’t want to be aimless. Somewhere in there there’s a happy medium.”

Your turn. Do you have a regimented practice routine for learning bass? Have you ever thought of mixing it up to keep things fresh? Leave a comment below and share your thoughts. And be sure to watch my interview with John here.

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