If you were to guess the number one self-stated impediment to progress by adult bassists, you’d probably say “I don’t have enough time to practice”, and you’d be exactly right. And isn’t being right a marvelous thing?
Of course we don’t have enough time to practice. Our lives are crammed full of adulting, leaving, for many, scant time to practice the bass when we’re already beat at the end of the day – plus, we live with the musicians’ conundrum that “the practicing is never done”, which can bring conflict and stress into an activity which, ideally, would be the crown jewel of joy in our lives. Perhaps the best we can do is to become hyper-efficient with the time available, multiplying the effectiveness of the practice time we’ve already carved out. Practicing – improving your ability to play your instrument – consists both of time spent with the bass in hand, and also the VITAL aspects of listening, score study, and physical fitness. Separating these aspects and moving the non-bass-playing COMPONENTS of practicing to other parts of your day are highly effective ways to maximize your overall progress, as well as your motivation and satisfaction. You can be standing in line at the store saying to yourself “all these jokers are standing around like cattle, wasting hours of their lives they can’t get back, but I’M PRACTICING THE BASS RIGHT NOW” (listening to reference recordings).
This is going to take some research and some homework – though, at first, it’s likely to be a chore to create study materials for yourself away from the bass and commit to it as “real practicing”, the benefits of keeping up with it will more than offset the investment. The more you look, the more you’ll find to keep yourself loaded up with supplementary learning. I call it “Brownbag Your Practicing” – as when you pack tomorrow’s lunch after dinner, so you don’t find yourself losing productivity while you’re starving at work, trying to decide what to have, driving somewhere, finding parking, standing in line during lunch rush, spending 11 times the cost of a brownbag lunch, consuming far more calories than you need, and losing 1.5 hours of pay, plus getting food coma. The days when you pack your lunch, you’re well-fed in 15 minutes, sharp, and ready to annihilate your afternoon. This is, ideally, how you want to feel when you get home to practice the bass. You are on-task, and your motivation and energy levels are high (and right now, you’re probably saying something to yourself like HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA AS IF).
What goes into your brown bag? Mainly, your mp3 player, possibly some print materials, and some exercise equipment. LISTENING MATERIAL: each week, load your mp3 player with HIGH LEVEL recordings of the music you’re working on, music that’s coming up, pieces from the repertoire, relevant lectures – more hours of material than you have hours of listening time. From a physiological standpoint, your listening material gets input into your unconscious mind, your “mind’s ear”, so before committing a reference recording to your mp3 player, check out multiple versions. Choose a pristine performance, with perfect intonation, if you’re going to adopt it as a reference for yourself and listen to it repeatedly. PRINT MATERIAL: You can also get in some time away from the bass visually studying the score, or reading a book on a performance aspect you’re working on – perhaps in that hour while everyone else in the office is out to lunch!
The exercise equipment: the first several minutes of bass practice consist of your muscles and ligaments warming up and adapting to the task. This time can be largely converted to productive technique practice if you do relevant physical warmups during other parts of the day, when you don’t have access to your bass. If you commute, or wait for your kids, you have the potential to turn that time into a golden hour to deliberately prepare for bass practicing by doing most of your physical warmup in your car. If you take public transit, you may prefer to appear a little less bizarre to non-bassists by doing your physical warmups at the day job and your score study on the train. I carry a number of items of exercise equipment in my car: grip strength trainers, a 6-lb sand ball, a rubber tubing exercise band wrapped around the driver’s headrest – sometimes dumbbells, but it’s not nice to drop those on your foot. Here are some warmups I do – please don’t crash your car and say I told you to do a bunch of crazy stuff while driving! Leave the crazy to me – I’m an expert. Most of these are pretty general descriptions, so you can look them up and decide what’s right for you:
- Glute activation (for standing while playing bass): pretty obvious – contract your glutes, hold until you become annoyed, release, repeat.
- Steering wheel press: push your shoulders into the seat back as hard as you can with straight arms, focusing on contracting the muscles between your shoulder blades. Take it from me, it’s a little hard to steer accurately while doing this one. Maybe wait for a stop light.
- Neural flossing: any of the numerous upper-body exercises for this – most are simple movements that can be done in the confines of the driver’s seat and are good for preventing impingement of the major nerves in the arms, shoulders and hands.
- Starbursts (open/close the fingers): 100 reps. Bind the fingertips together with a heavy rubber band to increase resistance, if desired.
- Sand-filled ball: this is nice to use in the car for wrist and bicep curls, wrist rotation, lateral fly, and rolling out your quads. It won’t sever anything if you drop it.
- Grip trainers: They come in silicone ball and block shapes in different densities, and spring-loaded handles. Squeezing/holding a few times is sufficient to activate the hands in preparation for practicing – true enough, playing the bass requires a lot of hand strength, but overuse of a device can cause an injury, and no one has time for a playing setback.
- Hammerons: On highway trips, I carry a device called a ShredNeck Low Rider, which is a segment of electric bass neck. There is yet to be a double bass version, but it does serve for practicing hammerons, fingering patterns, and keeping calluses in shape.
- Bow hold: you can use drum sticks – they come in a convenient 2-pack from the rock&roll store, or are found abundantly in their natural habitat behind any drum riser. You can practice a beautiful bow hold including your right thumb bent at the end joint (French bow), pinky free from contacting the bow (German bow – this is easy with the drum stick as there is no place for the pinky to contact, anyway), and some bow strokes/bowings, playing along with your sound track, with the drum stick propped on your leg.
In addition to priming your body’s flexibility before practicing, any type of movement will increase both your energy level and alertness. The bass-specific movements such as bow hold practice may spark questions you want to answer later in your practicing and/or your lesson, and listening to your mp3s on your commute home increases your motivation for practicing at the end of a long day.
Certainly there are many multipliers for practice time, many physical warmups, and many aspects of growing as a bassist besides technique practice. These are just a few that can bring a fun and productive dimension to time in the car.