This is the second of a series of blog posts geared for college double bass students. I hope these posts are helpful and lead to some meaningful discussion and community building between students in different music programs. Please feel free to contact me about any topics you’d like to see addressed in this forum. ~ Nicholas Walker
Now that we know when we are going to schedule our practice sessions (see my 1st ISB blog, Self-Management), let’s look at how to organize the time within these sessions to be sure we are growing in the ways that matter most to us.
Part I. Make a List
Goals & Planning:
Few of us are drawn to music because we want to sit around micro-managing our individual practice sessions. We want to play. We like the way it sounds. We like how it feels to pull a sound out of our glorious instrument. We don’t want to sit around with a piece of paper like an administrator. But clarifying goals and intentions before hand is the surest way to get the most results for our effort, and also assure we are actually doing what we really care about.
What do you care about?
Get a sheet of paper, and start writing – scribble, draw, doodle. Answer this simple question: Where do I want to see improvement? What do I want to be able to do in the future that I cannot do today? What are my weaknesses, and where do I feel blocked? What would it look like to be free and powerful in these areas? What is it about another player that you admire that you would like to bring into your own playing?
If you are making a list of players and playing you admire, be clear about what you notice, and what is compelling to you. For example, instead of writing, “Christian McBride is so awesome!” Think about what you really admire, and work to put that into words. Perhaps, “Christian McBride plays with such strength and balance, and his feel is so solid, swinging, and contagious!” It’s easier to work on strength, balance, swing, and solid time keeping than it is to work on “awesome”.
I always list specific technical skills that need attention. These might include things like hammer-on and pull-off left-hand agility work, string crossings at the tip of the bow, shifting on the lower strings, spicatto, barriolage, left-hand chord frames and barring in drop thumb position, or extended techniques like harp-harmonics or chop rhythms, or just simple long tones.
My list also contains more general musicianship skills such as singing, improvising, developing my internal sense of intonation, general rhythmic sense, or specific skills such as grooving in 7/8, and playing a tumbao, etc..
There are always fundamentals on my list, like building a balanced bow hold, or standing or sitting with the bass with more ease and awareness, releasing tension or finding balance in a certain part of my body, building strength, endurance and agility.
I usually need to familiarize myself with specific repertoire, learning a new piece, or fine-tune a work I’ve known intimately for a long time. Maybe I have a recital or audition coming up, and I need to practice performing my program.
Whatever it is, write it down.
Remember that this is your list! This is a list of what you care about in your musicianship. The idea is that if you really care about it, you’ll be ready to do the work, and clear about what progress looks like inside that work. It may be that your teacher or a colleague advises you to improve in a certain area, but until it becomes important to you, it shouldn’t go on this list. (By the way, if it’s not important to you, but it is really important to your teacher, it’s time to have a discussion together! That dynamic is never going to work well.)
When you make your list, be specific with yourself about how you want to grow, and be sure you have clarity about where you are with it now, and what it will sound like, feel like, or look like when you reach your goal.
“Get better” is not a goal. It’s the result of focused work over time. “Become a great bass player” is too general. I can’t pick up my instrument and do that. But I can get to work on the skills listed above.
I sometimes tell the story of a student working in lesson who was displeased with a run-though of a piece:
– “That was horrible!”
– “All of it?”
– “Yes! . . . well mostly the middle section.”
– “What was horrible about the middle section?”
– “It was so out of tune! Disgusting!”
– “Was the whole middle section out of tune?”
– “The high part was.”
– “Which pitches?”
– “Well, the Eb, for example!”
– “Was it flat or sharp?”
– “I don’t know.”
– “Let’s listen back to the video.”
– “ . . . Ok. It was flat.”
– “And the other notes?”
– “The Eb was the problem”.
So we went from a place of “that was horrible” to “the Eb was low”. As a learner, we can’t do anything with “that was horrible”, aside from . . . well, I guess just “be less horrible.” Not much to work with there. But knowing that an Eb is low is something I can work with constructively: What does a low Eb sound like? What does a sharp Eb sound like? Why did I hear it or play it flat? What do people mean by “tempered intonation” or “expressive intonation”? etc. Now we are in the learning zone.
Part II. Live Your Goals
Now work the goals on your list. If I’m not working this list each day, I’m either not doing what I care about, or I’m not being honest with myself about what really does matter to me.
I’ll give a personal example: I know that unless I work specifically on my internal sense of pitch and my muscle memory intonation every day, I will play terribly out of tune. Possibly this is not true for everyone, but it is most certainly true for me. When days go by without me playing with drones, singing, tuning chord frames, playing with slowed-down recordings, etc., I’m fooling myself.
I don’t always enjoy doing that work. Sometimes it’s confronting, and makes me feel like I am really weak in the most fundamental areas of musicianship, and so sometimes I don’t do this work. But when I don’t do the work, it’s not that I don’t care that much about playing in tune. I hate playing out of tune, and feeling vague about pitch. It’s just that like anyone, I can get caught up in an ego response when I’m confronted with my weaknesses. Learning to accept our weaknesses, and get to work learning and growing in a constructive way is a skill we each have to develop. Every artist is confronted with this.
When I am clear that it takes daily work for me to play in tune, I can be at peace both doing the hard/confronting work in the practice room, and also at peace when something is out of tune in a performance. (It’s not perfect, but I’m working at it, and seeing improvement, and now I have another spot to delve into.)
Consistency trumps total time:
All the research shows that deliberate, interleaved practice is more beneficial than consolidated repetition. (See this article by John Hawthorn for more on this topic.) This means a few minutes a day each day of the week consistently for weeks at a time can often be more beneficial than one hour each Saturday all at once, even though you may clock more total time with the Saturday approach. And know this: even 30 seconds a day consistently for many days can yield terrific results.
Try parceling your list into different categories. My list includes daily technical work (at Ithaca College we call this category “E’ry Days”), recital preparation, orchestral repertoire, chamber music, transcription, open improvisation, etc.. Inside each of those categories is specific activities (see below).
Now what does a practice day look like when the total practice time is divided up to cover the activities you have identified as important?
The benefits of Egg-Timer Practice:
Deliberate practice is hard, and requires a lot of discipline and concentration. I want to get the most result for my time, and I want to be honest with myself about what I’m putting into it, and what results I can expect.
In the last few years I’ve started using smartphone apps to time my practice sessions. I want to be sure I’m living my goals, and not fooling myself into thinking I’ve been “practicing all morning,” when I’ve really been tinkering with my bridge, and checking email, and “bass-ter-bating” (sorry) through all of my repertoire without intent or clear observations or strategies for improvement. If I am doing this, I’m only fooling myself.
An egg timer keeps me honest about how much time I spend on each activity, and also allows me to be fully present within the scheduled activity. If I schedule two minutes and thirty seconds a day to work on reverse-curve spiccato string crossings, I’m going to want to make the most of that time, and I will not be as easily distracted by other work I need to do. That voice in my head that says, “What are you doing!? You have a recital coming up! Get to work on your Dana Wilson Concerto!” is silenced because I know I have that planned too, just not right now. All I need to do for these 90 seconds is identify my weaknesses and eliminate them, find the feeling and sound I’m after, and build the habit. <beeb> time to move on to the next activity.
One App I like a lot is GymBoss, which I use on my smartphone. With this app, I simply program a workout (practice session) based on the priorities of my list, and I follow it every day. Over a few days of doing a workout, I make edits to it, until it feels right, and fits the flow and energy I am able to bring to the practice. After a few months, I change it up to reflect the progress I’ve made, and the new priorities I might have.
You’ll notice that the first of these workouts is a generic program of 6 sets of 5 minutes, which is a half hour. I could use this in any number of ways: Here’s one example: maybe I’d divide a movement of solo Bach into 6 segments and work each of the segments for 5 minutes, beginning with the last segment of the piece, and working sequentially back to the first segment. Maybe I’d spend the first minute of each 5-minute period singing the sol fège syllables or singing my phrasing/baroque dance feeling. The next minute could be spent playing only long bows, note by note, without rhythm, emphasizing intonation awareness. I might spend the next two minutes under tempo and under volume, and force myself to spend the final minute working in isolation on the weakest moment. <beep> goes the GymBoss app, and I’m on to the next segment.
This is just one of many ways to use this kind of egg-timer timing distribution. In the midst of this work, each minute feels precious and my work is enhanced by clear intensions. It is not the best way to practice everything – maybe I wouldn’t work with this kind of timer to experiment with fingering choices for my Bach movement. But if I’m working up a piece for performance, this works well for me. Certainly, I’ll walk away from that directed half-hour practice session with more accomplished than if I just “practiced Bach” for half an hour.
You might ask, “How can you make progress with 36 measures of the third mvt. of Mozart 40 in only 1:30 seconds!?” The answer is that I do it every day, and with a clear priority in place; some days only working on a few bars, and other days only working on the Minuet feel, other days playing it through twice pizz for left hand resonance, etc.. After several weeks, a deep learning takes place. Consistency trumps total time.
My “E’ry Day” open-string bowing and left-hand technical routines look like this (only part of the workouts are shown):
These titles might not mean anything to you, but it’s not important what’s in my routine; it’s what you want to put into your routine that counts for you. Name it whatever will direct your intensions most meaningfully.
Music Journal Pro:
Another app I’ve been working with lately is the Music Journal Pro, which I also use on my smart phone. Instead of following a pre-programed workout like the GymBoss app, which beeps to let you know it’s time to move on to the next activity, this app simply tracks your work with a timer, and keeps a log of your work:
Each of those colors represents a specific activity, and I can easily email or export the data to look at in a spreadsheet for analysis of time investment, and an easy look at practice consistency. As a professor, I can collect the data from all of my students and use it for grading.
A potential problem with this app is that the timer keeps going, even when the user . . . ahem . . . checks Facebook, answers a text message. Again, honesty with oneself is central.
Currently I’m using an app called ATracker, which I prefer to Music Journal because I can export my practice as a .csv file, and import my calendar appointments into the app to see them side-by-side. It also graphs work so it can be viewed at the smallest level, or by general area. It’s simple to use, once the tasks are entered. Just tap the task to start and then stop the timer.
What it is:
A student at a masterclass in Leipzig said to me, “If I had to follow a timer for every second of my music making, I’d want to kill myself. That’s not why I play music, Man!” I totally understand this perspective. I asked him why he did play music. “I play to sing glorious lyrical melodies through the bass!” Fair enough. I asked when was the last time he worked on singing glorious lyrical melodies through his bass in the practice room. His colleagues laughed, and he blushed. He’d been working hard on Beethoven V, scherzo & trio, Beethoven III, scherzo, and Mozart 35 last movement for the last three weeks for an audition, and was feeling burned out and dark. He resented the audition process, and resented practice all together. I suggested that if he values singing through the bass, he should make time to do that each day – schedule it in – and see if the act of staying true to his values, and the activities that give purpose and meaning to his music would help.
It is true that it takes discipline and a time investment to establish a routine like this. But once established, it’s actually much easier (and liberating) to simply show up moment-to-moment, remaining present for the time I’ve scheduled for each activity. I think it is much harder to have to reinvent myself, and inspire myself anew every time I practice. When I act as my own head coach or personal trainer, I know that I will get to what I care about, that I am living the musical values I have, and playing and working the music and sounds that truly inspire and motivate me.