Practicing Perfectly

They say that practice makes perfect. However many students don’t focus themselves properly during practice time, and so don’t even come close to perfect. The result of this imperfect practice is that, instead of learning to play an exercise correctly, they teach themselves how to play it wrong, and will often find it very hard to correct the mistakes.

There are some very basic concepts you can apply to your own practice regimen to ensure that you practice properly, so you will not only remember what you studied, but remember how to perform it correctly. By incorporating these ideas into your practice regimen, you will find yourself learning exercises more easily, remembering them better, and advancing much more quickly.

How the Brain Remembers
When learning an instrument, there are two kinds of memory involved. Obviously, there’s Brain Memory, in that your brain has to properly store the information for recall. Yet even memory is split into two types – which are store in different parts of the brain.

When we first learn a new piece of information, it is stored in Short-Term Memory. If the information stays in this area long enough – approximately seven days – and is regularly reviewed, it will be burned into the Long-Term Memory area of the brain. However, if we do not regularly review that information, it will fade from Short-term Memory before it can be transferred. Therefore, like it or not, your teacher is correct: You need to do your homework every day, and you need to review each module of information. It’s no different when learning electric bass guitar than it is when learning any other information: You have to study regularly.

Tip 1: Practice Every Day
This is perhaps the most vital piece of information you will ever learn about proper practicing. You must make a real commitment to practice daily. Don’t allow yourself excuses. Just find a way to do it and get it done.

Johann Sebastian Bach was not only one of the greatest composers of all time, he was a master keyboardist, one of the finest organists and harpsichordists of his day. He often said that if he missed a single day of practice, he could tell; in two days, his friends could tell; and in three days the entire world could tell.

Victor Wooten virtually lived with his bass guitar for years. When he was touring with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, he would often play bass for hours before each show. This was nothing new for the man who would become the greatest bassist of his generation; he was simply continuing a plan he’d followed for many years.

You don’t have to practice for hours every day, although if you do, you’re almost certain to progress much more quickly. You do need to spend at least fifteen minutes a day on your instrument. Not noodling; not copping Rock Poses and pretending you’re already famous. Actually practicing your learning material, whatever it may be. This is particularly important in the beginning, and during any time that you are learning new material (scales, theory, songs, techniques, e.g.).

Spending time every day on new material keeps it in Short Term Memory long enough for it to fully transfer to Long Term Memory storage. In addition, you become comfortable playing the material more quickly.

Tip 2: Take Proper Bites
In order to review all material daily until it’s mastered, you have to learn at the correct pace, taking in the proper amount of material. Each of us will be different. In fact, you will be different, depending on the material you’re learning. Some things will come easily; others will require more time to perfect.

The key is to not take on too much at one time. You should be able to review all concepts under current study in each practice session, before moving to new material. If you are unable to do so, cut back on what you’re trying to learn at that given time.

Tip 3: Get Rid of Distractions
Many students who progress slowly eventually admit that they practice while watching TV or engaging in other distractive behaviors. Studies have repeatedly shown that our attention is sucked into the TV whether we realize it at the time or not. Having a TV in the room is like disconnecting 70% or more of your brain. Why would you want to do that while you are learning something new?

You will get more done in thirty focused minutes than in three hours in front of a TV. Get away from the TV, your sister, the dogs playing in the den. Go to your room and concentrate on what you’re doing.

Muscle Memory
When learning a physical skill, whether it be electric bass guitar, riding a bicycle, or learning a sport, Muscle Memory is an important part of the process. For example, for a basketball player to be able to make a three-point jump shot, he must practice the entire range of body movements required to put the ball through the hoop. A baseball pitcher must learn to throw exactly where he aims, so he’ll have to throw thousands of pitches to perfect the muscle movements to throw a strike.

Learning to play bass guitar is no different. You have to teach your finger muscles how to correctly play an exercise. Once your fingers know where to go, you’ll be able to play the exercise almost without thinking about it.

Muscle Memory works both ways, however. If you make mistakes – especially repeating the same mistake again and again – your muscles learn how to play the exercise incorrectly. Once this has occurred, you have changed from learning something new, to attempting to correct misinformation, which is much more difficult to do. Therefore, it only makes sense to learn how to play an exercise correctly in the first place.

Tip 4: Learn the Notes First
Before you can play a scale or exercise, you need to know which notes you’ll use. So go find them! Don’t try to play in time; just find the notes, one at a time, on the neck of your bass. Get the sequence under your fingers before you try to play at tempo.

Tip 5: Learn the Rhythm
In the very beginning, this won’t matter as much as it will later, when you begin to learn about rhythm and syncopation. However, it’s a good habit to get into, even in the beginning.

The easiest way to learn the rhythm of an exercise is to pat out Quarter Notes with your hand while saying the rhythm out loud. One and … and … Three and … and One and … and… etc. Continue this until you feel completely comfortable with the rhythm.

Tip 6: Start Slow
When you first play an exercise, start at a very slow tempo – one at which you can easily play each note in sequence. Do Not increase the tempo until you can play the exercise perfectly. Some students find this a bit boring, and they lose concentration. This leads to improperly learning the exercise.

Stay focused, and concentrate on what you’re doing. If you do, you’ll find you learn the exercise quickly – and accurately – and can then increase your tempo a little at a time.

Tip 7: Increase Tempo Slowly
At this point, accuracy is far more important than speed. Increase tempo by no more than two beats per minute at a time. Then play the exercise again. If you make mistakes, go back to the last tempo at which you could correctly play the exercise, and reinforce it.

Tip 8: Play it Ten Times
As I mentioned earlier, learning the bass guitar has a lot to do with Muscle Memory. By forcing yourself to play an exercise perfectly ten times in a row, you are committing the exercise not just to brain memory, but muscle memory as well.

This one tip has been a central key to my own ability to learn new concepts and techniques. If you can play an exercise at a given tempo ten times in a row without mistakes, your muscles have learned to correctly play the exercise at that tempo. You can then increase speed in small increments, giving your fingers the opportunity to refine what they have learned.

Tip 9: Review Before Moving Forward
Earlier I noted that it’s important to not take on too much at one time. The need to review to reinforce memory is the main reason for this method. Every day, your practice session should begin with a review of what you did the day before. After warming up, you should be able to correctly play the exercises you studied the day before. If necessary, reduce your tempo to ensure accuracy. Then rebuild your speed until you’ve gotten back to your fastest tempo and, perhaps, increase your tempo a bit more.

Tip 10: Be Patient
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and Victor Wooten didn’t become the world’s most amazing bass player in a week or two. Don’t expect to learn everything overnight, because you’re going to have to put in regular effort to improve your skills and knowledge.

It’s very important to stay positive about your progress. Take small steps, and celebrate each accomplishment. Give yourself credit for learning something new. As with those on a diet, who are told to not read the scale more than once a week, you should take a long view of your progress, and not expect huge leaps every day.

By understanding how your brain and muscles work, you can work with them, not against them. Follow these ten tips and you’ll find yourself learning more, faster and better, all at the same time.

Review new information daily so that it transfers from Short Term Memory to Long Term Memory. Start slowly so your finger muscles learn the proper movements, building accuracy. Make certain you can play an exercise perfectly ten times in a row before increasing speed. Celebrate each small step as an essential part of the journey to bass excellence.

Perfection may be difficult to attain, but if you follow these ten tips, you’ll find perfection well within your grasp. All it takes is practice!

©2010 – Lane Baldwin, Reprinted with permission of the author from