Here is a question I've been asking myself a lot lately, so I decided to explore it a little further with all of you. It would be hard to argue the point that the more motivated we are, the more apt we are to succeed in any particular task. Of course, this same philosophy can be demonstrated through our bass playing. If we are "fired up" about getting better or pushing ourselves to the next level, we are more willing to embrace challenges, both technically and musically. However, the big problem is that we are all human, and therefore do not always operate in full efficiency. Different circumstances in our lives can trigger all kinds of things that might have a detrimental effect on the progress of our bass playing. In those instances, we may find ourselves in a motivational rut, not knowing how to get out of it. What are the symptoms of a motivational rut? Here are some of the things that I occasionally deal with:
- loss of desire to practice
- getting bored while practicing
- practicing the same stuff each session
- easily distracted
- discouragement related to music or bass playing
- feelings of musical inadequacy after watching another player you admire
Now, if you are in one of these hazes right now, try not to get discouraged. These phases are all a part of our growth as people and as musicians. It doesn't mean that we are poor or inconsistent players, destined for mediocrity in the world of music. It won't last forever, either, so rest assured that your malady is only temporary. What's important is that you attack the rut head on, find the way out of it, and LEARN FROM THE EXPERIENCE. (The lesson learned should help you more easily recognize the warning signs in the future, and allow you to get out of the next rut you encounter a little quicker than the one before.)
What I have gathered is that each of us tends to operate in particular patterns which do not vary all that much when we practice. This should come as no surprise, because we are often taught to work out of routines and schedules in order to have focus and direction. There is nothing wrong with this approach, and routines help to keep us on track; however, it is impossible for a routine not to become, well... simply 'routine' over time! Because pattern learning like this is not altogether spontaneous, in can and often does become tedious and boring over time. Because of this, I have found that the quickest way to get out of a rut is to temporarily COMPLETELY LOSE THE ROUTINE ELEMENTS in your practicing or playing. Of course, you can return to these at a later time, but I think it's necessary to first abandon your typical approach completely.
Now, a strategy like this might conjure up some fears if you are a creature of habit:
"If I stop practicing technique for a while, I might lose my speed and dexterity"
"If I don't learn a bunch of songs right now, then I might not be equipped to jam with others"
"If I don't continue to emulate the playing of [insert your bass hero's name here], then I won't be able to sound like him/her"
"If I start to learn scales and music theory, my playing might end up sounding academic and sterile"
"I don't want to waste any time learning jazz, because I just want to be a rock player anyways"
These are all examples of concerns that some actual students of mine have had. In fact, I've embraced a few of them, myself at one time or another. Remember: The idea is not to abandon what you've learned, but augment what you know in order to "re-ignite your fire."
Here are 5 things you can do to help get you out of a rut and develop some fresh new approaches. I've tried not to make them too specific, in order to keep the article under 100 pages!:
1. If you are a dedicated technician, start focusing on the creative. If your practice routines are dominated by technical exercises that focus on speed and technique through the use of scales, arpeggios, or fingering patterns, drop them for a while and work on such things as:
- transcribing solos to train your ear
- chord playing
- improvisation over unfamiliar chord changes or just a single chord for starters
- play along with an unfamiliar CD, trying to stay "in the changes" as the songs modulate
2. If you mostly practice soloing or playing over jazz-style changes, try learning a different style of music. For example, work on something that might be more of a challenge to you in terms of rhythm or feel, from a different genre of music. For example:
- learn a technically-challenging classical piece, such as a Bach cello suite or classical guitar piece that utilizes flamenco technique or fingerstyle playing
- delve into the world of funk playing, transcribing bass lines from such greats as Larry Graham, Bootsy Collins, or James Jamerson
- focus on composition utilizing specific form, writing songs that showcase a strong melody
- work on a new technique you've never seen or tried before, such as unique slant on slapping or tapping
- practice complete musical freedom through "noodling" on the instrument, abandoning all concern for key centers, theory, specific licks, etc.
3. If you're practice routine is made up of many different elements, try just focusing on one, instead. If you've been trying to cram every concept you can into your practice schedule (but feeling like you're not making a whole lot of progress on any one thing), try taking the approach that you will only learn one thing at a time. This will now allow you to prioritize your practice material, and force you to master something before tackling something new. It is easy to become overwhelmed by our practice routine when we feel that we have so many things to overcome. When we break it down into pieces that we take on one at a time, it is much less intimidating.
4. If you mostly practice the same subject matter each session, try adding things to your practice routine. This is the opposite of #3, above. Some of us become so focused on mastering a particular concept that we don't allow ourselves to broaden our horizons as players. It is easy to become sick of practicing when we become sick of what it is we are working on day after day. Try dropping what it is you've been working on for a while, and replace it with several other things that will distract you from it. Some players need several things to work on in order to stay motivated and not become bored.
5. Try learning a new instrument. Many of you might be asking me, "How the heck is this going to help my bass playing? Isn't that completely irrelevant?" Okay... I know it seems counter-intuitive, but learning a new instrument really can help. If you are like me, there is at least one other instrument that can get you fired up when you hear it played well. In my case, it's the drums. I probably enjoy listening to great drummers just as much as I like hearing my favorite bassists. I guess it makes sense, considering the fraternal relationship between bass and drums in most styles of music. If you've been playing bass for a while, your heart, hands, and mind have developed a 3 way connection that has developed or is starting to develop your own voice on the instrument. In cases like this, the ruts that we encounter often result from a dissatisfaction with our own voice in its current state.
Playing another instrument also allows us to express ourselves through a medium in which we are not so proficient. This new and fresh form of expression helps to redefine what we say musically. In fact, each musical instrument could be considered its own dialect in the universal language of music. Sometimes we can't find the precise "words" to express ourselves in our current level of proficiency on the bass. Playing another instrument can help us find the exact "words" we needed. The development is then made complete by our translating these words back onto the bass, thereby making us even more eloquent than we were before! I know this is starting to get a little deep, but I promise that this can be a great form of motivation.
I hope you have found these concepts helpful. I know that writing this article has really helped me to explore some alternative forms of musical expression, and I plan to start implementing some new ones today. It's important never to forget what got you playing music in the first place. We wouldn't have chosen it if we weren't attracted to its positive influence in our lives. If we take out the fun, all we have left is just notes! So, if you find yourself in a rut, make a change that will inspire you all over again.
Until next time-
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