Doing it the Slow Way: Guide to Practicing
Doing It the Slow Way
The How, When, Where, What and wise guide to Practicing a Musical Instrument
By Joe Solomon
“ I don’t know, I have all these great solos in my head, but I just can’t seem to play them on my instrument.” How familiar these words are to those of us who have ever attempted to teach the art of improvising to other bassists. And it always amazes me how many young players, once they have begun to attain a degree of physical mastery over their instruments, seem to feel that this new problem of getting music out of their heads and into their ears and fingers is a relatively minor one, that their teacher will provide them with some simple formula, some magic key that will solve it in a matter of a few weeks. In my own experience, nothing has been further from the truth. In fact, my usual response is: “Look, I know how you feel. I’ve been working on that very thing myself for the past 25 years.” I can just sense the unspoken reaction, “Man, this guy really goes slow!” And just to get all cards on the table I must add, “That’s right, my way is the slow way. There’s no getting around that.” What I don’t always admit right away is that I consider the ability to go slow to be a great virtue. To me, the slow way turns out in the end to be the fastest way because it is the only way.
Now what does the slow way entail? Am I simply talking about procrastinating, dragging one’s feet, and not practicing consistently, mindlessly running over the same material in the same key day in and day out? Of course not. Doing it the slow way means learning to be patient, Focused, consistent, and above all, systematic in one’s practicing. This is the only type of practicing that pays off in the long run, the only truly effective approach to every improvisor’s problem of getting all that great music we have inside out into the world. There are, of course, hundreds of tempting short cuts; tips from magazine articles, “Real Book” based workshops, method books of every description, records and tapes, even college courses. All of these have value in specific situations. But in the end, any quick fix approach does little more than what I call “filling up the library”, adding to the amount of information we have to rummage through as we try to put together an improvised line, rather than deepening the level of our playing. We are left with the feeling that, although we may have collected more material, the music we set out to create, that is truly and uniquely our own, is still inside waiting to be played.
To get this music out, we must stop looking for short cuts and start doing it the slow way, making deliberate, systematic progress on five fronts:
1- perfecting our physical approach to the bass
2- absorbing the language of music
3- developing our ears
4- practicing improvisation
5- looking within
Before I speak in a little greater detail about each of these, let me interject a few somewhat random practical suggestions on how to make practicing most effective. First of all, practice with a metronome. Any bass player who does not use a metronome from the very beginning is only asking for trouble. Second, acquire a half speed listening device. This can be an old record changer or reel-to-reel tape machine or it can be the newest, most sophisticated, multi-track porta-studio, but a half speed of some kind and a metronome are as important as the instrument itself for every improvisor’s practicing routine. Third , set up a practice space. I understand that this is not easy for those of us with families and/or studio apartments, but it makes a tremendous difference not to have to endure elaborate setting up before one begins practicing or, worse, to have to keep interrupting oneself to unplug from one Setup and plug into another. Fourth, schedule practice time. It’s easy to practice nine hours a day every once in awhile, but ultimately it is not the amount of time but the consistency of application that allows students to make progress. My best students are often those who have very little time to practice and who are forced to fit a short practice session into a very demanding schedule. Go to bed each night knowing what time is set aside for practicing the next day. Waking up with the thought “I gotta do some practicing some time today” is the kiss of death. It is consistency, not millions of hours, which bears fruit.
Now to the work involved:
- 1 Perfecting the physical approach to the bass
- 2 Absorbing the language of music
- 3 Developing our ears
- 4 Practicing improvisation
- 5 Looking within
- 6 A last word
Despite the fact that I have many, many very detailed and specific ideas about how it should be played, I still really do not believe that there is a correct or an incorrect way of playing the bass. When this whole topic gets reduced to the word “technique”, the real reason for working on it everyday gets lost. After all, the reason for working to perfect one’s physical approach to the instrument is not to look good, but to sound good. And it is very difficult to sound good if one is playing, for example, with a tremendous degree of tension and physical strain. A player whose approach is tension-free is going to have a much easier time developing a Fat, Open Warm sound and a Loose, swinging feeling. Perhaps there will be more space in future articles to go into more specifics and provide some practice exercises, but for now let me just allude to the underlying principle that governs my approach: Replace muscle tension with weight, balance, pressure. PRESS THE NOTES DOWN, DON’T SQUEEZE THEM. This transformation ultimately leads to tremendous musical freedom, but it doesn’t happen overnight. Old tense knots must be sought out and untied one by one and replaced by weight and pressure. The process can only be done the slow way.
Absorbing the language of music
As with “technique”, here too the word “theory” is often applied. But again, that term seems to lead us away from the real reason for including this area in daily practicing. It is, of course, true that a good improvisor must have an exhaustive, complete theoretical knowledge of music as deep and comprehensive as any composer. But in the end, what you know is not as important as how and to what level you have absorbed it. An improvisor’s knowledge of the musical language, in a sense, cannot be theoretical. It must be practical. That is, one’s theory must be in one’s fingers and ears, not in one’s head. There is no time to run up into the library when you are improvising, anymore than there is time to go Open a dictionary in the middle of a passionate profession of love to your girlfriend or boyfriend. In such circumstances, the English language, or the musical language best be there at your disposal, running around in your bloodstream, ready to express spontaneously and passionately whatever it is you wish to express. Absorbing the language of music to this level cannot be done any other way but the slow way, from the bottom up, starting at the beginning, building each new structure on what is already solidly in place, doing this in every key, systematically, slowly, completely, with the metronome.
Developing our ears
Although those of us who have been through conservatory-type music schools often remember ear training, as humiliating as it might have been at the time, as the one classroom experience that has been of real practical value to us as players. I, at times, have great difficulty convincing new students of the importance of including this type of work in their daily routine. In fact, many young bassists who have played in top-forty “cover” bands often minimize their achievements by saying ‘I only play by ear.” This always amazes me. I must remind them that all great musicians play by ear, including Itzak Perlman and Vladimir Horowitz. Despite the fact that classical players are playing music that has been written out in advance, it will not sound like music if they do not use their ears and really “hear” what they are playing. It’s not, hopefully, that you stop playing by ear as you become a better musician. It’s that you play with a more developed ear, trained to hear on a deeper level, to discriminate finer and finer degrees of subtlety, most importantly tuned into, really able to “hear” the music that is coming from within in the same way that Perlman and Horowitz really “hear” the music written out for them by Mozart and Chopin. This process of ear development is a lifetime study for all musicians but especially for improvisors. It involves many hours of listening and singing, much time studying without the instrument in your hands. Ear development exercises are as important as anything one does on the instrument.
It would seem obvious that the three practice areas I have mentioned so far would only make sense to the degree that they could be put to use practically in the process of improvising. Yet here again, I often encounter resistance from students of all backgrounds. It is not enough just to study the rules of the language, how to conjugate the verbs, etc.; you must also speak it every day. That is, some practice time every day must be spent improvising, using the vocabulary you’ve been so painstakingly absorbing, trying to “hear” your music, trying to remain Loose, relaxed, tension-free at all tempos, in all situations. Does this mean, “Just turn on the metronome and wail?” Basically, yes. But a good teacher will provide you with specific projects that will challenge you at your present level without overwhelming you with harmonic or rhythmic material. It baffles me how many otherwise conscientious hardworking students will save their “serious” improvising for occasional sessions, special workshops, or gigs. To really get this language into your bloodstream, you must use it every day. Include improvising: playing on chord progressions, playing solos, playing a walking quarter note line as part of your daily systematic practice routine.
At the risk of sounding like a child of the sixties, which I am, I would like to speak for a moment about the mystifying process of self-realization, self discovery that ultimately governs one’s evolution as a jazz improvisor. This is usually the last thought on a new student’s mind. To him or her, being able to improvise a Solo or walking line on ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE appears much more as a puzzle to be solved, a maze that must be negotiated than as an opportunity look within oneself. But for those of us who have been working on it for a number of years have a somewhat different viewpoint. Improvising, after all, means creating music that is spontaneous, of the moment, and uniquely your own. Unlike the music of Bach or Beethoven, this music has never been played before. It will not get played if you yourself don’t play it. Another bassist can come along and play the Bach Suites or the Hindemith Sonata for Bass, but no one else can create your improvised line. No one else can play it but you! So in the end, this process of getting those great solos out of your head and onto the instrument becomes a process of self-discovery, finding out what your music really sounds like. That is, your daily practice time has to be a period of looking honestly within, stripping away the licks, gimmicks, and formulas that we have all collected in our attempt to sound like we can play, and listening for the simple melodic voice that really is our own. It’s there, if we really listen for it. And discovering it and developing it make years of doing it the slow way worthwhile.
A last word
What I have provided is the broadest outline of a slow, systematic approach to practicing for the jazz bassist. Perhaps there will be time and space in future articles to go into each of these areas in greater detail and provide some specific exercises. But I have still to mention what is probably my most important piece of advice to beginning improvisors: FIND A GOOD, EXPERIENCED TEACHER. In my opinion, given the present climate, it is time that jazz musicians learned what classical musicians have known for centuries: the development of a musician is essentially a one on one, master-disciple, teacher-student process. With a few extremely rare exceptions it cannot be done alone, even with all the workshops, courses, self-help records, books and videos which are currently available. It has been my great good fortune to study with several excellent teachers, most notably Lennie Tristano, Julius Levine, and Sal Mosca. They have been the most important factors in my own development. FIND A TEACHER, someone who has been through all this already, someone who is willing to get personally involved in your individual progress as an improvisor, someone who will listen to you play over a long period of time, who will insist you do it in all keys, that you don’t play fast tempos until you can relax at medium tempos, someone who can say “Great” if you do something really well and “here’s how you can do it better” if you don’t.