Houston, we have a problem!
Over the last few years of teaching bass I've noticed a common trait in people that have been taking lessons for a long time. They're on a treadmill going nowhere fast.
I always ask for a new student to play something for me at our first meeting. Anything. It just gives me an idea of where a person is so that I can meet them there where they are.
I do understand that being put on the spot can be a little unnerving for anyone. Trust me, I get it. However I get people who can't even play along with a backing track or with a song that I play for them on Spotify.
Then I ask how long they've been taking lessons and they say "a few months" or more! Obviously, something isn't working. Somehow they've gone from getting bass lessons to hanging out with someone for 30 minutes to an hour. Whatever the case, they aren't getting better. From my personal experience, here are four tips that I truly believe may help you to get the most out of your music lessons, regardless of the instrument.
1. Set goals
Argh...Goal setting... yeah, I know. It's a pain in the ass sometimes but here's the deal - you can't get there if you don't know where 'there' is, right? I can't tell you how many times a student comes in with absolutely no idea about what they want to do other than play bass. That's cool. I'm not talking about a 5 year plan.
I'm just talking about having even a vague idea of what you might want to be able to do after, say a month's worth of lessons. Not too big, right? As you go along that path, with your teacher helping in this endeavor you will get more ideas for more goals.
If you go to a teacher and say something like "I would really like to be able to play walking bass lines" a qualified teacher should have some sort of methodology or curriculum laid out to help you on that path.
Here a handful of ideas...
I want to:
1. Play 'this' song
2. Walking bass lines
3. Be able to improvise and create my own bass lines
4. Learn how to play with a drummer
2. Record lessons, take notes
Somebody once told me that a "short pencil beats a long-term memory any day of the week." I like to say that a good recording beats a short pencil any day of the week and that's why I've recorded 97% of the lessons that I've taken over the last 8 or so years either on my phone or some sort of portable recording device. Why wouldn't I? I'm paying for them, I should be able to take them home! I've taken lessons with some pretty cool cats and I'll tellya that although you get an hour's worth of good info there's sometimes that 5-10 minutes of just sage, hip, non-instrument specific wisdom that can't be repeated! It's like that one little nugget that, if you miss it, it's gone forever.
Sage-hipness aside. Having a recording is a documentation of what actually happened in the lesson, something that you can review to make sure that you're doing what you're supposed to be doing until the next lesson. It's also a great reminder of where you've been in your development. A recording will let you know if you're improving or not.
3. Take ownership
Let's be honest. You've got to practice. You just have to. I know we've all got busy lives with legit responsibilities and of course there are the not-so-legit aspects of life like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. You've got to be present, take notes, record and then take those things home and put them to use and it doesn't take countless hours of practice per week. Go back to the recording - if you're driving to and from your lessons use that time as "drive time university" .
You've heard it before, I'm sure , that a few minutes of focused practice beats an hour of unfocused noodling. It's true. I suggest at least 30 minutes a day of practice for the serious hobbyist. I know that it is more than doable but you've got to decide to take ownership.
Taking ownership goes both ways. Your teacher needs to be prepared when you arrive. In most cases they will expect you to have worked on something and they should be ready to review if necessary, answer questions and then take you to the next level.
4. Make sure that your teacher is qualified to teach
This is huge. If you're goal is to learn the bass seek out teachers who's main instrument is bass. Technology is so amazing nowadays that even if there isn't a bass teacher in your area there are plenty of people who are more than qualified to teach via Skype. There are a ton of great teachers out there (myself included) who are leveraging technology to provide quality lessons to students all over the world.
Sure, there are many great teachers who can teach you a thing or two about non-instrument specific topics and even get you started off to a certain extent but even a guitar player who 'sits-in' on bass from time to time is not going to be able to give you the same information as a cat who's main gig is bass.
For instance, I teach beginning violin. Key words - Beginning violin. A beginner violin student should only be with me because they are on a waiting list for a person who plays the violin or haven't found a violinist to study with. Sure, I'm qualified because of my college experience through the Music Education program and the hands-on teaching that I've done since college but I'm qualified to walk a student through a book like "Essential Elements for Strings" (great Hal Leonard book series) I have to be honest with the student and refer them to a qualified violin teacher as soon as possible.
Its really tough to be succinct about this but here's a quick list of things to look for.
1. How does this person communicate? Do they listen more than they talk? Do they ask questions? Do they tune into you and your needs? Being a good player and being a good teacher are two different things. Sometimes they exist in the same person. Sometimes they do not. Learning how to tell the difference is in your best interest when seeking out music instruction!
2. Is bass his/her main instrument or second or third choice?
3. Do they have a curriculum or do they just wing it and ask you what you want to do when you show up ?
Tell me what you think! Do you think that these are some suggestions that you can start taking with you into your music lessons or use to find a qualified instructor? What other ideas do you have about getting the most out music lessons —and how are you implementing them?
Let me know in the comments.
Share these tips if you find them helpful and be sure to leave a comment below!