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I hope this is a valid question and not too subjective:

I'm mainly a bass player, and I follow a pretty strict practice regimen on bass - a series of exercises using a metronome, that follow an organized plan based on the circle of 5ths, working on various modes and positions.

I rarely miss a day from this regimen, which takes about an hour to get through. Afterwards, I'll play through some tunes that interest me and/or reflect certain things I'm working on at the time. Sometimes I'll just play through the changes with a drum machine, sometimes I'll play with a recording.

I've been doing this for about 3 years running, after many years of on and off, disorganized playing and practicing, in groups and on my own.

It does happen sometimes, particularly lately since I'm now a 'senior citizen', that I just don't feel up to practicing - sometimes it's a physical reason, sometimes it's a psychological reason - whatever...

When that happens, I won't do my exercises, but I will sit for an hour or two and play through a bunch of tunes of different sorts, depending again on what I'm working on and what I'm in the mood for at the time. That works because I'm always up for playing purely for enjoyment.

In the end, I never go a day without playing, to keep my hands agile and my head in the music. But, sometimes I skip my exercises. I don't feel I'm losing much by taking that "occasional day off" - maybe it even helps me to stay engaged, particularly if I'm not out and playing at the time.

Is this "OK"? Do I risk losing my edge or not advancing properly if do this more than 'once in a blue moon'?

Is playing a bunch of tunes like that as good as "practicing"? How much can I 'let it slide' regarding regimented practice?

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    I think you're spot on. Cultivating creativity, passion, interest, and enjoyment can be as important as cultivating technique. Without an interest in the instrument, practice isn't sustainable. You're doing your technique a favor in the long-term by making the bass something you'll want to practice over 20 years, 40 years, etc. You might add transcribing bass licks/solos that you like and playing them along with the recording. My experience is that this sort of work builds ear-training, musical intuition, technique, and enjoyment. – jdjazz Nov 20 '17 at 3:40
  • @jdjazz - (Note that I honed the question a bit more finely now.) Transcribing is cool, yes. But my time and energy for practice are limited - I work a real 'day job' that's not easy, and transcribing will invariably take away from my playing time, so it doesn't happen too often. I don't think I have great talent - fair to middling at best - but I do have a good musical memory - once I 'hear' something, I remember it and file it away, so I do have plenty of 'transcribed material' in my head. (No, it's not the same as writing it out - I know that.) – Stinkfoot Nov 20 '17 at 4:18
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    If a "pretty strict practice regimen" means doing the same exercises every day, I'd tell you to be a little more varied. Technical practice is most effective when challenging both brain and fingers. This could be accomplished by improvising: find stuff that is hard to play, like patterns for traversing scales, and practice that. Tunes are also great for this, so my verdict is: Do play more tunes. Do take days off (wanting to take a day off could mean you practiced two days' worth yesterday). Don't stop practicing theory or technique. Do try to have fun. – Ye Dawg Nov 20 '17 at 5:44
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    I think you can take it even further. On several occasions, I've praised students for their improvement from last lesson, only to be told 'I've hardly had time to play this week!'. I'd love to know why and how that works - it doesn't very often - but maybe the break gives time for the last lot of stuff to settle in. Doesn't work for everyone, I guess, but it's worth a try. – Tim Nov 20 '17 at 8:22
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    @Tim It seems to be a common experience that coming back from a break, one is mysteriously better.Regarding your second question, it's never perfect, so from that point of view, never. But after that, it depends what you want to do. If you're having fun, then you know how fun it is and that tells you when you're mostly "done". If you're in a band, you have to be good enough to not train wreck. If you're gigging, you just have to fool the audience. – Todd Wilcox Nov 20 '17 at 15:07
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The boring repeated exercises are good for solidifying the difference between average and great: if it's effortless to play scales fast and regular and with consistent intonation and articulation, then every intentional difference counts that would otherwise get drowned out in a sea of involuntary sloppiness.

The problem is that perfection has diminishing returns. You probably won't notice the difference of skipping a single day. Two or three days, and you'll notice. Two more days, and your co-musicians notice. Two more, and the audience, while not being able to put a finger on it, is less enamored.

The problem is that once you start skipping without any obvious ill effect you'll skip more and more until there is a difference.

One possible way to deal with this is "rotating crops". Take a set of somewhat different exercise sets, and work them in a regular pattern including an exclusive day of "as I like it" (fooling around with new stuff not likely to be in your repertoire anytime soon, digging out old stuff and polishing it, or even, gasp, doing nothing) every 6 days or so.

  • One possible way to deal with this is "rotating crops"... - I like that idea, although sometimes I think certain things get diluted with 'rotation': Sometimes I'll work for two or three days to get a difficult scale or chord under my fingers and digest it well - interrupting that process won't work so well. – Stinkfoot Nov 20 '17 at 16:12
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Best practice practice [note grammatical correctness there :-) ] is to do both. Since a large portion of music is made up of scales and 'standard' intervals, learning those is like learning specific motions or strenght-building exercises for athletes. Learning to play songs gives you the chance to bring dynamics, phrasing, accents, etc. into play -- not to mention being able to play the songs well during performances.

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I think the best answer to your question is yes, with the caveat that if you only play songs for fun every day, you will advance more slowly.

I taught myself to play guitar by only playing songs for fun. I bought tab books and magazines and later got online to search out tabs for my favorite songs and learned to play them from tabs. Some songs took me over two years to learn to play through at tempo.

That is literally all I did to learn guitar. Now I teach guitar. And now I practice scales and do finger exercises, etc. I learned a lot more slowly than my students do, but I never quit and I never disliked the process because it was pretty much 100% fun the whole time. I didn't care about how good I was, I just wanted to play.

One thing to think about when determining how much time to spend "practicing" (doing an exercise specifically for a skill) versus "playing" (having fun making music) is what your end goal is. Are you playing an exercise to learn a skill in order to play something later on that will be fun? Are you preparing for some personal or professional project or gig? If so, then it makes sense and go ahead. If you're just playing random scales or sweep picking for two hours with no end goal in mind... then why? If it's fun for you for its own sake, then do it! And I would wonder whether that's actually "playing" that looks like "practice".

I started playing guitar to have fun, so I only do the things that will help me with that. That said, I have found it fun to work on musicals at the community theater level (as one example), and some of those scores include no tab, so I have worked to learn to sight read so I don't feel like an idiot in rehearsal. Aside from targeted goals like that, I do what makes me happy. I suggest to all of my student that they do the same. Otherwise, what's the point?

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    That is literally all I did to learn guitar- And now I practice scales and do finger exercises, etc. - Same here. When I first started playing, many moons ago that's all I did - spent hours learning tunes and riffs, and I played in bands and jams without any other form of practice. After some years, when I started to want to play more seriously and attack more difficult stuff, I realized I had to become more disciplined. But what I do now in a practice is not mechanical exercises - it's all linked to theory I'm studying and the best fingering positions for certain applications. – Stinkfoot Nov 20 '17 at 16:16

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