What to practice when time is limited?

I’ve often thought much about efficiency when practicing music. I used to park myself in a practice room from dawn until midnight back at NEC and even before then. I would break my practice routines down into 15 minute increments, and have it all laid out on a schedule. Practice would occur for anywhere from 4 to 12 hours per day, including breaks of course. I was nuts, and obsessed. What can I say? 😉

Nowadays time is limited. I have a day job. I have a family. I have classes that I take at night. But I remain obsessed. After the homework is done and the kids are in bed, I might have anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours to practice on any given weekday. What do you practice when time is limited?

Some things I try to cover are maintenance. With the double bass, shifting positions and pushing the strings down to the fingerboard is always kind of an athletic event. So one must maintain a level of strength, dexterity, and muscle memory with exercises. I use Petracchi’s Simplified Higher Technique book, sometimes hit up Ludwig Streicher’s methods, and have a few exercises I’ve worked up myself to stay in shape.

Another technical maintenance issue I encounter is bowing issues. Unlike my left hand technique where I’m fairly comfortable with everything and don’t feel like I have any major challenges, my bowing arm often feels foreign, even detached from my body at times. Only after regular practice with the Zimmerman book do I feel like I have this thing working properly. It is funny – there’s only four strings and two directions your bow can go, but an infinite number of possible patterns and subtleties that occur in these four planes of existence. OK seven planes if you count double stops…

So I am wondering for all you bassists out there: What do you practice when you don’t have much time? What is the first thing you practice? What does a typical practice session look like to you?

2 thoughts on “What to practice when time is limited?”

  1. I’m so glad you raised this topic, Joe! I think efficient practicing is one of the least understood (and least taught) but most essential skills for instrumentalists.

    All of the technical work you mentioned is good – if you’ve been doing the same exercises in the same way for a long time though, it might do you good to change it up a little. Have you tried doing Sevcik bowing exercises (as an alternative to Zimmerman) or Flesch scale studies (in place of Streicher or Petracchi)?

    One nice idea I got from Philly Orchestra bassoonist Danny Matsukawa is to not segregate your technical and musical work – mix it up, play a Mozart excerpt or a short Bach movement between scales or etudes. It will keep the creative part of your brain engaged, even while you’re focusing on mechanics.

    Happy practicing, and I’d love to see you continue to write on these topics — let’s see if we can figure it out once and for all!

  2. I have not tried Sevcik, and thank you for that recommendation. I do like the Flesch scale methods and use those regularly as well.

    I did discover that if I stuck to a rigid schedule, I would only hit the first few items regularly, and the rest became sort of iffy when time was a factor. I now find myself trying to incorporate a few key exercises up front for things like bowing, shifting, and dexterity, but then don’t let myself dwell on those points and start moving on to the things I want to practice such as my solos and chamber music excerpts.

    Happy practicing to you too!

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