Must Have Gear for Every Musician
The Practice Workbook
Most musicians I know don't have one of these. They might have a list of things that they're working on and that's about it. It's imperative that you have all of your notes and practice material in one place. I find that the best solution for me is the practice binder. I use a binder because I find it easiest to make notes, rearrange, add and take things out. You may want to use your computer or your own system. It doesn't matter as long as it works for you. Simplicity is best here. You can have different sections for different things you're working on. You may want to make a section at the beginning and make a list of your goals. There's no use in getting a great practice schedule going if you're not going to have goals. These don't have to be huge 'going to be a rock star' goals but simple goals. Examples would be learning all of your major scales. learning a new style, or mastering a new technique. That way you don't pick up the instrument everyday wondering what you're going to work on next. Put all of your relevant material in your binder. Make sure everything is right there were you need it so you don't have to stop in the middle of your practice session to go looking for something. If there's something that you want to learn, put it in there. If you have any special reference material , put it in there. Following a good method/program or putting together your own would be a great thing to add along with your own exercises.
Make notes everyday on what you've done and what you need to do next. Also. list all of the reference materials and books that you need. Have notes on what you would like to learn, what you need to get, and what progress you've made.
Ok, so it's not very exciting. A tiny box that just ticks away. No beats, no bass lines or shiny buttons, just a ticking box. The truth is, every musician should spend some time practicing with a metronome. The value of a metronome is that it doesn't fill in any of the holes. You are required to play the notes in between the beats...in time. Some people call it a crutch but it only becomes a crutch when you've come to a certain level; before that, it's invaluable. Try practicing all materials with the metronome at a variety of speeds. It's surprising to find it's much harder to play some materials at a very slow tempo.
It's important that you practice with the metronome and without it. Play your scales or a song with the metronome and then try to keep the same tempo and feel without it.
There's nothing like recording yourself as a record of how you're doing and what needs to be fixed. It's hard to gauge how well you're doing something when you're right in the middle of it all. This is where recording your progress comes in. It's great for listening to yourself and scrutinizing your playing. You should try and record all facets of your practice sessions; everything from scales to technique exercises. Other ideas would be to record jams, rhythm exercises, song ideas, and of course performance pieces. I also have a recorder that I carry around with me to capture any writing ideas that may pop up.
This goes with having your own space for your practice sessions. Even if you don't read music (if you don't, you should add it to your list), you should have a music stand placed right in front of your practice space. Place your instrument right next to it on it's stand, ready to play. If you must keep your instrument in its case, have the case next to the stand. All materials that you need for your practice (i.e. music books, method books, practice notes) should be open on the stand. I also have a small table right next to the stand that has my recorder, metronome, tuner etc.
Another item that should be right beside your work area. This has a couple of functions. First, it's great for reference. Take the time to listen to recordings of material while you're working on them. There are many things that the printed page just can't convey and having the recorded version right there is critical. Secondly, the player is useful if you have jamming tracks or beats you've created to jam along to. If you're using an mp3 player, make sure it's hooked up to a stereo; headphones* just get in the way.
*If you live in an apartment or have little ones, this may not be a choice. For you folks, being organized is even more important if you want to get some quality practice time in.
Drum Machine/Jam Tracks
Have some jam/backing tracks to play along with. This can be anything from backing tracks (e.g. karaoke), to jamming software (Band-in-a-Box), to play-along CD's (e.g. Jamey Aebersold). It's important that if you're working on a certain style, that you have rhythms in that style to jam to. There are some products out there (drum machines, accompaniment keyboards, jamming software) that allow you to pick your style/key and it will provide a track for you. There are also some method books that go into detail on how to play certain styles that also include a play-along CD. Having separate rhythm tracks or a stand alone drum machine are also great to have ready to go. It's important to practice with just a drum beat or rhythm track if you're trying to groove with the rhythm section (or if you're part of the rhythm section).
All In One
Some of you might be thinking that you could probably have all of these things right on your computer and have done with it. There are free metronomes online that you can install on your computer. You could have your work/practice regimen on your computer along with all of your jamming tracks. I have found that this is not a good idea. Having all of your items on your computer actually becomes counter-productive because you will have to go looking for things just to use them. It's better to have a separate system set up just for practice. It's fine to assign your computer one task (like using it for jam tracks or using it as your recorder) but using it for too many tasks starts to get in the way of our purpose. I keep my notes and materials in a separate binder because it's there, open all the time, ready for me to add things, make notes and check my progress. I use my laptop for jamming tracks but when I find one I really like, I make a CD so I can access it over and over without having to load up a program or go looking for it on my already overloaded laptop.
Keep It Simple
That's it. Not too exciting but I'm always amazed at how many musicians don't have these essential pieces of gear. You also want to have all of the essentials for your particular instrument (picks, strings, rosin, etc.) right there just in case. The point is you want to have all of these items in arms reach so you can just pick them up and get to work. You don't want to be searching your documents, going online, wondering what you did last session, looking for lost CD's, or anything like that when you're right in the middle of your practice session. It's important to get to work and have as few distractions as possible. Have all of the items separate like I've listed above so as soon as you sit down to practice, it's all there ready to go. No excuses. No interruptions. Nothing getting in the way of you, your music and most of all, your progress.