Bass virtuoso Tal Wilkenfeld looked back on her early days as a musician and how he was allowed to have only 30-minute practice sessions.
Although best known as a bassist, Tal started out on a guitar. It’s far from an uncommon path for bass players out there, but she started thoroughly studying the regular 6-string guitar in her high school days. Not long after, she switched to bass guitar as her primary instrument, and eventually, she became one of the most respected bassists out there. After all, not everyone could play with Jeff Beck.
While speaking to Lex Fridman in a recent podcast episode, Wilkenfeld was reminded how, at the age of 14, when she began playing, she was only allowed to practice for half an hour.
“I just grew up in an environment that was focused on academia,” she explained (transcribed by Killer Guitar Rigs). This, however, never stopped her love for the instrument or even hindered her progress in the long run. Tal added:
“And I fell in love with guitar and really just wanted the focus to be that. So my limit was 30 minutes a day, for… I don’t even remember how many times a week. Might have been every day or five days a week.”
However, in order to be exceptional on any instrument, one needs to dedicate more time to one’s daily practice routine. And since young Tal was really determined to reach for the stars, she came up with a solution.
“I just learned how to visualize the fretboard in my head,” she explained. “And I practiced all day in my head.”
For her, this is “kind of like ‘The Queen’s Gambit,’ the TV show with Anya Taylor-Joy.” It’s an interesting parallel, for sure. What’s important, however, is that the method worked. More importantly, Tal adds that this is a method she’d recommend to anyone. It’s not about saving time but rather getting a full understanding of the instrument and not just perfecting a motor skill.
“I used to do that with the fretboard, just practice,” she added. “And I actually recommend it to every musician. Because if you’re just practicing here [on the actual fretboard], you don’t know what is more dominant, necessarily.”
“Is it [in your head], or is it your motor skills? If you just take that away and do it [in your head], you know you’ve got it. So I’m glad that that happened and that I learned how to do that.”
The time restraint, however, was still a challenge. And Tal ended up doing shorter bursts of playing, with some breaks in between. As she explained:
“In terms of learning fast, because I had to try to absorb a lot of information in a short amount of time when I did have the instrument, I kind of would do things in bursts.”
“Even in that half an hour, I would just go play for a couple of minutes and then I’d stop for a minute. And then I do it again. And I noticed there was a huge difference between the first time and the second time. Whereas, if I just kept repeating stuff, it would be much slower.”
When asked what she did during that minute of downtime, Tal replied:
“It’s like my brain was telling me like, ‘Just chill out for a sec, that’s enough information, let me let me take a second to integrate that.’ That’s at least what it felt like to me.
During the chat, Wilkenfeld was also asked to share a piece of advice to young musicians on how to get good and really understand music and their instrument on a deeper level. The answer to this may not be that straightforward.
And, in some ways, it has a lot to do with what she already said about being able to visualize the fretboard and playing in your head. She replied:
“I think, first and foremost, understanding why you are playing music — if it’s because you have something that you’re trying to express, or that you’re just in love with expression itself, with art itself. Those are great reasons to start this journey.”
“I think the ‘why’ is really important because it’s a jagged lifestyle, and there’s a lot in it. So if you don’t have your purpose, if you’re not centered in your purpose, then all that jagged lifestyle is probably going to get to you.”
“It’s jagged. It’s all over the place. It’s uncertain. It’s one thing, one moment, and a completely different thing another moment. You never know what’s going to happen. And if you thrive on variety — which I love, variety — then it’s perfect.”
“But also every human being needs a certain amount of certainty and structure, and so the certainty can come from your inner knowing that you’re doing exactly what you want to be doing and knowing what your purpose is in doing it in this expression. Otherwise, you’re just kind of like a leaf blowing in the wind.”