We all strive to improve ourselves on our instruments, but we are often unaware that much of our growth occurs in situations outside of the practice room. Here’s some of the thing you can do without even needing to play a scale.
Every time you listen, you are growing. The more active and engaged you are while listening (i.e. dedicating time to listen to music rather then simply using it as background sound while doing something else), the more you will gain from it. And while listening with depth to a single recording is important, it is equally important to listen with span as well, so be sure you are constantly making an effort to expose yourself to new recordings, artists, and genres regularly.
When I was in music school, we were actually required to attend a certain number of concerts per semester because it was understood that seeing live performances is crucial to your development. I’m still amazed at how simply seeing a great artist (especially on the bass) can sometimes magically change my approach and break up routines the next time I play. If you can’t make it out much, rent some concert DVD’s or spend a little of that web surfing time on youtube.
I would say it’s impossible to really become a great musician without playing with others on a regular basis, or more precisely, it’s impossible to become a great player without playing with other great musicians. As bassists, we are often in demand enough that we can get ourselves into groups that have much better players then we are, and I assure you that if you keep showing up, you will get “pulled up” to the level around you. Play in as many school ensembles, community groups, garage bands, church groups, and jam sessions as you can.
Build a library of music related books. Everything from theory texts to biographies to music related fiction will sink back into your playing. A simple place to start that I have used since day one is to subscribe to Bass Player magazine. If you simply read an issue a month, I assure you that you will be developing a treasure trove of great information on all aspects of playing, and at not much more then a set of strings, it’s a great bargain!
Of course, the trick is to take these experiences and integrate the insights gained from them into your practice time. Hopefully, you’ll return to the “shed” with renewed sense of purpose, direction, and last, but not least, inspiration!