The Innovators: Berklee's Steve Bailey

July 19, 2017

My previous columns in this series have profiled innovators who are designers and builders of instruments, amps, and other gear. But there are other areas where innovative thinking is benefiting bass players—one of the most important of these is education. That came clearly into focus during a discussion I had with Steve Bailey at Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Steve became chair of Berklee’s Bass Department in 2012, when he succeeded Rich Appleman, who had held the position for 40 years. Steve brought a broad and diverse background to Berklee, as a player of both the double bass and electric bass in a variety of musical settings, as well as an educator at Coastal Carolina University and the Bass Institute of Technology (and as a Bass Player columnist).

After arriving on campus, Steve spent several months observing and listening. “I would ask students, ‘What are you listening to?’” he says. “Often, I’d hear people playing one style in their lessons, but they’d be listening to another style like metal or funk or rock.” Steve responded by hiring new faculty members who specialized in areas outside of jazz, not only in response to what he had heard from the students but because of his belief in music as a universal creative language. “Western music is all built on 12 notes,” he explains, “and all the styles use the same basic rhythms, just in different orders with different ties and different syncopations. If the building blocks are the same, why can’t we study them academically? You can have a piece of music that sounds like Paganini on a classical guitar, but when you put distortion on it, it sounds like Yngwie Malmsteen. What’s the difference? Is Paganini more important than Yngwie to someone who wants to make a living with a guitar?”

This open approach to music education has transformed the Bass Department’s curriculum. “We now offer more than 50 classes where you can study a specific style or technique. In some cases, it’s one person’s contributions, like the Paul Chambers bass lab, but there are others where we have an overview.” These include classes on blues bass, metal bass, gospel bass, Latin bass, and hip-hop bass. “We’ve got a class where they’re studying the rhythms of Meshuggah,” Steve says. “That’s helped us to realize this is way deeper than you might imagine, once you write it out and study it.”

To further broaden the offerings to the department’s 370 bass students, Steve has invited many guest instructors, some for brief stints and others for more regular collaboration. Both John Patitucci and Victor Wooten are performance scholars-in-residence, positions that bring them to Berklee for one week every month during the school year. Steve lauds them for the “different ways of thinking, different ways to approach music, and different models of success” that they have brought to the school.

The revamped curriculum also emphasizes technology. “When I came up, if you played well enough, you could launch a career,” Steve explains. “But these days, just being a great musician won’t ensure you work. I encourage students to learn about technology. You have to know how to record yourself into a laptop and deliver a bass part—if you can’t, somebody else will.”

Another key aspect of Steve’s approach stresses an often-overlooked element in musical training: building relationships. “In an academic environment, you’re judged by things like how well you do on a test or how well you can play through ‘Giant Steps.’ But does somebody want to be on a bus with you on a long tour? That’s often what makes or breaks a career.”

All of this, Steve concludes, adds up to preparing Berklee’s bass students for the real world. “I’m not going to say we do it perfectly, and I see things every day that we could do better,” he says. “But our perspective is that the real world starts here. You make relationships that may last throughout your career. That’s something I emphasize: If you start learning and doing that here, you’ll have an easier time after you leave, and you’ll have a much better chance to have a successful career.”

For more about Berklee College of Music, go to berklee.edu/bass/.

Jim Roberts was the founding editor of BASS PLAYER and also served as the magazine’s publisher and group publisher. He is the author of How the Fender Bass Changed the World and American Basses: An Illustrated History & Player’s Guide (both published by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard).

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