Jeff Berlin's Basser Instincts: Untethered Souls, Academics & Language Learning

To paraphrase a bit on David Letterman's old NBC show, “Letters, I get letters!”
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TO PARAPHRASE A BIT ON DAVID LETTERMAN’S old NBC show, “Letters, I get letters!” Thanks folks for your many written queries—let’s get right to them.

Preston pleads, “Help! I practice daily and go over the material for my gig, but when I get onstage and play, I become my own worst critic. Inevitably, I begin unraveling mentally; I miss notes, mess up the groove, or my plucking hand will start shaking uncontrollably. I have to find out a way to get out of my own head when I play in public. Do you have any advice on how I can strengthen my mental execution in performance?”

Hi, Preston. There is a fantastic book on this subject written by Michael Singer called The Untethered Soul. This book deals exactly with your complaints about the critical voice in your head. You might be interested to know that everyone has the same complaints about the voice in their head to some degree. Lecturer Eckhart Tolle goes further and refers to this inner voice as a true mental illness—an illness that we all share, by the way. Regarding your gigs, just know that nobody is listening that carefully when you play. Even when your hand is shaking, people who are listening don’t even notice. Gigs are usually places where people come for musical entertainment, not musical enlightenment. The audience simply doesn’t notice things like shaking hands or some confusion in playing. Even the great jazz vibraphonist Gary Burton says the majority of his audience doesn’t need to know about music to know what he is doing. So, be of good cheer. No one can tell what is happening with you. Also, you are not your thoughts, but are separate from them. To show you this, let’s try an experiment: In your mind, say the word “car” five times slowly. Now in your mind, say the word “house” five times slowly. Afterward, did you notice there was the part that said those words, and a part that watched? Be in the part that watches as often as you can. This will invalidate the mental messages you are telling to yourself. Read Singer and you will learn more about this.

Peter writes, “If I don’t like jazz, can’t I study other kinds of music to learn how to play?”

Thanks for writing, Peter. My suggestion is that you not avoid learning jazz. As an academic music, jazz is the best music to study. Learning it doesn’t necessarily mean you will become a jazzer. It means you will improve as a player through working on perfect musical content. The goal of all players is to play what you hear inside of yourself. If you cannot play what you hear inside, then you either don’t know where the notes are on the neck, or you don’t know what the notes are. There can be no other explanation for a lack of playing ability, which makes the solution to this problem easy: Learn music on your bass. Why is jazz study so effective? Because it is pure content applied directly to your instrument. There is no better way to improve—not in academics. I wish you luck with this.

Dragan says, “Most people would agree with the notion that learning music is like learning a language. However, being a linguist by profession, I would amend that statement with one very important missing detail: Learning music, as a player, is like learning a foreign language. Which makes the learn-byexposure/ immersion/imitation approach much less effective.”

Hello Dragan. Imitating and being exposed to our language since infancy (English in my case) is a true-life experience. But bass players should remember that we all follow this experience with 12 years of academic training in reading and writing. If we learn our language academically in school, and if bass players feel that music is a language, then shouldn’t music be learned in school the same way a language is learned? “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.” I learned that metaphor in school. Come to think of it, I learned what metaphor meant in school, as well. Your foreign language reference never occurred to me, so thank you for the new point of regard. I would like to give this some thought.



Jeff Berlin has toured and recorded with such artists as Frank Zappa, Bill Bruford, Allan Holdsworth, and Billy Cobham. He has released eight solo albums and is music director at the Players School of Music in Clearwater, Florida. You can reach Jeff with questions or comments on this column at


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