The Inquirer: Tips From The Teaching Trenches

To eat, pay rent, and occasionally have fun, I have a full and diverse slate of musical hustles happening at any given time.
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To eat, pay rent, and occasionally have fun, I have a full and diverse slate of musical hustles happening at any given time. While their breadth is occasionally disorienting, making it hard to focus on any one thing, I also feel lucky to have so many sources of inspiration; I’m rarely under-stimulated. Like many musicians, one of my most consistent sources of income and insight is private teaching. First, I benefit hugely from the preparatory side. Teaching is a forcing function for solidifying and revisiting long-ignored fundamental skills. I can’t authoritatively critique a student’s fretting-hand technique, for example, if I don’t have a well-reasoned and credible philosophy of my own. Second, private teaching exposes me to the fresh worldview of people at the beginning of their bass-playing journey—a position I haven’t been in for almost 30 years. It’s a chance to take stock of what it means to come up in the world of YouTube, streaming music, and easily accessible content of every type. This exposure has led me to draw a few conclusions about the unique obstacles of the moment, and ways to avoid them, as well as age-old pitfalls of the budding player.


To a person, every student I have must be taught to slow down when beginning to learn a new concept. I understand the rush to achieve a new goal—the sense of accomplishment is an all-too-rare reward on the long path toward mastery. But the tendency to play things too fast is one of the most intractable obstacles to progress. The task of the teacher, then, is to successfully convince the student that “practicing perfect,” even if that means at absurdly slow tempos, is ultimately the most productive means of getting better faster.

This is where a metronome can be a handy companion. No, I don’t think it will give a player better time (that’s already within almost all of us), but it is one of the only tangible ways of measuring technical progress, particularly if a student is disciplined enough to keep track of the tempo markings associated with new techniques and ideas. With diligence, an upward trend line will emerge, and it’s an undeniable indicator that stuff that was once impossible at a given tempo is no longer. It can help instill faith in the process.


I am no less amazed, entertained, and distracted by the musical content online as the next person, but I’m thankful I started my musical journey before there was such a thing. The glut of lessons, tips, and tricks on YouTube and elsewhere is overwhelming, and there’s often no way to ensure the veracity of the source. There’s as much terrible advice out there as there is valuable. More important, the Internet presents a sort of dilettante’s alternative to the time-tested, methodical means by which musician’s get better. With so much so easily accessible, it can be hard to cultivate the thirst for personal exploration that makes a strong foundation for progress. I think a lot of older musicians will say that the challenge of finding information was itself a way to develop a deeper and more lasting connection to music. Moreover, when the bulk of educational content was music itself, and not someone’s analysis, it necessitated going directly to the source for insight. This leads to a habit of using music as the main catalyst for growth, and that’s always the best path, which leads me to my next observation:


Hands-down without competition the single most nutritious vitamin for getting better fast is transcription. No musical task is more demanding, and thus no musical task is as comprehensively rewarding. The journey from learning a bass line off a record, to writing it down, to analyzing why it’s special, to extracting snippets for further exploration is such an immersive experience, calling on the full breadth of one’s musical senses, that it cuts to the core of what is required to make progress. Best of all, when a player is knee-deep in the task, headphones on, alert and focused, they can at least for a moment inhabit the brain of a great player—to feel the sensation of what it means to be in a great band, making a tune work. Until they’re ready to do this on their own, nothing compares. Sure, a proper transcription requires that a player put the time in to learn how to write and read notation—I could long extoll the virtues of this skill, personally and professionally—but even if that isn’t a goal, at least learning a line deeply, including how to play it and why it works, is better than any etude or exercise online or in a magazine.

BASS PLAYER Senior Contributing Editor Jonathan Herrera is the magazine’s former Editor-in-Chief. An accomplished player, Jonath an is now a full-time musician and producer. His latest endeavor is Bay Area recording studio Airship Laboratories. Catch up with him at jonherrera.comand at