The one thing that connects almost every bass player I’ve met is the desire to be better. Peoples’ motives vary; some may crave fame and success, while others simply want a greater ability to express themselves or feel the satisfaction that comes from applying themselves to a challenging task.
The reason that the world isn’t filled with amazing bass players, but rather with a large number of decent ones, is that the work required to achieve growth is either unknown or so labor-intensive that players can’t muster the consistent motivation to achieve their goals. This month I want to outline a few strategies, born out of a long playing career and the rare opportunity my Bass Player gig affords me to probe the methods and attitude of many of the instrument’s icons.
The irony of bass education is that while teachers can be a critical facet of musical development, the source material is as abundant as recorded music itself. Every concept, approach, and ingenious musical strategy is there in the music; any process that ignores this content is inherently inadequate. To me, there is no better way to get better fast than transcribing music.
Transcription demands the full breadth of one’s musical skill, thus its rewards are equally comprehensive. The headache-inducing concentration that accompanies accurate transcription is a reflection of how deeply engaged one is in the process, and it’s a critical sign that productive work is at hand. To maximize transcription’s benefits, I think you first must learn how to play a line on the instrument, before writing down a note. The rewards will be in equal proportion to the attention you give to every little nuance of the line. It’s one thing to know the notes; it’s another to mimic the technique, the slurs and articulation, note lengths, and dynamics. Once you’ve learned a line, it’s time to commit the line to paper. When you’ve notated the line completely, which includes markings for all the nuances mentioned above, the analysis phase should begin. Ask yourself why the line works so well. What is it contributing harmonically, rhythmically, and sonically to the music that captures its success? If you tackle this task consistently, you will get better fast.
PLAYING WITH PEOPLE WHO ARE BETTER THAN YOU
Beyond my personal practice, there is no one thing I can identify in my own development that spurred more insight and action than my consistent desire to jump into musical situations where I was the worst player in the room. The benefits are twofold. First, there is so much gained in seeing and hearing how good musicians conduct themselves. It’s a forcing function for rising to an occasion; your desire to be a peer will elevate your engagement with the music, while your immersion and participation in good musicianship will be a fertile territory for a critical evaluation of your own progress. Second, some of my hardest-won lessons came from not being up to snuff. I don’t really remember much of the hundreds of gigs I’ve done over the years, but I definitely remember in painfully vivid detail the times I sucked and was told as much. It’s a harsh reality, but nothing stimulates practice like our desire to never feel that crappy again.
It may sound trite, but you obviously need to practice if you have any ambition to get better. The problem is that many players don’t know how to practice. Their gentle egos and short attention spans prevent them from getting to a space in their practice that actually yields results. The more days that tick by without picking up your instrument, the more your next session will be about returning to where you were the last time, rather than growing. Once you’ve resolved that problem, the return on investment is equal to the effort. Many people “practice” things they can already do, constantly reinforcing a comfortable concept or technique because it’s painful to tackle the unknown. This is why people go decades and sound no better than they did originally. When you practice, it should constantly feel like your brain is hurting a bit. Sure, you should incorporate relief and fun into your practice by playing freely or playing along with music you know, but spend most of it at the edge of your ability and awareness. Do that as much as you can for a year, let’s say, and I promise you’ll be way better.
Bass Player Senior Contributing Editor Jonathan Herrera is the magazine’s former Editor-in-Chief. An accomplished player, Jonathan is now a full-time musician and producer. His latest endeavor is Bay Area recording studio Airship Laboratories. Catch up with him at jonherrera.com and at airshiplaboratories.com.