Saturday, October 27, 2007

Improvised Inspiration

Inspiration to change one's routine can come from some unexpected sources. This week I purchased a new tool in my "practice more/obsess about it less" arsenal: a comfy, portable stool! Yes, something that simple has gotten me to my bass consistently for the past five days; I've even been working on things that have been historic stumbling blocks for me. I've been doing this out of actual desire as opposed to guilt, and that's a welcome change.

For bass players who have struggled with stance, balance and posture (as I have on and off for most of my career) I can recommend one possible solution IF you've decided that sitting may be the most efficient and comfortable way to play the beast: The bass stool made by Danny Shannon at This thing is lightweight. It sets up and breaks down easily. And it is as comfortable as the thick Yamaha drum throne I used to schlep around with me. The Quikseat is far better than any other bass stool I've seen and is well worth the $165 price tag.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

VIDEO: Walking Bass Lines - Tritone Substitution

I've posted another video for jazz bass players on YouTube. In it I explain the theory and use of the tritone substitution on dominant harmonies.

Part one:

Part two:

Sunday, October 14, 2007

When There's Nothing To Be Done

File this post under frustrating bass player situations.

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There are times when I feel that I am powerless to do anything to make the music I'm trying to play "work". My first instinct when things are going awry on the bandstand is to assess what it is that I'm doing to make this moment (tune, set, show, entire night) sound or feel wretched. I'm sure that sometimes I really am the primary cause for the musical dysfunction. I mean, the law of averages pretty much guarantees that some of the time I am (in the words of the legendary Joe Daley) "not making it, babe."

But at least a decent percentage of the time, once I get past trying everything I can think of to "fix" what I'm doing, there are bad things happening in this musical moment that I simply have no ability to rectify. I'll trying playing softer if it seems like I might be getting in someone's way. I'll try being more aggressive if it feels like the time is wobbly. I'll attempt to focus on one specific thing; intonation, say, or just locking in with the drummer's ride cymbal. But it is often to no avail. I had one of these experiences last night.

I was playing a gig in a high profile location, in front of several hundred people in a concert situation. The singers were uniformly excellent (a rare treat) and everyone was "into" the event. But the thing was SO disorganized, the sound was SO awful and one of the players has SUCH dreadful time that I was unable to enjoy what should have been a nice if not memorable engagement.

I really wanted things to go well. I like most of the folks I was playing with. One of them is rather well-known - a guy I played with some decades ago but hadn't seen in a long time. I would have liked to walk out of there feeling like I contributed to a good (or how about excellent?) performance and I tried my damnedest to make that happen. But sometimes there's nothing to be done.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

10,000 Hours

I've been immersed in a fascinating book called This Is Your Brain On Music. The author, Daniel J. Levitin, is a musician/recording engineer/producer turned neuroscientist. Despite the unfortunate title, the book is a serious exploration of the connections between music (from both a listening and playing perspective) and the brain.

The chapter that most interests me discusses the venerable talent vs. hard work dichotomy. When it comes to developing true expertise as a musician, is it innate, genetic predisposition that matters most? Or is it what Artur Rubinstein referred to as "sitting power?"

The strongest evidence for the talent position is that some people simply acquire musical skills more rapidly than others. The evidence against that talent account - or rather, in favor of the view that practice makes perfect - comes from research on how much training the experts or high achievement people actually do. ...experts in music require lengthy periods of instruction and practice in order to acquire the skills necessary to truly excel. In several studies, the very best conservatory students were found to have practiced the most, sometimes twice as much as those who weren't judged as good. (p. 196)

The emerging conclusion is that experts in many fields (sports, literature, composition, performance of every kind) need about 10,000 hours of practice time to achieve world-class levels of proficiency. 10,000 hours is the equivalent of 3 hours a day, seven days a week, for a period of 10 years. These studies do not address the differences in the efficacy of practicing for different people (which is known to vary widely). But when we're discussing performers on the level of Michael Jordan or Philip Roth or Yo Yo Ma, there apparently have not been cases where truly world class expertise was developed in less time.

According to Levitin, who runs the intriguing sounding Laboratory for Musical Perception, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University, this 10,000 hour theory is consistent with what science knows about how the brain learns. The genetic components for musical expertise are also crucial. Such things as physical size may determine that one is more suited for the double bass instead of the piccolo, for instance. Other relevant genetically linked physical traits include manual dexterity, eye-hand coordination, and memory. Determination, self-confidence and patience are certainly requirements for becoming a highly skilled musician; those traits are inherent as well.
Levitin has a broad range of musical taste and knowledge, which helps make the book approachable, whether you're a baroque purist, a mainstream jazz aficionado or a Joni Mitchell fan. For the scientifically savvy there's also a certain amount of detail regarding areas of the brain that are engaged when we listen to or perform music.

Finally, Levitin writes with passion about the emotional content of musical performance. He notes that "so much of the research on musical expertise has looked for accomplishment in the wrong place, in the facility of the fingers rather than the expressiveness of emotion."(p. 208) Since we go to music (as well as other forms of art) to be moved emotionally, it seems that being an expert musician ought to include the performer's ability (or lack thereof) to communicate with listeners in a meaningful way. Quantifying these skills is, alas, no easy task. But Levitin and his colleagues around the world are focusing some of their attention on these more mysterious matters. It may be just a matter of time before science is able to pinpoint the areas of the brain responsible for musical expression, sensitivity and communicative ability.

Meanwhile, it's back to the woodshed. At this point I think I've got about 7,529 hours to go.