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Beyond Bass Camp

Digging Deeper Inside the Bass, with Steve Lawson.


The question in the title is one that is so often ignored and yet is fundamental to the process of learning music (and a lot of other things!)

Because so much that happens in music education is based on a model established for teaching classical repertoire, the emphasis is hugely on “Is It Right?” – the notes on the page are the right notes, any other notes are wrong notes, and there are pre-established measures of what are the ‘right‘ ways to play a piece, what are the ‘right‘ techniques to use… The fact that at some point they were were established as ‘right‘ because of someone’s idea of ‘good‘ has been lost somewhere down the years – the subjective aesthetic assessment of a piece of music by the person playing it is no longer a factor in deciding whether the performance is worthwhile, meaningful, pleasing or anything else

Which, if you’re playing your own music – be it rock, jazz, pop, funk, soul, folk or open improv – is clearly nonsense. The question of “Is It Good?” is far more important than some externally imposed notion of ‘right’. The history of musical innovation is full of people doing the ‘wrong‘ thing and finding that it was ‘good‘… Better in fact than when they tried to play it ‘right‘. But in the classical tradition, that space for innovation was the sole preserve of that lofty class of musician; the composer. In truth, we’re all composers.

Composition and improvisation are very much a part of a healthy beginning in music – in fact, even kids learning orchestral instruments often write music of their own until the culture they operate in impresses upon them that they should really be playing the music of the ‘masters’, not trifling themselves with writing ‘inferior’ music. For too long, composition has been something that people grow into, or are ‘allowed’ to do once they reach a certain point. Rather than seeing writing and improvising music as two strands in the thread of musical development, they’ve been hijacked as destinations.

So it’s something that’s integral to the way I teach – encouraging students to make their own assessment of whether what they are doing is ‘good’, and developing better listening skills to be able to really hear what that are playing rather than what they think they are playing. It’s one of the huge gifts I’ve had from looping – when what you play loops round and comes back at you as part of the music you’re performing at the time, you get pretty good pretty quick at assessing it, adjusting it, and making sure that it is ‘good’ – you’re going to be hearing it a lot!

And it was also a big part of the motivation behind The Recycle Collective; my currently-on-hiatus improv music night, in which I brought together different musicians to play improvised music together, with no notion of what was ‘right’ or ‘acceptable’, just a shared desire that what we do be ‘good’. In that situation anything I choose to play is about adding to, shaping, building and moving the music towards an evolving shared idea of what ‘good’ is. It too was one of the best learning environments I’ve ever been in.

At the Beyond Bass Camp masterclasses, there’ll be plenty of time and space to consider what we think is good, get better at listening and develop the control to make happen that which we’ve decided is ‘the best‘.

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6 Responses to ““Is It Right?” vs “Is It Good?””

  1. Mike Farley Says:

    Yes, yes yes! My goodness, that needs saying, and repeating (looping? D.C. non fine?).

    I wonder if the way so many of us started in the 60s and early 70s, playing music when we were supposed to be studying Fine Art, etc., rather than in academies, led to so many Good Beginnings in those days?

  2. Mikael Suomela Says:

    Yes, the notion that music studied only via other people’s compositions via standard music notation has led many a player to believe that there is some sort of level you have to first qualify for before you can play anything of your own.

    This sort of thinking can be traced back to craft guilds where you had to be accepted by a master. Pop music has had it’s own share of self-nominated masters such as record companies etc.

    The thing of course is that by composing your own the forms of music are learned and felt much more rapidly than by any other means. “Learning by doing” – is THE statement here. John Dewey had this one correct back in the 1930’s. Composing, producing your own material and critical comparison is essential for rapid music learning. There is also the notion that composition/improvising develops ear fastly provided that honest feedback is given to the person about time-feel and note-selection. There is no right or wrong in those situations – only “functionality of playing” which of course is in many ways a subjective opinion and should be seen as such by the people giving feedback and those who receive it.

  3. John Goldsby Says:

    Nice thoughts, Steve, especially: “Rather than seeing writing and improvising music as two strands in the thread of musical development . . . .”

    I always teach my students that improvisation is just spontaneous composing. I do want to guide them in the right directions, so they do not spend a lot of time re-discovering common knowledge. But, I like to have them use their ears to decide if what is coming out of their fingers is really what they are “wanting to hear.” Once they trust their ears, then the fingers just have to follow.

  4. Patrick Smith Says:

    Right on Steve!

    Most of my compositions began as an improv and the strands continue to feed one another. Feed music actually. Took a long time to believe that my efforts where worthy but that is another subject.

  5. Zach Parkes Says:

    Fantastic post, Steve, and a very salient point about the “good vs. right” debate. Growing up through the good ol’ CA “Public School/Classical Music” system, all I remember ever hearing feedback about was the ‘accuracy’ of my performances, rather than their ‘value’, and I think this was one of the main factors that’s made the Orff Method so appealing to me. [Incidentally, do you apply any of his techniques? The ‘mindset’ you seem to be coming from seems right in line with the “internal expression” aspects of Orff music, wonderin if your methods do too? :)]

  6. The traps. « Ten Northern Music Says:

    […] Lawson, bassist and music thinker.  The first one was about the now famous Susan Boyle.  The second one describes the relationship between playing music “right” vs playing it well.  Both of […]

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