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Beyond Bass Camp

Digging Deeper Inside the Bass, with Steve Lawson.


I’ve been thinking about this a fair bit recently, and working through these ideas with a few students. The big question that spawned this concept is the one about the relationship between what we practice and the music we perform.

Anyone who’s read more than a few words from me about the process of teaching music will know that I’m obsessive about providing a musical context for everything – there are no exercises that should exist outside of an explanation and demonstration of the musical situations in which it works.

However, I do also rely heavily on intervallic permutations to generate ideas away from the age-old practice of transcribing other people’s lines.

Transcribing is a great way of seeing how other musicians employ the mechanics of playing an instrument to create magic, but there’s a layer of organisation underneath that – that of patterns based on ‘parameter and permutation’.

What that means is that we can take a fix set of notes – say one octave of a G Major Scale – and a particular interval – 3rds, for example, and work on all the possible permutations within that, all the while creating new scenarios in which to practice it – how does it work with a latin groove? Try playing a straight rock bassline under a I IV V chord progression – does it work?

What’s important with the contextual stuff is that hearing things that DON’T work is as important as hearing things that do. Why a line fails to work in a particular musical context is a bit part of how we train our ears to ‘hear’ things that work ahead of time, so we can head towards the improvisor’s goal of ‘playing what you hear’.

The other important upshot of contextualising the patterns is that it leads us automatically into the next stage – phrases.

The importance of phrases requires us to understand what improvising is, or more specifically, what it isn’t.

  • Improv resolutely is not ‘playing things you’ve never played before’, any more than a conversation is about ‘making up new words as you go along’.
  • Improv is playing ‘good things’ that you choose to play in the moment, based on the compendium of ideas, phrases, sounds, techniques and other musical devices that you have at your disposal. (with that in mind, knowing when to stop playing – or not start in the first place – is a great improvisational skill).

Which means that as we start to choose the bits from within the patterns that sound nicest and most useful to us, we begin to build up a library of ideas, phrases that we can call upon when need to, either when improvising, or as the basis for compositions…

Which leads us ever so smoothly into our 3rd stage for ordering musical material – melodies. By which I don’t just mean ‘the top line in the music’ – I’m using it more as a classification where a particular phrase is chosen as a distinct part of the composition. Not a generic or recycled phrase, but a specific element in the song, to be repeated every time that song is played.

So we move from patterns, to phrases, to melodies, allowing our taste and musical sensibility to inform the selection process, thus heightening our musical awareness, not just the speed at which we can zip up and down major scales.

So, how does that map against the way you practice? Does it sound familiar or alien? Questions or observations are most welcome in the comments 🙂

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5 Responses to “Pattens > Phrases > Melodies – Organising Musical Material”

  1. Neil Alexander Says:

    Great stuff, Steve. Very thought provoking, with many ideas aplicable to my keyboard teaching/clinician practice. I would only be so bold as to add a bit of info from Thelonious Monk – there are NO WRONG NOTES – only ones you don’t believe in. No matter what you play, epecially in an improvising context, it’s important to “stand behind them”. This doesn’t mean that you can play nonsense (or maybe it does?); but it’s more connected to Coltrane’s idea of Learning everything – all scales, modes, harmony, every possible note choice and option, “correct” or otherwise – and then letting it go.

    Anyway, enough monkey wrenches for one day. Wishing you continued success!

  2. Kevin Says:

    Hey, sounds like a lot of twiddling to me.

    Intervals off scales, diatonic arpeggios and such are all muffin and muesli to the practising musician. It’s all part of the daily struggle to able to play what you hear and not just what you can play.

    I do believe though that if you can zip up and down a scale or whatever convincingly, then you’ll be able to play slower with greater assurance and expression.

    I have a couple of personal test pieces that I revisit two or three times a year and am always encouraged when my performance of them has been improved by non related practice.

    And I fear it is a case of learning it all and then letting it go – no way round it.

    Good luck with the rest of the bass camp sessions – I still think it’s a brilliant idea.

  3. Why any good Songwriter, needs to be able to Improvise « Songwright Says:

    […] Lawson, solo bass player extraordinaire, wrote a blog post where he describes improvisation: # Improv resolutely is not ‘playing things you’ve never […]

  4. Huggums Says:

    What are intervallic permutations?

  5. Steve Says:

    What are intervallic permutations?

    …sorry, the way I wrote it there’s a bit of a disconnect between the phrase and the explanation – it’s this bit:

    “What that means is that we can take a fix set of notes – say one octave of a G Major Scale – and a particular interval – 3rds, for example, and work on all the possible permutations within that, ”



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