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Beyond Bass Camp

Digging Deeper Inside the Bass, with Steve Lawson.


This post was partly inspired by Michael Manring‘s masterclass last week at Chappell’s Music Shop in London, and the conversation he and I had after it.

The catalyst was his difficulty in answering questions that required him to fragment his thinking about music – and even detach music from its place within the rest of his being/existence. It wasn’t – it seemed – that he was unwilling to. It was that to do so felt somehow dishonest, especially if the question seemed to be loaded with an expectation that a certain fragment of information – whether it be about a particular technique, bit of music theory or piece of equipment – would somehow prove to be the key that unlocks ‘music’.

The tricky thing when teaching is getting across the way that those fragments – which at one level seem to be discrete from one another – are all parts of the same whole, and that the process of learning music is an ongoing discovery of your relationship with music, what it means to you, and what the music ‘is’ that is part of who you are.

There are two contrasting but complementary sides to the idea: a fluidity that makes it impossible to use any language the implies ‘arrival‘, but also an overwhelming sense of just how important the ongoing process is. It’s the action of becoming. At its best it overrides the need to ‘look like a badass’ to a room full of bassists, or to pimp a particular piece of gear, or even to make music that other people like. (not that making unlistenable music is an achievement, just that music is too important to be measured by how many people ‘get it‘.)

So it seems to me that the best expression of that journey towards the integration of who you are and how music reflects and influences that is a pyramid. A pyramid where the lower levels are made up of lots of little things –

• pieces of equipment
• techniques
• ideas about which notes fit with which other note

elements that are learned as discrete entities just to make the processes manageable, but which each time you move up a level merge together.

So with music gear, initial thoughts about brands and types of pedals and cables becomes thought about clarity and tone, which in turn become inclinations towards a transparency of creative intention manifest as musical reality.

Likewise theory starts as a disparate collection of notes, scales, arpeggios, chords with ‘rules’ which when explored in context become a series of idiomatic experiences, as you learn what jazz/punk/latin/reggae ‘feels’ like as much as what it’s made up of, which in turn feeds into your mapping of sounds to emotions, experiences, shared cultural reference points and dispositions as music starts to represent who you are and how you see the world.

And finally technique – what starts as a series of stylistically-driven concepts – slap for funk, plectrum for punk and metal, fingerstyle for jazz, palm-muting for reggae – becomes what Michael Manring describes a gestalt – a way of engaging with and experiencing the bass as a whole, (or your instrument of choice) based on understanding its physical parameters and how your manual dexterity unlocks the potential within those parameters for creating sounds that combine with the theory and equipment in the service of expression.

All of the elements that we initially saw as discrete entities still exist. Just as when you talk in your first language as an adult, you think about communicating, not about nouns and adjectives, or how your accent influences people’s perception of you, or whether or not different degrees of vernacular expression are appropriate to the surroundings. You just talk, and completely subconsciously respond to where you are and who you’re talking to, with communication being your goal.

It’s not ‘wrong’ to focus on whatever specific element needs work, just as it’s not wrong to learn a new language, or to try and absorb new concepts and ideas in your first language. The pyramid isn’t a pejorative one, it’s about orientation. The Australian theologian and agitator Dave Andrews is want to say, ‘It’s not where you are, it’s where you’re heading that matters‘, and that’s what music learning – and therefor teaching – is all about. Orienting yourself towards that place of integration – of integrity – where music and self and all the elements that contribute towards that are combined. Where the process of making music is one of getting out of the way of the music happening.

It’s not a ‘destination’ – it’s all a journey, and your impression of what the ‘horizon’ is will keep changing as you progress. Embracing that is the first step towards integration, towards convergence.

The process of explaining that can often end up with the people you’re talking to thinking you’re bull-shitting them, trying to come up with some zen bad-ass routine to make yourself look deep. It’s why the format for Beyond Bass Camp fits my teaching approach so well – it’s not one conversation in which I try to explain all of this stuff. It’s 5 days of exploration, that are in and of themselves part of the practice of convergence. Learning by doing, and finding within the structure of the day one of the main convergence points, the place where practice, performance, composition and improvisation all just become the action of making music.

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3 Responses to “The Convergence Pyramid”

  1. Kevin Montgomery Says:

    Nice article that really put a more personal perspective on my goals as a musician. I just read an interview with Wayne Shorter that said about the same thing, but in a totally different way. Thank you very much for sharing.

  2. Patrick McLaughlin Says:

    Great post, I really like the way you summed all of this up.

    Language classes seem to follow this progression very well – starting with basic letters, forming words, forming sentences, etc. etc. all leading up to the goal of communicating an idea fluently. The red pen is eventually put down.

    However, I feel that this progression slips the minds of many music educators. It seems like a lot of music educators always keep the red pen out to fix and correct things that weren’t textbook perfect. I think this is where the downfall of music education lies right now because it more or less mutes the student’s opportunity to truly convey a personal idea.

  3. Melissa Axel Says:

    A wonderful exploration, Steve. So glad you recently mentioned it again on twitter, I’ve pointed a few fellow musicians your way to check this out. 🙂

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