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Beyond Bass Camp

Digging Deeper Inside the Bass, with Steve Lawson.


Lawson Dodds Wood with Mark Lockheart, photographed by Helena Dornellas

I recently ran an ‘ask me anything‘ thread on my blog – the questions and the answers were posted in the comments, and I had intended to reblog the answers at some point. The first of them to leap out at me was one that fits better here than on stevelawson.net – a question from a former student of mine, Sam Hallam, about improv. Here’s Sam’s question and my answer:


Sam Hallam:

I’m interested in your thoughts on improvisation, and teaching improvisation.

There’s an amusing irony that a large amount of improvisational music is taught within very strict boundaries. (i.e. Bebop tunes, Rhythm Changes, whatever) and that as a beginning improviser you will mostly be able to practice with other musicians only in those idioms.

How and when is it then possible to break away from improvising in what can sometimes be a outdated and dogmatic context to truly get at the heart of what improvisation is and focus on spontaneity and MUSIC in general… rather than working on just ‘killing it’ over Oleo for the next 20 years? (more…)


A looping masterclass is something I’ve been asked about a lot over the years, but until now, I’ve only done them in Universities.

So, no time like the present, I’m doing on as part of the ‘Beyond Bass Camp’ series here in Birmingham, on July 29th. But it’s not just for bassists – it’s for any instrument, or indeed voice. All you need to have is your instrument and your looper of choice.

So why do a masterclass in looping?

Looping (or ‘live looping’ as it’s often named, to differentiate from the studio technique) has become SO popular over the last decade, largely thanks to the work of artists like Imogen Heap, KT Tunstall and Bill Frisell. It’s been around a lot longer, with people like David Torn, Robert Fripp, Brian Eno, Eberhard Weber and David Friesen experimenting with it for much longer.

There seem to be two initial defaults for ‘music that incorporates looping’ – either floaty ambient stuff, ala Robert Fripp’s soundscapes, or singer-songwriters looping the chords to their songs, and writing songs where the chorus and verse work over the same chords. Both have lead to a whole load of great music, but there are SO many more arrangement possibilities (as the recent emergence of so many beatboxing loopers has proven).

So we’re going to look at what’s possible with looping:

  • how to get the most out of it as a performance, composition and practice tool
  • ways to introduce random/interactive elements into your playing
  • harmonic ideas for richer looped arrangements
  • using a looper for doing interesting cover versions
  • methods for keeping loops sounding ‘fresh’.
  • and using a looper in the studio. With plenty of time for answering questions and exploring whatever comes up in the class!

The class will work for musicians of pretty much any level (though if you’ve just started playing your instrument, it might be worth getting a few months of instrumental lessons before coming to a class like this), and any style. Here’s the details:

  • Each class will be limited to 5 students.
  • It will run from 10am til 6pm with a break for lunch and coffee/tea breaks.
  • The cost for each class is £75 and includes lunch. Payable in Advance – payment confirms your place.
  • It will take place in Birmingham – 3 minutes walk from Bournville Rail Station (which is 10 minutes from Birmingham New St Station, with connections to the rest of the country (1hr 20 from London) and to Birmingham International Airport (10-15mins on the train)
  • All you need to bring is your instrument, looper and a cable (and if you have them, you’re welcome to bring any other pedals you use) – amplification will be provided.
  • To register an interest, email/tweet/fb me, state which class you want to attend, where you’ll be coming from, any relevant musical background stuff and your preferred payment method, along with contact details and any food allergies/exclusions.


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’. (more…)

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Last Wednesday, I was speaking at a conference at Leeds Metropolitan University. I gave a keynote talk – the usual stuff about how great the changes in the music industry are for musicians etc. – then I did a workshop/brainstorming session on ‘recording and marketing music on zero budget’, which produced some pretty creative thinking from the assembled group.

But it was the last session I want to address here, a panel discussion on ‘how many graduates can the music business accomodate?’. (more…)

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The process I outlined in the previous blog post can be reversed when we start working on drawing musical information out of learning someone else’s music.

I often classify this loosely as active vs passive learning.

  • Passive learning leads us to learn the song we’re working on, play it like the original, tick that box and move on.
  • Active learning asks why the line is the way it is, what lead to it being like that, what the musical elements are the comprise it and how we can make them our own.

So from melodies, we can extract phrases – elements from within the tune or riff or bass-line that are transposable, that we can build variations on, that we can put into other music contexts, we can harmonise to create a different emotional layer on top of the now-unrecognisable line. We can draw out all kinds of material that we can then use in our own music, which hopefully is happening anyway as we build/find context in which to practice the phrases we’ve identified as existing within the melody.

And then, in order to make sure that our own musical prejudices and limitations don’t stop us from discovering the hidden gems in the phrases we found, we can process that material even further by way of applying our ‘parameter and permutation’ approach to the phrases, so see what other patterns are in there, which in turn lead us to less obvious phrases, leading back to melodies…

The combination of having a distinct process for turning ‘music’ into ‘my music’ with a learning approach that demands context for every exercise removes the need for a lot of the questions about ‘where’s the value in this?’ or ‘what’s the point?’ – if the value isn’t apparent in the specific thing you’re practicing, move on and try something else – there’s so much amazing music out there to be found, that spending hours frustrating yourself in exercises that have no apparent learning outcome is just a recipe for being put off the instrument.

By all means dig deep into complex and challenging music – understandable doesn’t mean ‘simple’ it just means that the nature of the outcome is somehow linked to the material being worked on, whoever seemingly complex or basic the start point.

Does that make sense?

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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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OK, this is one of the best presentations on learning music I’ve seen in ages.

I got to play with Evelyn Glennie a few years back, in her studio – she had been talking to Rick Turner about electro-acoustic music, and he’d advised her to talk to me about looping. I went to meet her and talk to her about looping and processing, and demo the Looperlative for her. Her sensitivity to everything we played, every processed element I added to her percussion, was incredible. Her profound deafness was certainly no impediment to her musical performance or her ability to collaborate. Given just how quickly she reacted to every change, and how sensitive her touch was, one could just as easily suggest it was an advantage, based on experiential evidence alone.

What certainly is advantageous is the way that Evelyn has used her profile as a musician and her unique history in studying and performing music to speak about learning music, and learning in general, across the globe. Including the talk embedded below from the Ted Conference.

It’s no overstatement to say that this is one of the finest presentations I’ve ever seen on learning an instrument. Evelyn demonstrates and explains so clearly many of the things I talk about when teaching, particularly the point about learning music in the context of playing music, rather than what I refer to as ‘practicing practicing’ – getting good at musical exercises without rooting them in the magic of playing actual music.

Watch, learn, be inspired:

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On the blog post announcing Beyond Bass Camp, Kevin posted a very pertinent question relating to syllabus/curriculum. So here’s an outline of the kind of approach I’ll be taking.

As with everything I teach, much of the content will remain fluid and be based on the needs and personalities of the musicians who attend… Having taught privately now for 20 years, and lead masterclasses of this type for about 6 years, I’ve found that the best format is to have an outline of the ‘approach’ and allow the detail of the content to form itself in response to those needs.

That said, each day long class will be split into 3 two hour sessions. (more…)

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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(more…)

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Photo of Steve Lawson from someoneoncetoldme.com licenced under creative commons

The title of this post is taken from a book by American futurist and Christian writer , Tom Sine. The thrust of his book is that by chasing ‘stuff’ – bigger/better/faster/more – we end up missing the magic in life, that which we were born to do.

As musicians, the parallels are many – I know so many musicians who are downcast not because their music is in any way ‘bad’ but because in the pursuit of someone else’s idea of what music needs to be in order to succeed, they’ve ended up playing music they have no belief in, love for, or commitment to. (more…)

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