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Beyond Bass Camp

Digging Deeper Inside the Bass, with Steve Lawson.


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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Well, I got to spend another wonderful day with the B*B*C attendees today, and another marvellous day was had. I can see me running a lot more classes like this in the future… Here are some photos from it:

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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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Beyond Bass Camp starts this Saturday, and is sold out. There’s even a waiting list.

The popularity of the idea means I’ll probably run a few one-offs, and/or 2 day weekend classes over the summer. Please feel free to post in the comments which of those you’d be most interested in, and which days of the week would work best.

For those of you that are booked in, see you on the boat on Saturday!

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This month’s Bass Guitar Magazine has a little write-up on Beyond Bass Camp, which was nice to see. There it is, in the picture… You’ll have to get the mag – or at least pick it up in a newsagents to read what they say, but naturally it’s all good 🙂

As for B*B*C progress, there’s one space left, thanks to a cancellation, on the course – Given that all the other 4 places are taken by people that are coming to all 5 classes, the deal for this last place is that you can come to as many of them as you want (for £70 each) but they have to be from the beginning. So you can come to June 20th, or June+July, or June, July, Aug etc… (more…)

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I’m always amazed – and dismayed – at how often I fail to ask the above question in my life. I spend a whole lot of time on trivial, time-wasting things as a diversion from the important things I really ought to be doing. That’s not to say that ‘trivial fun’ isn’t valid – sometimes what’s most important is some rest n’ relaxation, or a good laugh, or some time playing a computer game to wind down – it’s just that so often trivia is the default because we don’t stop to think about what it is that really matters to us and what it will take to bring that about. (more…)

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I have certain pre-arranged responses to some of the questions and comments I get about my music.

One of my favourites to throw out is to comments like “hey, Steve, you should do a whole ambient record” or “I really like the funky tunes, you should do more of that“, or any other ‘you should‘-type comments. My response is invariably “no, YOU should, cos it’s you that wants to hear it!”

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As I’ve said before, the inspiration behind finally doing Beyond Bass Camp in London is the series of annual masterclasses that I’ve given in California every January for the last few years.

The fact that I only visit California once a year means I only get to teach there once a year, but would love to be able to go and do more. In London, that’s easy 🙂

Anyway, Lobelia found these photos that she’d taken of the January 2008 class, which, other than the room it’s in being a lot bigger than where the classes will be in London, is pretty much how the set-up will work here. Just in case you wanted some context.

Sign-ups are going well for B*B*C – at this rate, it looks like the 5 places on the first 5 will be taken by people wanting to attend all 5 classes… If that’s you, do get booked in ASAP, cos a few people are deliberating. (and worry not, I’ll be running it again, possibly alongside the current class on a different Saturday, if you miss the deadline…)

here’s the Slideshow from Flickr: