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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’. (more…)

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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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