Thursday, December 6, 2007

Questions from a Young Bassist - Part II

by MF

Q: How important is bow technique?

A: Bow technique- Very important if the student wishes to explore all of the facets that double bass playing has to offer. Learning to play with the bow is an indispensable part of building a strong technical foundation whether or not the student wishes to play “jazz” with the bow. It’s better to begin early to develop bow technique, rather than waiting until one’s ability to make a living depends on it.

Q: How important is knowledge of theory, and what are the most important 
 theory concepts for a bass player to understand?

A: Theory- Jazz musicians USE theory constantly in a way that many classical musicians do not. We have to constantly make decisions about music based on limited or ambiguous information. Being able to quickly transpose a tune to a new key, set up a pedal to underpin a set of chord changes, analyze a set of chord substitutions or ii-V cycles, and recognize chord qualities and alterations is extremely important for any musician and is absolutely essential for a modern jazz bassist. We need to develop a practical, accessible, and useable understanding of theory. This also pertains to understanding Rhythm: the ability to count bars, keeping track of song forms, sub-divide the beat differently based on the individual needs of the music. Jazz theory, as well as knowledge of functional harmony and counterpoint is the basis of a good theoretical foundation. 

Q: Can you suggest some general ideas for practicing? How much time should 
be devoted to things like technique and intonation vs. mastering 

A: General ideas for practicing: Practice the difficult parts-not the ones that sound good! Look for the points that give you the most difficulty and work our way outward from that point (i.e. if you’re practicing a C Major scale, and the hardest part for you is shifting from your 4th finger on a B to your 1st finger on a C, just practice that shift over and over, listening very carefully to the pitch and the speed with which you’re able to adjust your intonation, work outward by one scale degree in each direction- A,B,C,D, and practice getting to and from the difficult shift point, and keep working outward until you can play the whole scale smoothly and in tune. Also be diligent about keeping a steady tempo, and not practicing faster than you can play the most difficult part, and gradually increase the tempo from there. When practicing chord changes and tunes use the same basic principals- work outward from the most difficult points in the tune-don’t play all your slick stu
ff on the 3 bars of the easy chord and rest through the tricky turnaround bar going to the new key. Practice playing through the tricky turnaround bar and then resting through the 3 easy bars! As far as the amount of time you spend on technique vs. the amount of time you spend on tunes depends on your specific goals at the time. Put it in terms of developing, and maintaining good fundamental skills in all aspects of bass playing: technique, sound production, time, tune knowledge, intonation, theory, etc.- and put in the time that’s necessary to get and keep those skills in good shape and available to you. Also, tune learning can, and sometimes should be done away from the bass. It can be a good chance to practice Piano, or even singing. Learning the lyrics to standard tunes, and being able to sing them is a great way to learn the tune “right” and to learn it the way that you may end up playing it with a vocalist, perhaps in an unusual tempo, or a difficult key. It’s better to
 learn a few tunes really well, than to know a lot of tunes halfway. It doesn’t cut it to say “I think I know that one?” or “Where does the bridge go on that one?” It’s much better to say that yes, you know it, or no, you don’t, and be able to say it with confidence. One more thing on practicing: I’ve found that when practicing scales on the bass it’s much more beneficial to practice the scale descending first, and then ascending. Often times the scale is played well ascending, and then glossed over for the more difficult descent. If you reverse that process you don’t get to the easier ascending scale until you’ve gotten reasonably competent on the descending scale.

Q: How does a bass player practice keeping perfect time? How 
practicing intonation?

A: Perfect time- Metronome exercises such as, metronome beat on beats 2&4, or beats 1&3, or eventually only on beat 4, or beat 1, or on the and of 4, or the and of 1, or later on the 3rd triplet of 8th note triplets. Also start thinking in terms of rhythmic phrases (4 bars, 8 bars, etc.) rather than beat to beat. It helps develop a stronger sense of time when one can understand the context in which it is to be applied. Example: It’s difficult to adjust your stride while you’re walking through a dark room- you’d walk tentatively, step by step. Once the lights are turned on you can adjust your stride so that you will get to the other side of the room in a fairly even number of steps. It’s similar to playing a musical phrase that you know is 4 measures long at quarter note = 132. No matter how straight or broken up you play, or the drummer plays all over it, the amount of time that those 4 bars take are the same. Perfect intonation-The practicing concepts discussed in my response to question (9) should help.

Q: Are there any method books or other resources you particularly 

A: I’m never that into method books as a sole source of information. There are a few that I’ve used and gotten some things from in the past. The F. Simandl Bass Method Books 1&2-Good for fundamental bass skills, a little rigid, and tends to be more applicable to Orchestral bass technique. The Ray Brown Bass Method- Some nice things, Rufus Reid’s The Evolving Bassist-some good ideas and concepts, The Improviser’s Bass Book by Chuck Sher has some good things, The Contemporary Contrabass by Burt Turetzky is a great book on all aspects of contemporary bass playing but is out of print and difficult to find, Other books that are interesting are The Theory Book by Mark Levine, and the Jazz Piano Book also by Mark Levine. 

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