Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Beware the Outliers, Part 2

In my last post, I defined what "outlier" means and how it applies to bass playing. In this post I'll make some comments on how we all can cope with, and learn from, outliers - whether we are one or we are learning from one.

If you are a student, you need to seek out the views of lots of teachers and players and notice when a teacher or fellow student seems to have very unusual ideas about how best to play. It doesn’t mean that those views are wrong, but it does mean that you should be a little more skeptical of those views. The person could have unusual, outlier elements in his or her playing style and those may not work for you. It can feel weird to be skeptical of your teacher. The tradition of classical music instruction is to see the teacher as a godlike figure who must be obeyed without question. However, I don't see that as always being the best model for teaching or learning. While we do need to respect and trust out teachers, we also need to remember that our goal isn't to just obey our teacher, but to become the best musicians that we can be. If your teacher is an outlier in some area, we could actually hold back our progress by being too slavishly devoted to their ideas. (WARNING: just because what your teacher asks you to do is difficult or takes time to achieve does NOT mean that it's an outlier idea! While you shouldn't be a slave of your teacher, you should also remember that your teacher probably knows a lot more than you do...)

The other possibility we need to each consider is whether we ourselves are outliers in some way. We are all subject to the law of averages - what works for the largest number of people is by definition the solution that is most likely to work for each of us. However, if that solution isn’t working for you, you then need to consider whether you are an outlier in that area and need to try something more unusual. There are certain features in my playing that I have been told over and over again are “wrong,” and some teachers and players have helpfully volunteered alternate, “better” options for me. In the past, I would gamely try their ideas, thinking that if they didn’t seem to work for me that it was somehow a lack of effort or understanding on my part. Eventually, I grew enough as a person and player to see that in some of these cases it was simply that my solution worked for me and not for them.

If you are a teacher, you need to be very aware of whether you are an outlier! I can’t emphasize this enough. If you have a highly unusual fingering choice, technical style, or playing posture, you should NOT assume that you have uncovered some great secret of bass playing and need to share it with all your students! While that is possible, the far more likely explanation is that you have found an unusual solution for a playing issue and that it will most likely not be the preferred solution for most of your students. I have certain elements of my own playing that I do not teach to my students because I have noticed over time that I’m one of the only people doing them successfully. Only if they are clearly struggling with the more common solutions do I propose something more unusual. This of course requires more work and focus as a teacher; many folks, consciously or unconsciously, assume that teaching consists of showing your students how you do it and having them copy you. Finding out how and why others do things differently, and presenting those ideas clearly and effectively to your students, is not always easy. It can feel like we are diminishing our own playing style and achievements. However, there’s no shame in being an outlier - being the weird one in the room can be fun and quite liberating!

One final comment on being an outlier: there are real differences of technique in bass (or any instrument), and there are LOTS of debatable points that I’m sure we could argue about all day. True outlier ideas aren’t about whether you stand or sit, or whether you use Bel Canto or Flexocor strings, or which of the five most popular fingerings for the Eccles Sonata you use. But if you use a fingering for the Eccles that no one else you know uses,and that violates some basic fingering principle like “don’t use your fourth finger five times in a row,” and you still sound fantastic, then congratulations - you may be an outlier....

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