How do you learn the bass? Time-honored procedures largely consist of getting a method book and practicing – with help from a teacher, if available. Or starting with simple tunes you can play in a group, then working up in complexity. As adults, we may find we are progressing slower than young bassists, or that the closer we get to our playing goals, the more difficult they are to achieve. Adults will have to become more reflective than kids about their own learning process – apart from just learning the bass, you’ll benefit from spending some of your time studying something you may have been taking for granted: knowledge acquisition skills (how to learn). This is what’s meant by “You are your best teacher/only teacher/you can only teach yourself”. And unlike young students whose teachers may be very well-trained in effective pedagogy, we adults have grown into such a wide variety of beings that only we can design our own pedagogy.
We’re facing two challenges: our learning tactics have been pruned since childhood into only what we need to manage in our lives (we’ve lost some we had as kids), and secondly, learning the bass requires different learning tactics than we’ve ever needed before. Take a look at this handy chart:
Note this pyramid is VERY DIFFERENT than the conceptual pyramid you’d draw for yourself as you advance in technique – when, having honed your learning skills as well as your bass technique, the zone for Musicality and upgrading your gear will be much larger (for example). [Note: the topics of Musicality, Equipment and Technique Materials (e.g., method books) are for another day – this article will be interminable if we try to cover it all!] At earlier stages, the broad base of the pyramid is learning how to learn. All learning takes place through learning skills, so the more acquisition skills you have, the shorter your path to the apex of your pyramid. The tougher the time you are having advancing on the bass, the greater the payoff from the investment in learning skills. Your learning skills are your bank account – cast a broad net in the form of understanding how to learn, and you’ll have a wealth you can apply to most rapidly and efficiently acquiring bass technique. The player who’s struggling at the bass, full of self-doubt or old habits that won’t die, is painfully making payments on his future at a high rate of interest.
So what learning skills are we talking about? These are largely up to you to discover (oh, joy.) – as indicated when your progress toward your goals hits a plateau or you find ‘blind spots’ where you can’t understand what your teacher is telling you to do. Trace it back, start asking questions such as “how did you learn that?” and you’ll find a surprising learning tactic that will get you through the problem. Here are a few basic ones:
- Defining your goals – although it may seem to be a one-time procedure, the practice of keeping your goals in mind each day serves as a framework for all of your other moves. Do you have a clear picture of your goals? Fuzzy picture = slow progress. If your goal as a bassist is, for example, “get good enough to play in a band”, go back and refine it – what band do you really want to be playing with? What would you do to prepare for that job? Make a factual list – not limiting yourself to what you think you can do right now. This can completely re-shape your practice time from general-purpose scales and standard tunes into transcribing that band’s bass lines and going in to your lesson asking for specific fingerings on how to play a certain arpeggio.
- Inputting to your muscle memory, long-term memory, and unconscious: taking great care to understand each move you are practicing, and doing it properly (under-tempo and at a very moderate dynamic) each time you practice it. This requires tremendous patience as well as awareness of what you’re doing. Every time you repeat a move, you’re programming a very powerful computer which does not “unlearn”, so if you input an out-of-tune shift or use a bow hold that will eventually not work when you need to learn spiccato, you will have to spend just as much time overlaying an ineffective habit with a good one later.
- Visual, auditory, kinesthetic or tactile – do you know which your main learning style is? Does your teacher? Are you in agreement on it? If you’re a visual learner, asking your teacher to demonstrate a move is worth three lessons of trying to learn it by verbal description. If you’re a kinesthetic learner, trying something out with the guidance of a coach will be more valuable than attending a seminar. If you’re an auditory learner, but the band you want to be in uses charts, you’ll have to include sight-reading as part of your practice routine, and turn a weakness into a strength. Regardless of whether your main learning pathway is tactile, your brain communicates with your body through touch. Have you developed your awareness of the vibration of a string when the bow is in the right place relative to the bridge? Do you know the feeling under your left-hand finger when a note is in tune vs. out of tune? This feedback from your instrument is always there to inform you about making precise moves and adjusting when necessary.
- Different learning languages: do you respond better to tactical input (tips and tricks, metrics) or conceptual (make beautiful music)? Can you deliberately switch tactics when you need to get off a plateau? Some people become very stressed by being told exactly what to do: “get this up to tempo by your next lesson”, “practice for an hour”, “do this scale fingering”, etc., but are enabled by their teachers’ encouragement to express themselves and find pieces to learn that are inspiring. The person who prefers tactical information will find that confusing (if you’re telling me to express myself, why are you stopping and correcting me?), but is relieved to know exactly what concert tempo is expected. You’ll have a preference, but will also need to be able to work with the other “learning language”, if it’s a weak point for you.
- Whether you are a ‘tactical’ fan or not, measurement is an invaluable learning skill. If you can measure it, you can improve it. If your downbow is straight up to this piece of tape and then goes crooked, you can find in the mirror how to adjust your posture. If you know you can play this passage at 80, you can learn to play it at 86. If you commit to starting practicing at 4pm, you know you can’t spend 10 more minutes reading stuff on your phone.
- Are you full of reasons why your practicing isn’t effective, and at the same time not being procedural with your practice time (example: “I’ve been working on this movement for three months and it’s not getting better – I’m just not talented” instead of unfailingly spending ten minutes a day practicing the bow stroke under-tempo with a metronome)? An applicable learning skill here would be analysis – break the problem down into individual left and right hand movements and rehearse them diligently. A great quote for these times: “Work will work when nothing else will work.” – Shay Carl in Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss. Takes all the expectation and angst out.
PLAYING POSTURE AND FITNESS
A primary consideration is the bass being a very physically-demanding instrument to play – in short, remember the old days when the tallest boy on the first day of orchestra was assigned the bass? Now, it’s open to anyone who wants to play, but there’s also no warning label: if you’re short or small, you’re in for A LOT MORE WORK to get to advanced or elite level on the double bass without playing injuries. It wasn’t enough to squeeze in an hour after dinner practicing the bass – now you’re telling me I have to find time to do push-ups and stretches too? In a word, yes – but rather than thinking of it as IN ADDITION TO practicing the bass, developing a baseline (ha! pun!) level of fitness IS THE SAME THING AS PRACTICING. More about this in subsequent articles. Here is a quick list of considerations that you can self-evaluate and which will allow you to proceed as unimpeded as possible:
Posture and position – looking the same with and without the bass in hand. Try this: look at your profile in your practice-room mirror, standing or sitting with healthy, relaxed posture, without your bass – then have someone hand you the bass. Keep your posture as you begin to play – go back and adjust your endpin and/or stool height so you can play without hunching. You’ve probably heard over and over how important it is to keep your shoulders level and sternum elevated – it’s for real. I can’t include a copyrighted image here, but search “Snoopy doghouse vulture” and tape that picture to your practice notebook to remind you to stay straight and level.
If you sit to play: ensuring that you’re ‘perching’ against the stool with your pelvis level (not tilted up on one side) rather than sitting back on your rump with your thighs on the seat – this leads to a host of problems.
Standing: your weight is equally on both big toes “ready to run” – not on your heels. Lots of reasons for this: it uses the arch of the foot to support your weight and prevents locking the knees and lower-back strain, and more factors translated to the upper body.
Neither wrist is off-axis to your arm: the left wrist is gently arched, not collapsed, in thumb position, and the right wrist is not twisted to the left (French bow with a back-loaded hand) or right (German bow turning the stick outward too far).
Do you know what you body’s actually doing? Test your proprioception. Choose a foot position from this chart. Close your eyes and put your feet in what you think is the same posture, then open your eyes. Eye-opening!
Is your head full of clutter? You must be a perfectly normal adult. Have you heard of the BE-DO-HAVE paradigm? It goes something like (in order): Who am I (BE) – What must I (DO) to achieve my – goals (HAVE). Kids aren’t cluttered – they don’t question who and what they are (BE) – clarity is something they HAVE, so they can pass from BE to HAVE with minimal DOing in between. However, as adults with full lives, clarity is something you must DO before you HAVE it. In regards to our bass-playing goals and desires, learning to laser focus every moment the bass is in our hands is the difference between cutting down the mightiest tree in the forest with an 8-horsepower chainsaw or a herring.
Try this exercise: open up the stopwatch on your phone. Look at your index finger. Don’t think about anything else – you’re not evaluating your finger, just looking at it. Stop the stopwatch when anything breaks your focus – any words or other thoughts jump into your head, including how long this is taking, or what a great job you are doing focussing! How long did your attention stay unbroken? Reset the stopwatch and try again with your eyes closed – just imagining your index finger. Do you have even less attention span?
You can think of this image as your “viewfinder of attention”. Learning/improving is taking place in the viewfinder of your attention. Stuff outside the binoculars isn’t getting input into your muscle memory. Although it is not an absolute requirement that you be physically LOOKING at what you’re doing (feeling and listening must also take place), it’s certain that your eyes won’t lie – imagine you’re looking through this binoculars shape at (for example) the contact point where your bow hair touches the string, focus your attention on it, and you will absolutely cause yourself you draw a straight bow. Permit an intruding thought about starting the laundry or reading the text that just came in, and your attention goes haywire – taking your playing progress with it. You may be listening for intonation in your scales – when your attention wanders, imagining your “viewfinder/binoculars” is an easy way to re-focus.
We’ve hardly scratched the surface here – I’ll break some of these topics out into more detail in future posts. Happy practicing!