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What We Really Need to Teach Jazz Bassists in School

Nov 11 | Posted by: Robert Sabin |

“Everybody wants to do the new thing, but they don't want to do what is necessary.” John Wooden

There is a trend that has been going on for several decades with regard to the learning of musical instruments, double bass, and jazz improvisation in particular.  It is the creation of a pedagogical "soundbite" culture.

The majority of items we encounter in our daily lives are designed to be consumably short, to the point, and communicate a specific piece of information in isolation so that it may transmit some kind of immediate value or benefit to those with increasingly short attention spans.  This is in part epitomized by the rise of the popular 20-minute Ted talk.  And while an incredible amount of brilliant information can be communicated inside of 20 minutes (often it takes dramatically less than that) the dominance of shorter mediums in popular culture that transmit important can potentially have the effect of limiting ones intake of knowledge due to a discrimination against longer forms of communication that may take weeks, months, or years and come from a single source or teacher.

Increasingly, we see this in education and in music conservatories specifically.  Even with private lessons, which can last semesters or years, a barrage of short-term obligations on the part of the student (recitals, recordings, master classes, etc.) combined with often short amounts of time spent between student and teacher (sometimes as ludicrously short as 35 minutes), and the reality of private teachers for filling other commitments which necessitates the use of short term substitute instructors, guest artists, and conductors, force the teacher to format their lessons to the immediate needs of the student, and in segments which do not often seem to connect to one another in a long term progression of skills acquisition. This is often done without any awareness of what is lost due to this fragmentation and rampant atemporality that characterizes modern life.

I haven't encountered this for several years each time I have the privilege of working with students at the Manhattan School of Music Precollege, and numerous other teaching opportunities. Even when I have the opportunity to work with students for several months in a row, the students immediate needs and difficulty adjusting to deferred gratification often consume the adequate time needed for a consistent and multiyear approach. 

Below is a list of what I believe are vital skills that every bassist should have on their list of long-term goals. These are items which, when practices over months and years, will generate a quality musicianship that is vital to the students success enjoyment of their instrument and of contemporary music.  Many of these occur off of the bass, and as such cannot often immediately impact of students playing. Prolonged effort however produces dramatic results and a level of accelerated growth that is exceptional amongst those who can become engaged in their challenges.

These should be approached, as much as is possible, with the aid of a qualified teacher who can provide specific guidance as to the purpose and execution of each of these areas.

Here are some of the items that are often neglected due to the format of modern jazz education.  They are not necessarily presented in any particular order.

1. Major and minor scales with a bow 2 to 3 octaves, major and minor interpolation.  Vital for the rapid acquisition  of intonation shifting, string crossing, phrasing, articulation, facility, velocity, knowledge of keys, thumb position, hand shape, positions, dynamics, ear training, muscle memory, vibrato, time.

2. Classical repertoire and études. The execution of specific and advanced instrument specific techniques within the parameters of a style and (hopefully) musical environment.

3. Physical rhythmic practice, 6/8 rudiments etc. using the voice to focus attention.  The physical acquisition of rhythmic knowledge and polyrhythm that is impossible to acquire solely through the playing of the double bass.

4. Essential piano skills, chords and progressions.  For an understanding of theory, ear training, and the vital melodic and harmonic information contained within any composition.

5. Standing comfortably with the bass.  Physical tightness or discomfort results in musical tightness and discomfort, in addition to potentially long-term physical injury.

6. Solid knowledge of all the positions. A method book that takes the student through's intensive studies of isolated positions facilitates solid intonation, shifting, and knowledge of the fingerboard. The encouragement of pivot fingerings ala Rabbath or excessive amounts of fingering options should be avoided until the student has experienced the mastery of one.

7. The incorporation of ear training and sight singing into all music that is played on the bass.  The role of the voice is vital towards musical fulfillment. Opportunities to incorporate it into daily practice on the bass should be exploited to their fullest

8. The practice of subdivision as well as superdivison. Practicing with the metronome has often been limited to the testing of one's ability to subdivide (rather than teaching a student to develop ones ability to do so, see number 3). In addition to developing one's ability to subdivide (feeling the small divisions of a common beat, usually a quarter note) bassists need to be able to feel the long phrase, i.e. a measure, four measures, or eight measures as constituting a pulse unit and phrasing their lines accordingly.

9. Learning dates, personnel, track listing, and the important information surrounding an album that can only be acquired by owning a physical copy.  The era of streaming music and MP3 use have a limited our exposure to important information that contextualizes an album. As these are some of the most important sources that we need to learn from, owning physical copies and learning all of the relevant information accelerates dramatically a bassists ability to contextualize the music, the style, and it's important players. 

10. Exposure to expert teachers who can address extremely specific technical and artistic issues and perspectives needed for a student to develop their own musical voice.  If a teacher cannot help a student who is sincere in their efforts to overcome specific challenges, the student should seek out other experts who may have the ability to answer their specific question, and with words that speak directly to them.   

11. The detailed exploration of short and long-term outcomes and purposes.  Where does the student want to be in three months? How about three years? More importantly, why do they want it?  Is it simply to get into a good school?  Please a parent?  Create their own personal significance?  Most of us know what we should do, but we don’t want to because we are unclear what we want and why.

12. Any other activity that helps the musician get the sound that they want into their heads before they decide to analyze it or try to play it.  All technique is at the service of a sound concept.  That sound comes first (followed by technique and theory serving as aids) moves us toward a clear goal, and illuminates on an intuitive level why one approach is effective while another is not.

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