I remember the day that I first decided I wanted to play bass. I was a sophomore in high school and was at a phase in my musical development in which I was looking for something different but I didn’t know exactly what.
My first instrument was the violin, which I had started playing at the age of four. I was actually pretty good, winning high positions in the first violin section of school orchestras right up into my early high school career.
But there was something about the bass that intrigued me to the point of distraction. To this day I’m not sure exactly what it was that drew me to it. I think in part it had to do with the fact that I became interested in playing other styles of music, particularly jazz, and my experience up to that point with the violin did not fit itself well to anything other than the classical music and fiddle tunes I had been playing up to that point.
But the moment I first plucked a note on a bass guitar (a Fender that belonged to the school’s jazz band) I set out on an incredible journey.
The psychological phenomenon known as ‘Engagement’ is also identified as ‘flow state’, or what athletes might call ‘being in the zone’. It’s a state of consciousness in which an individual is so involved in what is happening in the moment that the lines that separate their identity from the activity they are engaged in practically disappears.
In bass language this is known as being ‘in the groove’. It’s an elusive yet magical thing that can happen when you are locked in to the group at the micro-rhythmic level. There is a sense of effortlessness as if the music is playing itself and you are merely surfing on top of it.
There’s an addictive quality to this feeling. But it is dependent on a variety of factors and it doesn’t always happen. But when it does there is nothing like it.
Love of Learning
We all have a unique mix of character strengths that are embedded into our personality. There’s actually been a lot of psychological research into this area and it’s fascinating to study.
If you want to find out more about character strengths in general and take a survey that will give you a personalized analysis you can go here: https://www.viacharacter.org/www
I’ve taken this survey a number of times and consistently in my top five results is ‘Love of Learning’. Looking back now I can see that my study of the bass has been a vehicle of expression for this trait.
Without a teacher I had to figure how to construct a walking bass line in jazz - negotiating complex chord changes while making sure to outline the harmony. This lead me to learn about jazz history and it’s great players in addition to it’s sophisticated system of music theory. Then in college I was completely absorbed in classical music theory and practice. I was so obsessed with learning more I continued on to get a masters degree in music.
It’s NOT All About That Bass
One thing about playing bass in any ensemble - be it an orchestra, jazz combo or rock band - is that there’s really not much glory in it. 99.9% of the time it’s someone else who gets the spotlight.
Depending on the group this could be the violin section, the horns, the lead guitar player or the singer. Every once in a while there might be a small space for the bass to be exposed but those moments are usually VERY few and far between.
So a bass player has to look somewhere other than his or her own ego to find satisfaction. Playing bass well is not about shredding a million notes a second or being the focus of everyone’s attention. The bass player has to call on something beyond individual recognition. They have to be the ultimate team player.
Working in a collaborative way with others - being creative but in a way that supports the growth of the community - this is the way of the bass player.
Keep On Rockin’
I’ve been actively practicing and performing music for over four decades and I plan to keep going for however many years I have left. I’ve learned many things along the way but I know I have much more to discover. Currently I’m heavily focused on writing and recording my own songs. So stay tuned because I’ll be releasing more of this music soon.
That’s the really cool thing about being a musician, or living a creative life regardless of whatever your particular domain is - crafting, writing, teaching, running your own business or even retail sales - you can always get better, get more engaged in the moment, and connect with those around you.