Day 8: You Know No Fu! Talk to SiFu!

I know Kung-Fu… and about seven other Japanese words. Victor started out the morning showing us some limbering exercises to build our tendons, in preparation for our SiFu’s visit later on in the week. Victor says once you build a tendon, you never lose it. We approach the martial arts from a defensive perspective, but in many ways directly relates to bass playing. Today’s session didn’t feel like it was related to anything but pain. As I type this, I’m still tending to swollen body parts that I never knew I had.

The first exercise had us on our knees with our palms faced backwards. Vic showed us a little magic trick: Flip your hand the other way backwards, then rotate it out, and it looks like you’re rotating it a full 360 degrees. Eat your heart out, David Blane. The next exercise had us lay on our stomach and put all four appendages in the air, like we were a banana. This built our abs, or some other muscle that hurts down there. We then flipped to each side and on our back, balancing only on our center mass with all other body parts up in the air. Next up, calf exercises. Grab a partner’s arm and then push up and down on your calves to raise and lower your legs, without moving the rest of your body. Then spend three minutes raising your leg parallel to the floor and point your foot at the wall. If you’re not in agony by now, pull it to your chest. Finally, grab a partner, take their arm, and alternate round kicks. Try not to kick your partner in the package.

“Anyone who doesn’t take truth seriously in small matters cannot be trusted with large ones either.” – Einstein.

I’m learning to be more honest as a human being.

“There is no great genius without a mixture of madness.” – Aristotle.

I’m learning to be more mad as a human being too.

The first class was with Victor today. Vic changes strings every 2-3 shows, but only because he gets them for free. He’s selling a bunch of Fodera strings ($70 strings) for $15. We cleaned him out.

What determines a “better” player isn’t so much their note choices, but how well they play in time. Groove is the overall goal, but good timing – impeccable timing – is the key. Things MUST be placed evenly in time. When the show is over, Bela Fleck is in the back of the bus playing on a metronome. There are faster players than Bela, but Bela plays in time and therefore sounds better than most of them. Timing is critical. It doesn’t matter what your’e working on – practice it to a groove. Time is just as critical in music as it is in life. Two people meet, and the timing is off: nothing works out. The same is true in music.

We did a number of timing exercises. We went over the indian clapping exercise from the previous day. Again, you count descending and add the ‘and’ for every beat except the last, eventually working your way down to “1-2-1-1″… so, “1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and-5-and-6-and-7-and-8-1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and-5-and-6-and-7-1…”. This time, we not only clapped it, but played notes to it. Most of them were to the wrong beat, but we played something at least… more practice required. It’s difficult.. but because it’s difficult, will help us build time; so when we play with a normal drummer, it’ll feel like it’s easy.

When doing difficult things, our attention goes to the task at hand, but we have to train ourself to stay attached to the band. In life, we always focus on the challenges and problems, but have to stay attached to the end of the race, to the goal at hand.

Next, we played four simple notes: E-D-B-A, but we accented them to triplets, or in groups of five. Wow I suck that this. Terribly. Most of us can only feel the downbeat, but we need to learn how to subdivide. Start by playing a triplet pulse – which is a triplet with no accent… then add the accent. You’ll find that you accent a different note each time, because you’re playing four notes. Be careful not to try and fit all four notes into a triplet, but add the accent differently as it comes up. Want to really mess with your brain: try five now. He had us playing in 5/4 time; that’s craziness.

Next up, more technique. Above and below technique: Pick a target. Whether it’s a single note or a phrase. Take that target and play above it a half step, then play below it a half step, then play the target. This is another exercise that can be used to add color to your playing. You don’t have to always play a half step up or down either. Victor plays anywhere above or below… change it up, then play below and above. You can make some great music out of just a couple of root notes. Now apply the 2-10 elements of music to make it groove. If your target is four notes, play those four above, then below, then the target, and make it groove. Stay focused on the target whatever you do. Try playing the above backwards, or the below, change it up. You get the idea.

These techniques are all about building imagination and getting us off of the “scale” we learned about in theory class. While theory is important, all of the great players in the world play off scale.

Next, an exercise to remove the drum kit from our playing every few bars. We rely on the drummer to keep good time, but it’s just as much our job to keep good time. Program a drum machine to play a beat, then remove the kit for one bar, then two bars, and so on, then put it back. A good bassist should be able to play a simple groove and stay on beat when the kit comes back. Next, add a little flavor to your groove and see if you can still stay on beat. Finally, break into full on solos – even go outside of time – and see if you can pinpoint the beat when it drops. Keep locked into your post. Keep adding fills. See what it takes to get you to lose time, and then practice at that level until you get it. You should know the pulse by heart and be able to feel the pulse whenever it drops. Get as free as you can and try to keep the beat. Then, when you play with a drummer, it’ll feel easy.

Next up was nature class. We finished fashioning our fire making kits and learned the bow and drill technique to make fire. The technique must be performed exactly as prescribed, or you won’t get fire. Kneel on your right, put your left foot in front, arch on a block of wood. Twist the twine from the bow around the spindle once, burn in the wood… then cut out a cake-size piece from the side of the block. Eventually, you’ll get a hot coal which you can drop on your tinder to get it going. If you want to learn more about it, try buying a book and stop asking a bassist how to make a fire. :p

The third rotation was theory reinforcement. Bob Franceschini, a world class sax player, showed up for the week to teach theory. He helped Yamaha design a pro series of saxophones and is sponsored by both them and Vandoren. He’s a great guy who’s real personable and has a certain artistic mastery with profanity. We practiced several different types of triads to begin with. Ascend and descent a full step and play augmented-major-minor-diminished triads. Now repeat until you go mad.

When practicing anything, try and screw up and keep looping. The biggest problem with musicians is they’ll stop if they screw up. The best screw up all the time, but keep going, and you never know that they screwed up.

C with a degree sign: diminished double flat seventh and flat fifth.

C with degree with slash: half diminished, flat seventh and flat fifth.

C with plus sign: augmented root, third, and sharp fifth.

Patterns are nice. Bassists love patterns. But try and become aware of the actual notes you’re playing.

Theory: Did Bach study theory? No. Our theory is still trying to pick apart Bach. Bach knew what sounded good and grooved with it in his time. There are a lot of different ways to look at the same thing. Theory guys might be able to name a note six different ways… some musicians without theory simply know it as, “that note… like this…” We also practiced chord progressions. The cycle of fifths sets up the chords so that there’s a natural progression for the way a tune progresses.

A good musician can merge theory and emotion. He doesn’t “feel” the same emotion you’re feeling. He might not be feeling anything… but he can evoke an emotion in the audience without necessarily feeling it. That’s mastery of the art.

Finally, a word about getting along as a band. When you step on stage, you all agree everything’s cool, even if you were fighting backstage all morning. It’s the flip of a switch. And you all agree to communicate and connect with your instruments. A “pro” can let all the crap go when they’re playing.

Towards the end of the day, Stefan from Dave Matthews band came and chatted with us. Dave Matthews band is apparently the most successful band in the entire world. Stefan showed us some of his basses, and chatted about his life a little.