Day 3: Bass Camp Makes You Walk Funny

Imagine if you could plan your entire life before you were born. What you would do, when you’d do it, what you’d accomplish every step of your life. All of your goals. Now imagine if, when you were born, you walked them out verbatim as if you were following a script. You’d be utterly bored with your entire life. Victor was speaking about preparing for our upcoming concert: he doesn’t like to over-prepare, because just as the audience likes to be surprised to see what happens, so do good musicians. Musicians like to be creative; we like to improvise. We live and breathe music, and always have a tune going through our heads. As Jonelle Mosser (who was also there today) put it: musicians can never get any peace and quiet, because even when it’s silent around us, something’s always going through our heads. In life, we walk through certain things as though we’re following a script, but the real joy is in the unexpected surprises that we encounter. They excite us; they make us feel alive. Seeking out new things is what makes us thrive. Walking out some script for our lives causes us to dry out and wither. Vic and I share an affinity for aimless driving. Even the tiny things in life can be exciting when you’re exploring.Your life is a reflection of your music. What kind of passion do you have inside of you? Whatever’s on the inside is going to come out: both in your music and in your life. If your life is exciting and full of spirit, that’s going to come out in your playing.

Before I knew it, I found myself whisked out of Vic’s presence into a field. We were all blindfolded and a drum was beating. I knew somehow this had something to do with bass guitar, but once again I had no idea how. Like we learned about yesterday, our most dominant sense is our vision. Our vision can sometimes keep us from seeing. Vision prevents us from experiencing things to our fullest, and this exercise was designed to heighten our senses. As I felt my way around, I became aware of the warmth of the trees, of the moisture on the grass, of the terrain beneath my feat. I became aware of tiny noises around me, and could “see” better than when I had my blindfold off.

Once we all found our way, a nature class began. Richard instructed us to jump up and land on our heels. It hurt. It really hurt. It sent shockwaves through my body. When we walk, the same thing happens, only the shockwaves are smaller. No one ever showed us how to walk properly. We walk on our heels and shock our body quietly with every step. Walking on our heels isn’t good for our bodies, which is why shoes these days have reinforced heels. Rather than actually fix the problem, we just put on shoes. Richard showed us a new way to walk by engaging our thighs and placing our feet differently. Instead of landing on our heels, we focused on the bottom outside of the front of the foot. Then, bend the opposite thigh slightly to absorb the impact. Reflexology is some kind of science (maybe) that says the bottom of our feet have nerve endings that tie to other organs; reset buttons that need to be poked and prodded from time to time. This is apparently why some people will suffer from anxiety or poor digestion if they are wearing the wrong shoes. I don’t know if there’s any truth to that, but walking sure felt less painful and more natural doing it Richard’s way.

Once we learned how to walk properly, we learned to run properly: absorbing the weight with our thighs and landing on the front of our feet. It actually felt more light, and as if we could turn in any direction quickly.

Once Richard made us walk different, he then showed us a predatory walk. In fact, we’re going to learn several predatory walks (called stalking walks) over the week, such as the weasel walk. The one we learned today was called the fox walk. Foxes use something called direct register: One foot is always in front of the other. Cats use direct register, but the fox is the only canine that does. This reduces noise, and when combined with wide angle vision, can make us more aware of our surroundings. Richard claims it has a meditative quality to it. I’m not sure about that – but I do know that I became aware of more.

The fox walk involves lifting one leg until it’s 90 degrees perpendicular to the body, then placing it down in front of the other leg, then like a string attached to your belt, lifting the opposite leg and repeating. To approach a deer, one stalking step must take at least 66 seconds, and so it must be done slowly. We learned a lot of other painful exercises, such as a stationary squatting exercise called the “burning four” (and for good reason).

Later on, Vic gave us another bass class. We’re still in the warming up phases of camp, so today we learned about the chromatic scale, and many different fingering patterns for it. There are, in fact, a number of amazing blues riffs that come off the chromatic scale, and Vic showed us one to get us started. He also taught us about practicing both in slow motion and to a drum machine in rapid motion. This is part of his yin-yang theory behind “concentrated practice” and “non-concentrated practice”. The chromatic scale is important because it is what all other scales are based off of. Chromatic means “color” and is what gives our playing color. Nobody can be a world class musician unless they play off-scale some of the time. Even the most amazing pieces of symphonic music have notes that fall off the key signature.

Finally, Jonelle Mosser, an amazing singer local to Nashville, came and gave us a talk about voice. While most Nashville singers are a dime a dozen, Jonelle has an amazingly unique voice, and you can feel a lot of the passion she has for singing when you hear her sing “America the Beautiful”. We all sat and listened to old CDs of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Taj Mahal, and others. Rosetta Tharpe was a black singer from the 40s who grew up in the church, but later on became so well known that she sang and played guitar at the Apollo theatre, and even appeared on a postage stamp. She died of a massive coronary in 1971, and most people don’t know of the legacy she left behind in her music. Jonelle played a few songs and showed us what it meant to be authentic in your music. Rosetta had her own voice – her own style of singing – her own joy. It was reflected not only in her voice, but also in her guitar playing. The voice of her instrument was brittle and consistent – just like her voice. People loved to hear her sing. Some of her old gospel songs made me feel like I was back in an old southern pentecostal church with no air conditioning.

Jonelle gave us a few pointers about singing, but we didn’t actually get into it yet. She asked who was tone deaf, and I explained that while I was not tone deaf, when it came to singing, I was utterly hopeless. While I don’t know much about singing, she gave a few pointers to us: warming up doesn’t take a lot of notes. Find a note that’s comfortable then stick with it. Keep your mouth closed, like it has an egg in it. If a note is shaky, hang onto it until you get it right. To control vibrato, tighten up the muscles in your throat and try to stop it.

Jonelle’s point, which I’m not sure was intentional, was that you have to have your own voice and your own personality. How much is the Mona Lisa worth? How much is your version of the Mona Lisa worth? There’s no point in copying anyone else. It’s your passion and your love that is important to communicate in your music. Above all, be authentic.

The food continues to be amazing. It’s not only healthy, but ridiculously yummy. I won’t describe the change in everyone’s morning constitution, but it’s significant. As I said, Chef John is an insane genius and we all love him for it.

Later on in the day, Mama Wooten (Victor’s mother) came and gave us a few words of wisdom, while she chatted for an hour about life, music, and everything else. “Nothing is random. Everything happens for a reason. Everybody has a place.” She continued by telling us not to follow the crowd, but to lead it. The mere fact that we are here means that we recognize ourselves as future world class musicians (though Victor already sees us as world class, since we can identify other world class musicians). To build on top of Jonelle’s emphasis to find our own voice, and be who we are, Mama Wooten instructed us, “Just be what you are, because life is going to do what it’s supposed to do. Everybody has a mission. We were born for a reason. Whatever is put in us is put in there for a reason. Don’t be afraid to be who you are.” This is true; most of the time we try and play like someone else. We fill ourselves with little pieces of other people, and try to mimic the people we look up to. In doing that, it’s easy to lose (or never develop) our identities as musicians. Mama Wooten continued, “Sometimes it takes a long time to learn to play like yourself.”

Music is a force of sorts. It sends patterns; waveforms – shockwaves, if you will, into the air. Music can change people, and a good musician is more of a scientist.

Later on in the evening, we had an ear training session. I did miserable. I got six out of 15 intervals right, but I’m learning areas I need to work on. Victor shared some of his secrets with us: hum a major scale to yourself and walk up to the interval from the root. When you get there, fall back a half step if you need to if it’s flat. Practicing this will allow you to better learn the entire chromatic scale, not just the major scale. In addition to this, certain songs can help to memorize a subset of intervals. A major fourth, for example, is the interval played for, Here Comes the Bride. An octave marks the beginning of Over the Rainbow. We’re all anxiously practicing our intervals; in fact, by the end of the exercise, many of us were better than we were when we started.

Finding the root is the main job of a good bassist. Having good interval training, and being able to identify the root of a chord is essential to being a good bassist. Finally, we learned the Nashville number system and practiced notating it as we listened to a song (which is how it’s done in the studio); we then played it back in unison.

Final thoughts for the evening: The best studio bassists follow the “less is more” principal.

Need to improve your ear training? Victor recommends finding out what key your cellphone rings in, and using that as a point of reference. Can you sing every string on your bass? Can you sing every note before you play it? Practice these, and your ear training will no doubt improve. We’ll be focusing on this in the coming weeks at camp.