Day 5: You Just Thought You Knew Music

Day five felt like we were introduced to the universe, life, and everything. We were packed with so much music knowledge today, I’m still struggling to grasp onto all of it just to write a reasonable blog entry about it. While previous days at bass/nature camp have been more nature intensive, today was much heavier on the music side. You name it – upright basses, improvisation, theory 101, and advanced techniques all wrapped up in one 100-degree day in where-the-heck-am-I Tennessee.

The day began with a brief nature sit, which was much more relaxing (but not nearly as hot and steamy) as the 90-minute yoga workout we all did the previous day. Each of us were instructed to find a secluded spot in nature and be still for 30 minutes. It would take about 15 minutes for nature to “reset” around us before we could truly enjoy the beauty of it. Richard challenged us to do this at home a few times a week as well. The experience should be similar up in the mountains of Maine, where Moose walk through my yard on a regular basis. We were instructed not to move much or distract anything, but to just “be”. During the half hour sit, the immediate first thing I noticed was what fantastic signal I got on my iPhone, making it real easy to update my Twitter and send texts. But more importantly, I noticed a number of things in nature I hadn’t noticed before. Beautifully spun spider webs caught my eye blowing in the breeze. You don’t normally see the more impressive ones because they are so low to the ground. I heard the cicadas singing in a rhythm that seemed to span from the right side of the forest to my immediate center, then to the left – as if repeated shockwaves of sound flowed around me continuously. The birds began chirping to a rhythm that complemented the cicadas. Other birds joined in and kept time. There were actually a lot of birds within view, to an impressive degree. One bird started chirping quarter notes, then switched to eighth notes and even changed its pitch. It was a symphony of sound that you can only experience somewhere remote, where the loud sounds of the city don’t drive everything away. I began to feel a sensation running across my body, and then realized tiny things were crawling on me. EWW! Get me the heck out of here. There’s only so much nature I can handle in one day. I’m done. Back at the barn, a few other campers talked about seeing a fox come out – a real treat, given that foxes are extremely skittish and the last thing you’ll ever likely see in front of you. They’re even more skittish than jail-broken lemurs. Other reports came in of butterflies landing all over people and people being exposed to all kinds of nature. While I did enjoy nature a lot, I think I was exposed to text messages more, and I did find it difficult to enjoy nature while tweeting about it. Next time, I might try it without the phone, and I think I’ll give it a try when I get home. The animals will accept you if you do it regularly, and could make for an amazing experience. I’d love to buddy up with a moose or a squirrel.

As soon as the nature channel was over, the music information began to flow like a dam breaking. First up: Roy Vogt, who is a well known music instructor that has transcribed some of the most difficult pieces played. Roy taught us improvisational studies. The foundation of any good bass line is understanding the root and underlying chord construction. The bassist’s job is to find the root. His second job is to keep time. Roy took us from a simple bass line playing only the root, all the way up the chord structure: Fifth, then third, then incorporate the seventh. When in doubt, play it safe: use the fifth. Six million bluegrass players can’t be wrong. Roy then showed us how we can apply the chromatic scale to add great color to the bass lines and keep them interesting. When you’re trying to phrase a song, most forms of music follow the drum kit from the bottom up; that is, they rely on the bass drum first. When you’re phrasing jazz or swing, you follow the kit from the top down: phrase based on the ride first.

Triads. Use them in your bass line constructions a lot when possible. Root, third fifth, then walk to the next root. Remember, though: music is a language: let other people talk. Don’t fill up your bass line with a bunch of notes that makes it impossible for someone else to play. Your job as a bassist is to create a pocket that others can play in. There are a number of other ways to organize chords: use the seventh, or go from the seventh to the fifth, which will make you ready for most chord changes.

When soloing, use the voice leading trick. Thirds generally define tonality. A lot of the time, the melody will track with the third. To further color your solos, you can use chord arpeggios. Use chord inversions to play chords out of order. For example, first inversion would be 3-5-1-7. When you are soloing, be the anti-bass player. Play around with the rhythm. Instead of steady quarter notes, shift everything out an eighth note and see what happens. Try to avoid starting your solos on the root. Instead, think in terms of phrasing. If you’re struggling to solo in jazz/swing, you should listen to some Louie Armstrong.

If you can’t get through the chord changes on your own, play the melody. The melody is how someone else already figured out how to get through them. It’ll give you a springboard you can combine with the chromatic scale to add spice to the piece. There’s nothing wrong with playing the melody: people know what they like, and they like what they know. The melody calls to the audience. Again, in most non-modal progressions, the third is the melody. Also play a cadence where appropriate. Cadence could be described as the tension built by one note, and the resolution brought by another. ┬áIt’s easier to hear triplets when you’re playing slow bass, but when the time gets faster, those triplets are more difficult to hear. The faster the song is, the more shallow the swing gets. But above all, remember whatever embellishments you add can’t be more than the pulse of the music. You’re still a time keeper.

When building a bass line, remember there’s a lot more going on in this musical conversation that isn’t about you. Take time to listen.

Roy reminded everyone about ghost notes, which add texture to music. There are two kinds of ghost notes I’m familiar playing. The first is the jaco left-handed mute. It’s when you hold the string with your left hand fingers – don’t hold down – then play the string as if you were playing a note. It makes a loud “thump”. Follow that with an actual note, either on the same or a different string, and you’ve got a real nice thumpy feel. It took me a while to master that, but it’s well worth it. The other kind of ghost note is more of a jazz style open-string note. When you go to hit a note, play the open string and then hammer-on to the note you want to play. With a little practice, you’ll find it makes your notes feel warm, as if they are purring like kittens.

One other important thing we learned today was about slow practice. Practice your scales / fingering positions / ditties / whatever slowly, as if they are a kata of sorts. When you’re learning martial arts, you practice in kata, and when its’ time to spar, you have the mastery to perform it quickly. Don’t rush your scales, or any of your other practice. Is learning how to potty train going to be any faster if you poop more? Not really.

“The things you essentially need in life, life has built into it the fact that you learn it slowly first. We have to follow nature’s natural process” – Vic Wooten

Running, walking, talking, and many other things are all we learned how to do slowly. This might frustrate a lot of musicians, but we have to learn a lot of our technique slowly too.

Next up: Steve Bailey on double bass. We were a little late for this class due to the fact that Victor had left for a few hours, and Steve was printing new signs changing “Wooten Woods” to “Bailey Woods” just to mess with Vic.

Steve brought us into the woodshed and showed us four double basses. We looked at them and listened to each one being played, and made observations about what made some better than others. The cheaper basses were, of course, made of a laminate rather than carved wood. They had string rattle and had a less full, round sound than the more expensive ones. The most expensive of the bunch was Stanley Clarke’s old double bass, which Victor had purchased. Forget for a minute that the bass was ever owned by either musician: it’s over 250 years old and is worth well over a quarter million dollars. The bass was smaller, and had less volume, but also had the most sweet, robust tone with a fat bottom end and clear mids. It’s no surprise this bass was worth so much. We all got a chance to hold it and play it. Steve then told us a bunch of old hilarious stories about his travels with Jaco Pastorious, Dizzy Gillespie, and others, and showed us some rather embarrassing photos I wish I could un-see.

Before theory class, we had one more nature class. The nature class today was to build our own fire making kits. The first step was to obtain enough fire starting tinder to make a baseball sized bundle. We used the inside bark from tulip wood tinder. Tulip trees have leaves that look like maple leaves, but are missing the center (fifth) point. They only have four points. Their bark is also generally smooth and veiny. If the tinder is too green, you won’t get anything because it’s all literally glued together on the inside. Instead, we looked around for fallen or dead branches and brought bundles back to camp. Using a knife, gently remove the outer bark from the tinder. Next, apply much more pressure using the side of the knife and pull either towards or away from you at a 90 degree angle. If you’re using enough pressure, you should see tiny curls of tinder come from the branch. Get them as hairy as you can. This is what you’ll place the coal in when you’re ready to make fire. We also split some cedar into spindles, then fashioned them using our knives before running out of time. If the stuff you get off of them is too wet, just hang it out in the sun while it’s warm and it’ll dry out. Mind you, we were doing this in 100 degree weather, and had no use or desire for fire. But hey, at least I have a kit now. w00t.

The third class was another bass class with Victor. Victor is a fantastic teacher. He sits ten of us down and asks us what we want to learn. We then tell him, and he digs deep and finds what it is we _really_ want to learn. Today we learned a lot more about soloing and using the chromatic scale, along with techniques to win over crowds and a number of important pointers to keep in mind when playing.

– When practicing, focus more on the groove than the solo. In fact, cut down the number of notes you’re playing so that you can in fact focus on the groove. Play a single note, or only three notes if you have to, but work on getting the groove down instead.

– Don’t be afraid to repeat notes. If you’re always playing something different, you’re going to force the audience to forget about you. Repeating notes gives them an anchor to hold onto.

– If you force your audience to listen to you (by playing nonstop), they will grow tired of you quickly. LEAVE SOME SPACE in your playing, so a little music can fall out. Give the audience something to feel, something to miss. They need something to latch onto. Give them a chance for what you just played to touch their emotions before playing again. PAUSE after a phrase, and allow them to reset.

– Invite your listeners into the conversation. Let the audience anticipate what’s going to happen. Spread out your phrases and leave space just like in a conversation: “hey, you know what?”….. “WHAT? TELL ME!”. Exactly.

– One good solo technique is to build tension and then let the other note ring out when you resolve it. A phrase consisting of short notes followed by one long note to resolve will give the audience the feeling of both suspense and joy.

– If the phrasing is right – especially in jazz – any note will work. If you keep playing, you rob the audience of the emotion they want to feel.

– Focus on singing the notes. If you think about it, you have to phrase when you’re singing because you have to breathe.We don’t do that naturally when playing bass. So if you sing everything you play (as opposed to play everything you sing, or not sing at all), then you’ll already be subconsciously phrasing your bass solo.

Victor taught us a number of ways to manipulate people’s emotions in music. They all seemed to be based on contrast: people listen for contrast, and it’s what attracts them to your music.

– For starters, if there’s a loud guy in the room and you want him to shut up, get progressively louder in your playing to the point where it’s quite loud. Then immediately drop back to silent, and the guy talking will stick out like a sore thumb. Either he’ll feel a sudden need to quiet down, or other people will tell him to shut up

– If an audience is quiet, give them a simple groove to clap to. If you want to excite people, drop the tempo out, then bring back a groove. The idea is to give the audience something to miss, then bring it back, and they’ll cheer for you (or at least get excited).

– Go from melody to groove. It forced someone to groove by taking it away for a few moments.

– To sound faster, play on the upbeat, not the downbeat. This will cause people’s brains to automatically fill in the notes on the downbeat. Also play in short bursts, and people’s minds will fill in the rest.

Victor taught us some practical things as well, like the importance of having the volume set right for the venue. If the sound is too loud or too soft, people won’t enjoy it. But if it’s just right, they might get up and dance.

The final class after dinner was theory 101. We re-visited basic scales and modes. I did learn one thing: the relative minor to any major scale is the major scale’s sixth. Nice tidbit of information.

We had a few minor incidents today but nothing major. Spencer, who is one of the most talented 19 year olds I’ve ever met in terms of music, accidentally hit himself in the leg with a hatchet. Thank goodness he didn’t hurt his fingers, or mistake his bass for a log. Chef John also proved he was indeed a mad scientist in some of the amazing food he put together today. I snapped a picture of him so that he could be famous.

I’m beat. My brain hurts. And I’ve only just begun to document everything I learned today. At least I did get an opportunity to jack in and solo a bit. People said it sounded good. It was nice to be able to play again. My fingers have been so sore lately from all the practice… I’m about 90% now, and anticipate tomorrow I’ll be beating on my bass like there’s no tomorrow.