Guts, Gumption, and Growthby Dan Berkowitz
I've been playing bass in the same blues band for at least eight years. It's fun, but at times I start to feel stale, in part because the song list doesn't change much, but also because I'm working with the same players week after week.
That's when I start looking for a new challenge in bass playing - on the side - to get some new ideas and bring something interesting back to the regular gig. I've gone to blues jams and subbed some blues gigs on occasion, but I haven't really strayed too much from blues-based music.
A year ago, though, I did a gig with a reggae band. I enjoy listening to reggae and have always wanted to play it, but the opportunity has never come up. Then one day I got a call and agreed to do one show for a singer who was forming a band. For a few weeks, I rehearsed and did the gig. Bass plays a big part in reggae, and I was determined to do my part to hold things together.
It took a lot of listening to the CD of gig songs and a lot of playing along with it, but by show time, I had the music down. Fortunately (at least for my playing) I got sick for a few days and had to stay home. That gave me more practice time when I was up to it. Other than complications from a couple of less experienced players, the gig went well, and I was glad I'd taken it on. A little bit of reggae sticks with me now, and the next gig, if ever, will be easier.
When I took on that new challenge, it took some guts and gumption, but as a result, I saw some musical growth.
This winter, a few players around town told me about a big band that did two freebie tavern gigs each month. That sounded like a good challenge, too, so I got in touch with the leader and found a sub gig a month away. I'd played big band music on both electric and upright before, so it wasn't brand new…but it had been 20 years since my last big band gig (no…I didn't tell the band leader that until afterwards). Something I remembered was that most bass lines are relatively simple, but they come in a lot of different keys.
To get ready, then, I pulled out whatever music books I could find that had at least three flats and practiced reading the lines. Once it started coming together, I turned on the metronome and tried to play in strict time. That was harder, but eventually I got it. After a bit of practicing, I felt ready to do this reading gig.
The gig itself had some surprises, but again, I was determined to hold down the bass line on my electric upright. The drummer showed up late, a last-minute sub who didn't read and didn't even try. He had to guess at intros and endings, but kept good time. That helped. And then a tune was called where we had two versions, one in C, one in G. I pulled the right chart (in C) and started in, but something sounded off. That's when I noticed that the guitar player, a regular, was happily comping along on the version in G. Okay, that threw me and I didn't hang on so well. Overall, though, the gig went fine and I was asked back. That's when I told the leader how long it'd been.
Last month, I took on my biggest challenge yet: playing in a pit orchestra doubling on bowed upright and electric bass (called "Fender" in my bass part). This might start to sound familiar, but the last time I'd played bowed upright with music and a conductor was more than 20 years ago, and that was in a shaky community orchestra shortly after I'd started learning upright bass.
I met the musical director for lunch and started looking over the part, trying to keep a poker face about what I was seeing. One piece went from four sharps to six flats and back again (with an F-flat for good luck). Sometimes I found 4/4, 3/4 and 6/8 all in one song. There were musical terms I'd never seen before, too, like con sordini (with a mute) and odd-looking diamond shaped whole notes (indicating to play a harmonic at that location). And then there were the dotted half notes in 6/8 time with two slashes on their tails. What to do?
I took the music home and started working out the 34 (34!) or so pieces. The string bass parts taxed my meager abilities. The electric bass parts seemed nearly unplayable (until I heard them on a CD…ever look at transcribed rock lines?). Panicked, I emailed the director and suggested I might be over my head, with only about 70% of the music coming together and none of the electric bass parts working. His reply: "At least we'll have 70 percent…keep at it!"
That I did, listening to the CD for the show (not a perfect match to my parts) and posting on discussion groups when I got stuck on things as wide-ranging as how to work with two basses in a crowded pit and how to play bowed upright while sitting on a stool. Then I learned we'd only have one rehearsal before the dress rehearsals. More guts, more gumption.
I hung on, and then at a dress rehearsal, the cellist showed up, a music professor of many years, with (I later learned) a 300 year old cello he'd bought when I was only two years old. His first comment? "Nice tree! You know the advantage of a bass over a cello? They burn longer." Off into the first song, he turned and called out to me, "Hey buddy, play louder, I have to follow you." Here I am, a blues player trying to survive the legit music world and the heat is turning up.
To make a long story short, I received encouragement from the director and the cellist and went on to do the shows, learning as I went (and eventually I confessed how long it had been since my last orchestra experience). Each show became the quickest two-and-a-half hours I'd ever experienced, making blues gigs (I did one blues gig during the run of the show) seem like an eternity by comparison. It felt like an act of bravery to put on that poker face when the going got tough during the show. But it worked! Several cast members even said they missed my playing during the one night I had a sub.
Looking back, the reggae gig, the big band, and the pit orchestra were all great learning experiences, helping me step out of the blues band routine and see what I could do on bass. As a result, my blues playing gained a little something as well. It required a lot of guts, it required a heaping serving of gumption, but with each new musical adventure, I felt some musical growth.
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