Steve's Blog: Solo Bass & Beyond

Teaching ideas part 1. There's no electric bass in most orchestras.

July 4th, 2008 | No Comments | Categories: bass ideas · Musing on Music · teaching news · tips for musicians |

The state of contemporary music teaching in the UK is terrible. Actually, the state of music teaching across the board is pretty awful. But at least with the classical stuff, the method makes sense, even if so many of the teachers are failing to inspire the students (do a straw poll of the people you know, find out how many played an instrument as a kid, and how many quit in their late teens. The percentages should be 90% keeping it up. In reality, well under 5% of the people I know have stuck with it…)

The huge problem with the way that pop/rock/jazz/punk/funk etc. is taught in the UK is that most of the methods are still based around the classical idea that you’re learning repertoire. If you’re learning an orchestral instrument to play orchestral music, there is an expectation that you’ll play your instrument a certain way, learn how to take direction from a conductor and play the way other people want you to. That’s what orchestral musicians get hired to do. Because of this, a set of graded exams that measure how far along that widely recognised scale you are is a great way of providing benchmarks on your journey towards proficiency.

I think I’m on fairly safe ground stating that pretty much no-one takes up the electric bass (or guitar, or drums) in order to play in an orchestra. People play bass for a couple of different reasons – MOST (not all, but most) people take up bass to a) play the music they love listening to and b) form a band with some mates. (Despite bass being the greatest solo instrument on God’s green earth, those are the primary reasons people play it 🙂 )

I think it’s fairly obvious to anyone who stops to think about it that there’s no set path to aims as nebulous as ‘playing the music you love’ – what is the music you love? any stylistic boundaries? Any desire to put your own spin on it? At what point does writing your own music become important in the journey?

There are a million questions that can be asked, and the answers are different for every single person. Sadly, this wasn’t taken into consideration when most of the bass teaching materials I’ve ever come across were prepared – the old model of taking the student through a set course, as though this was the repertoire they’d need, is still the way that instruments are taught in our ‘post-repertoire age’.

I’ve never liked the idea of graded exams, I don’t like the way it says that your ability to play a particular piece, or to sight read (whether or not your area of musical interest requires it), or in the case of the ‘rock school’ grades, to ‘improvise’ in a style are measured against any kind of fixed criteria. It seems to fly completely in the face of what makes music special.

Most of all it ignores the fact that pop music is essentially folk music – music BY the people and FOR the people. It’s not an academic exercise, measurable metrically and verifiable by an examination board, it’s about self-expression, shared language and history, identity, culture, branding, etc. etc.

So what am I saying? That all music teaching is futile? That music colleges are a waste of time? Clearly not. What is vital though is that the skills being taught and how they are measured have to be demonstrably related to the end result.

I have a few rules for myself when teaching, and number one is that Context Is Everything. A huge part of the value of having lessons is learning how to learn – how to extract valuable principles and concepts from whatever the actual material is that’s being looked at. Whether it’s a group of notes (key/chord/scale), a rhythmic subdivision, the bassline to a song or an approach to improvising, there are lessons within the material that are found by playing with it in context. Remove the context, and the material becomes sterile.

I refer to this distinction in lessons as ‘active learning‘ and ‘passive learning‘ – passive learning is about learning the material as is, ticking a box and moving on. ‘active learning’ looks at what’s there and says ‘what can I deduce from this? What does this tell me about the way music works? what does this tell me about the style I’m exploring? What does this give me in terms of skills needed to write and perform my own music?’

Those are things that are incredibly hard to map out as a mark-scheme for an exam. Incredibly hard, but not impossible. It just relies on the exam board recognising the value in the musical relationship between teacher and student, the shared journey towards the student playing the music they love, and being able to express the music they hear in their head.

How we start to break down those aims is part 2…

Feel free to post your own experiences – good and bad – with music education, in the comments!

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  • Mike R

    A relative of mine (who used to be in a band) now works for a grant-funded body that teaches classical music in schools.

    Apparently these days in schools it’s all Robbi Williams, and nothing more challenging, so she really enjoys getting her group to understand Bach or whatever..

  • Mike R

    Of course that’d Robbie, not Robbi.

    Or even Rabbi.

  • Mike R

    “that’s”. Not “that’d”.

    I give up.

  • steve

    Hi Mike,

    I wonder what they do with Robbie Williams? There’s lots about Robbie that could be very challenging if you were looking at songwriting or production values, arrangements or transcribing… All depends on how its approached, which I guess is the key – whatever the material, it’s being approached in a way that has little to do with becoming a musician…

    Introducing kids to the wonders of Bach is a fantastic thing, especially if it’s put in a context they’ll understand, if they find out some stuff about him, that his music was pretty much ignored for 200 years after his death, how influential he’s been on rock and jazz writers… again, Bach can be made to be very ‘sexy’, if a little time and effort is put in 🙂

  • pete whitfield

    I firmly believe creativity has to be at the heart of education, (and not just music education). I’m responding here having dabbled with pop music education in an FE college and I disagree that creativity is not currently put at the heart of the learning. Students are most definitely encouraged to do their own thing and learn off the back off that.
    Making original music is the lifeblood of the industry – everything else feeds off it.
    I’d still rate the graded music exams (Rockschool and Trinity Guildhall) as worthwhile. They stretch a musician’s technique and style. As you say, there is no bass guitar in an orchestra, but there are still plenty of gigs for adaptable, reading players.
    If a young muso wants to be a rock star (they usually do), then playing a covers or tribute or theatre or show band might not be on their list of career aims, but it can still be part of the big bag of skills and work activities of a music career.

  • steve

    Pete, thanks so much for commenting. Much appreciated. What was the course at your FE college? was that A-level/GCSE, or an HNC/HND type thing?

    My problem with the ‘pop’ instrument grades is that I don’t think that model teaches a lot of the elements in the best way they can… Sight reading is indeed a very useful skill, but a lot depends on what you want to do in music.

    I can read pretty well, but in my entire 15 year career as a musician, I’ve directly earned about a grand from my reading skills. My ability to learn songs by ear, to improvise, to ‘wing it’ has made me tens of thousands…

    I guess at the heart of this is the assumption in the education system that we’re preparing students for ‘the world of work’ as musicians, training them to be multi-faceted musicians, capable of playing in covers bands and doing pit-work on a panto, bits of session stuff and then their own thing on the top. My desire is to see music education instill in students a love of learning, a desire to know as much about the world of music as they can, and that paradoxically begins by framing the educational experience much more tightly, around what they want to play… If I have a student who’s sole desire is to play in a punk band, putting her through the grades and forcing her to learn to read at that stage is largely pointless – her passion for music will grow as she learns the music she loves the way the musicians she loves play it… At some point in there, her taste will almost certainly expand beyond punk, if I’m doing my job right and exposing her to new music in the lessons, but that’s pretty much impossible to do within the confines of a syllabus like the current GCSE frame-work, or the trinity grades…

    I guess in relation to your comment then, I’d suggest that the decision to learn the kind of broad skill-set that you describe should rest with the student, and that facilitating, resourcing and inspiring their music path should be our top priority, with the ‘work’ skills a follow-on part of the journey.

    I’m hugely grateful that I learned to read properly when I got to music college. I had learnt how to as a kid playing recorder, violin and trumpet, but ended up hating all three instruments because there was no context to it – I wanted to play along to Tears For Fears, and I’m stuck with my head in Tune A Day Book 1. It doesn’t have to be like that 🙂

    Thanks again for commenting – I love your string stuff on the Iona albums – I’m off on tour with Dave Bainbridge next week… 🙂

  • Kevin


    A little disingenuous this rant I feel.

    Musical education, or indeed the journey that anyone who feels the need or desire to play an instrument, sing or be involved with music, is bouyed by the will to improve, listen and absorb all that has gone before.

    It is very easy to consider yourself musical, but to be a musician demands dedication, study and an understanding of where you are. It is essentialy a craft, and as such practise, study and working in all musical environments, will get you there.

    There are fabulous learning opportunites out there, great courses, live jams, summer schools etc.

    Parker, listened in an alley.

    There’s nothing that a few thousand hours listening/practise won’t solve.

    I think you are being a little unfair/skewed in your music education criticsm.



  • steve

    Hi Kevin, thanks for the comment,

    what’s obvious [full disclosure – I know Kevin, have taught him in the past and really like his playing!] it that you’re one of the ‘few’ who have a degree of natural self determination in their path as a musician. You’re the kind of player who hears that Charlie Parker listened in an alleyway and is inspired by that.

    The massive percentage of my students who having been through some kind of musical education system and have been inspired to give up altogether by it – for whom finding me was some kind of last ditch attempt, and whose eyes are opened to a new way of learning that is rooted in the magic of playing the music they love… that percentage suggests that something is wrong.

    I’m not saying all music education is bad – I highly recommend a couple of the colleges in London: of the rock schools, particularly the ACM and ICMP – and there are obviously great instrumental teachers around teaching contemporary music, but I stand by my assertion that the vast majority of ‘pop’ instrumental teaching fails because it’s an attempt to re-skin the classical education framework that implies to the student that playing a set repetoire of other people’s music is the route into being a musician.

    The kind of self-determination that your ‘1000 hours’ comment implies is pretty rare, and sadly very few teachers push their students in that direction to compliment the more didactic study. Two things I always tell my students to do is listen loads and spend ‘quality time on their instument just experimenting and mucking around’ – it’s sad how many students with an inquisitive streak stop doing that when they start studying… suddenly the teacher is set up like some kind of Maestro and their own creative path is castrated.

  • Steve Picking

    Dear Steve,
    There is not much interesting electric bass in “pop” music these days let alone in orchestras! But actually playing and working at an instrument can be so positive, personally rewarding and informative on many levels. The thing is how far does one want to take it? Then there is the whole issue of improvising – enter so called “jazz.” Maybe there needs to be more encouragement towards far more improvising in rock/pop.(not just on guitars) But that will need a move away from celebrity culture.Mmm. Its a serious business to play.

    Regards from a fellow bassman (upright and fretless)