Autumn, the time to start bass lessons…

…or so it seems. I’ve had a major influx of new students over the last few weeks, as well as a few who I haven’t seen since before the summer starting back up again. It’s most enjoyable, as they cover the span from total beginners to fairly advanced, young to old, disco to metal. I love the variety of things I get to work on with my students, who all bring with them their own questions and musical challenges and obstacles that I then help them to negotiate.

I’ve never understood why some teachers won’t teach beginners – for me, teaching a total beginner is hugely rewarding and in many ways much easier than trying to undo the damage done by years of dodgy self-taught habits or even worse, rubbish instilled by a bad teacher elsewhere (which 9 times out of 10 comes from a guitarist who teaches bass as well to make some extra cash, but is inadvertently risking hospitalising their students due to the dreadful left-hand technique they teach).

What’s far more important than the experience level of the student are their expectations and the extent to which they click with the way I teach. I occasionally get students who want to learn in a more formally structured way, doing graded exams and working on specific pieces out of books. I won’t put students through the grades, as I’ve not seen any advantage in them at all – the material isn’t particularly enjoyable, nor are the pieces particularly good examples of the styles they are working on (why learn a piece in the style of Bob Marley, when you can learn a Bob Marley tune?), and the skill set they engender is not one that is going to help much in any playing situation I can think of. This mistake with grades is, as I see it, that the classical model is based on the need to learn a fixed repertoire – if you’re learning to play an orchestral instrument, there are certainly pieces that you will be expected to play, a range of pieces that are written with a very specific understanding of the instrument in mind. That makes it fairly easy to codify and grade that skill set, and to come up with set exercises that demonstrate the degree to which a particular musician is able to play that repertoire.

if you want to be a musician in a band, it’s much more about your ability to play within the style of the band you’re in, to bring something new to it, to respond to a very wide range of musical communications – learning songs off CD, dealing with poorly written chord charts, improvising, writing, playing tunes that don’t make ‘sense’, getting a dirty screwed up sound in order to give the song more edge… all things that are pretty much unique to a situation. There are of course fundamental ‘rules’ of music theory, harmony, rhythm and such like that apply across the board, but they can be taught via any style of music, and don’t require an externally established set of exam pieces to demonstrate whether you can do them or not. You, as the musician, need to be able to make instant value judgments about your playing in relation to the situation and make adjustments accordingly.

So I choose the specifics of each teaching course with reference to the taste and playing situations of the student in question – the route I’ll take to teach theory is different for students who play only metal compared to those who play in church. the material is the same, the approach and the examples are very different.

There are a few things I always stress with students, that seem to be woefully absent from most teaching scenarios, musical or otherwise. The first rule is, if you don’t understand something, say so because it’s my fault not yours – I’m being paid to make sense, not to rant. if that was the case, you’d just buy a video so at least you could pause it and play it again. If a particular student doesn’t understand what I’m on about, the onus is on me to come up with a new way of explaining the point in question, not on them to stress over it until it all becomes clear.

The second rule is to contextualise everything. I’ve had a lot of students turn up who are great at practicing, but dreadful at applying it to actual music – that connection has never been made, so they can run up and down endless scales, but have no way of turning it into basslines, melodies, ideas. If the stuff was practiced in context in the first place, you’d never end up in that situation. If a particular exercise can’t be placed in a context, it’s not worth doing. There’s plenty of music to be played that can be contextualised.

SoundtrackErin McKeown, ‘Grand’.

One Reply to “Autumn, the time to start bass lessons…”

  1. “… the route I’ll take to teach theory is different for students who play only metal compared [with] those who play in church.”

    Personally, I’m not convinced that those two examples aren’t one and the same!

    During the last session of the monthly youth evening “PowerPoint” here in Edinburgh we had the most metal worship I’ve ever heard at a mainstream Christian youth event.

    Mind you, I was told that the month I couldn’t make it there was a huge hole in the sound … a metal-shaped hole. So maybe that was just me.

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