New Effects Course at ScottsBassLessons.com

Yesterday, a course that Scott and I filmed last year went live on SBL – titled ‘The Essential Guide To Bass Effects with Steve Lawson’. 

The course is broken up into effect types, and is a broad look at what each of the effect types do and some ideas for combining them. We talk about the influence that effect order has on your sound, why it’s often important for bass sounds to have the dry signal as well as the processed one, why there’s no such thing as a ‘one size fits all’ pedal for any one type of effect, and an exploration of what’s actually going on with each effect type. 

What it doesn’t have is ‘here’s how to set this pedal to get this sound’ type demos. Partly because those kind of product demo videos are available in their thousands on YouTube, it’s also because the single most important thing you can do to your music with effects pedals is to experiment, try things out, and the more general guidelines for how to understand what a pedal type does and how it may be applied are a much better start point for that experimentation. 

Curiosity is an essential component in any creative journey. A point that Scott makes brilliantly in a recent interview with Musical U founder, Christopher Sutton – here’s a video of Christopher talking about things he’s learned from Scott, from Adam Neely and from me… It outlines a curiosity and creativity-driven pathway through music learning really well, and dovetails really well with the intended learning pathway through the effects course… 

Decorating Tips For Musicians (How To Learn Like A Painter)

I’ve been teaching bass now for almost 25 years. I’ve taught thousands of students, and given masterclasses and seminars to many more in universities and colleges all over the world. In that time, I’ve never stopped trying to refine my method, my process, my ability to help a student get where they need to be. And one of the things I’m always searching for is better metaphors for what it is we’re trying to do.

So, today we’re going to talk about painting and decorating, OK?

Imagine you were asked by someone to decorate their house – to paint all the rooms, the stairs, hallway, all the doors, fittings. Everything needs doing. There’s a lot of work there, and you’ve not really done any painting before…

There are a number of ways to approach it, so let’s break them down, then you can look at their parallels with learning an instrument: Continue reading “Decorating Tips For Musicians (How To Learn Like A Painter)”

Teaching Bass Via Skype

This week, I’m starting to offer lessons via Skype (or iChat or Google+ Hangout… whichever private video channel works for you). I’ve done a little of this in the past, and had a lot of people asking for it, so am getting round to sorting it out.

Here’s how it works:

  • you’ll need a computer with a fairly fast internet connection, your bass and some way of amplifying it so I can hear it – either via the mic on your computer, or by plugging it into a sound-card so it plays straight to me (I’ll see if I can write a tutorial on this after I’ve had some more experience with it and seen what the problems can be).
  • If you do go the soundcard route, you’ll probably also need a mic. Headphones will make it easier for you to avoid weird echoing problems.
  • You then book a lesson the same way anyone does (email me and sort out a time), pay me upfront via paypal (or in the UK, by bank-transfer, which must’ve cleared before the lesson), and we do the lesson.
  • The cost will be the same as for a face-to-face lesson: £30 for one hour, £50 for two. (Paypal will do the currency conversion for you).

Simple-as.

If you have some way of recording Skype, you’re welcome to do that for your own use/reference (not for distribution – I’ll be doing more video lesson stuff on youtube soon, but one on one lessons are for you).

And that’s it. You in your house, me in mine. Hurrah!

Interested? Email me now.

Back To Teaching for 2011!

At the end of last year, we moved house, and are temporarily in Muswell Hill, North London. It’s a bigger place that we were in before, which means I’m back being able to teach bass again! I’ve REALLY missed it, as for the last 20 years, it’s been one of the main ways of understanding what I do as a musician, as well as there being a huge amount of satisfaction in seeing students improve and progress deeper into their own relationship with music.

So, if you’re interested, please do get in touch. If you want more info, most of it is on the bass teaching page here.

And with any luck, there’ll also be a Beyond Bass Camp day or two in the not too distant future – feel free to register an interest in that in the comments below…

Rethinking Reviews

I’ve been asked a few times recently to write reviews of people’s albums. Not by magazines or websites who want it as journalism, but by the artists themselves, wanting it as promo.

Now, let’s leave money aside for now (given that paid journalism is a whole other subject – yes, magazines, I’ll write reviews for you, if you pay me – see the point about journalism below), let’s have a look at what reviews are, where they came from, and why we might want to rethink the idea, especially with regards to asking for them from someone who hasn’t yet heard the music… Continue reading “Rethinking Reviews”

Blog-silence…

Apologies for the blog-silence – life has been v. busy of late, mainly with moving house (if you’re a student of mine and didn’t get the email, drop me a line and I’ll let you know the details!)

Anyway, one of the up-shots of moving is that we’ve had limited access to the internets, so blogging, video stuff, feed-reading all all kinds of other fun stuff that I usually get to do online has gone by the way-side…

But we should be back in action ASAP. And I will write Social Media First Principles Pt III. I promise 🙂

Teaching Thoughts Pt 4 – Pleasing parents is bad for the student.

One of the things I most like about teaching electric bass is that very few kids are ever told by their parents to play it. ‘You need to learn piano/violin/clarinet because I never had the chance’ is the bane of so many teacher’s lives and one of the main driving forces behind kids giving up playing an instrument as soon as they are afford a degree of self determination by their parents.

In all my time teaching bass (15 years) I think I’ve had 3 students ask to do graded exams. In the same time over half the parents that have brought their kids to me have asked whether or not it would be a good idea. There’s an assumption in education these days that people a) need some kind of external certificated validation in order to measure where they are up to and b) that without that, students will lack motivation and will just slack off because no-one’s telling them what to do.

For me as a teacher it’s imperative to get across to my students – especially the younger ones – that them not practicing has no impact on me whatsoever. I can just pick up where we left off in the last lesson as though the time were continuous. The point of practice is never to placate me. Practice serves two purposes – it’s enjoyable (if done right) and you get better – the two are clearly deeply linked. The idea that practice has to be torturous is another crap hang-over from the music education of the early 20th century, where suffering was a signal of how serious you were about what you’re doing. That’s clearly bollocks, especially for people with families, friends, jobs, school work and other interests. Practice time should be valued time in and of itself not just for the pay-off. The pay-off makes it even better, but playing an instrument should be fun!

That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t require a large degree of self-discipline, commitment and focus, it’s just that we’re selling kids short by telling them that those things can’t be enjoyable!

These are all elements in my reasoning for not following a syllabus. If a students comes into a lesson, tells me about a gig they just went to, and I then teach them something the band they’ve just seen – whether it be an actual song by them, or something that can be drawn from that music – they can pulled a little closer to the magic at the heart of music. The gap between them and the music they love is lessened and the feeling that the magic is in their reach is heightened.

At the heart of what I teach is a desire to help the student write and play music that can change the world. It might not, but the desire to play the songs that have soundtracked their life – whether that’s Mozart or Metallica, Stockhausen or Stock, Aitken And Waterman – and to then create their own music is what drives individuals to learn an instrument, and pandering to the wishes of pushy parents who want lil’ Tommy to get certificates so they can brag to the other mums and dads about the distinction he scored in his grade 3 exam is the death-knell of lil’ Tommy’s musical aspiration.

Parental encouragement is often an utterly vital and energising force in the music-life of a student. I still take inspiration from my mum’s on going encouragement of what I do, and am thankfully big enough to ignore the distain with which my dad views my musical endeavours. Channeled in the right way, parents can be integral to the musical growth of a student. But if pushy parents are allowed to ride roughshod over what Tommy actually wants to do with music, he’ll end up as one of the 95% who give up before they are 18, and may resent it for decades to come.

We’re your parents an encouragement or a hindrance to your creative path? Comments pleeeeeze

Teaching Ideas Pt 3 – Teaching is therapy

I think it’s safe to say that for almost every person playing a musical instrument, there’s a part of it that is about exploring a part of their character and personality that they don’t get to exercise elsewhere. Whether that’s me as a solo bassist writing music that expresses all the stuff I struggle to put into words (which is why so many of my tunes are inspired by death), or the bloke who works in a garden centre learning speed metal to play in a pub on friday evenings, because he’s desperate for the garden centre to not be the sole defining entity in his life, there’s something that music gives us that would otherwise be sorely missing from our lives.

Being a ‘bassist in a metal band who happens to work in a garden centre’ is actually a pretty cool place to be in life. It has cache with your work friends, it has the security of a wage from the job, and it’s not the kind of job that’s going to drag you off away from rehearsals with your band, which means you can be fairly well committed to what’s going on.

It also often means that you can afford to have – and have time for – lessons. So when I get to meet with players in that situation, and am entrusted with the task of providing them with the tools, the process and the inspiration to learn more about their instrument, my role becomes a rather therapeutic one.

It’s not good enough in that situation to dismiss the style of band the person plays in and hand them pages of scales and arpeggios to learn, along with a load of tunes that you the teacher like.

No, a degree of personalisation – both of content and delivery – has to take place in that kind of transaction for it to be of value. I spend the first couple of lessons with a new student discovering things about them – why they play, what they play, what they do when they first pick up their instrument, and technical bad habits they’ve picked up, any erroneous ‘rules’ they’ve been told by other people about what you can and can’t do with music, any bogus (or useful!) terminology they’ve picked up in the past, and what they instinctively are capable of.

I very often get them improvising in the first lesson, just as a way of showing how lax the rules are on what ‘works’ and doesn’t ‘work’ – within some fairly broad tonal boundaries, anything can sound ‘good’ if you keep it simple enough, and build on it… the value of discovering that creativity doesn’t require induction into Dumbledore’s Inner Circle or the Knights Who Say Ni! or something (see my Creative Choices blog post for more on that).

I also get them working things by ear as early as possible, and encourage them to experiment a lot with fun things that may or may not end up sounding cool…

Why? Music is an incredible space for us to stretch the boundaries of what we define as our own creative limitations. It’s an utterly benign form, given it’s completely abstract nature (lyrics notwithstanding) and as such the worst that happens is you make an unpleasant noise. So you can go nuts and see what happens – it’s like taking a wild lashing serve when you’re break point down in tennis, only nobody loses if you get it wrong. It’s like declaring your love for a colleague on the day they leave the office because you’ll never get another chance, only no-one’s going to laugh at you.

Music is a space in which people can discover what they are capable of, and a good music teacher makes that possible, inspiring and an attractive proposition.

Teaching Ideas Pt 2 – There's no syllabus for punk and reggae.

In the last post, I mentioned that my main aim when teaching is to instill in my students a love of learning. A huge part of me having a right to teach them anything is me respecting the music they listen to. Nothing is a bigger turn off for a student that a dismissive teacher.

At one college I used to teach at, I got hauled over the coals by the head of the place for not giving my drum students a transcription of the parts we were working on when I was teaching them some reggae. “But they’ll never have to read reggae!” was my response. Doesn’t matter, was the come-back, they expect a transcription, it’s a music school and we’re meant to be getting all academic on their asses.

I didn’t give them a transcription. Why? Because Reggae is folk music. It’s an oral tradition, with musicians learning by listening and playing. None of the great reggae bands played off written parts, especially the drummers, and the nuance in the feel and timing in reggae drums would be impossible to notate. To give drummers a score to learn reggae would be like making them listen to Break My Stride by Matthew Wilder as an example of authentic reggae. It would sell them short, ill-prepare them for playing reggae professionally, and would be lying to them about how the great musicians who play that style learn to play like that.

The only place one is ever going to need to read a reggae drum part would be a theatre pit, and even then it’s more likely to just say ‘reggae feel’ or even more patronisingly ‘island feel’…

See, academics in general don’t deal well with folk traditions, especially not contemporary forms of folk music like reggae, punk, hip-hop… the magic in any of those styles is in the subtlety, not in the stuff that can be conveyed on a score. Handing out written bass-parts to ‘Anxious MoFo’ by the Minutemen or ‘Maxwell Murders’ by Rancid isn’t going to make your punk student a better punk player, but getting them hooked on Mike Watt or Matt Freeman’s playing might… That’s not to say they wouldn’t both make a cool transcription exercise as a way of introducing your lil’ punks to the wonders of writing music, but scores are not generally the way that material is passed around in the punk world, and to suggest that it is is disingenuous.

I’m not into lying to my students – I don’t want to make things easy for myself by selling them short on what’s going on with the music they listen to or want to play. If their aim is to be a rock star, I’ll tell them

  • just how unlikely it is,
  • how unpleasant an experience the road to ‘rock stardom’ is for most people and
  • how much better off they can be playing the music they love, finding an audience for it, and letting the ‘lottery of stardom’ bit happen by itself…

What I do want is to teach them

  • how to practice actual music – not just getting good at exercises
  • how to listen and dissect the mechanics of what’s going on in the music they love,
  • how the musicians they admire get to where they are (one of the beauties of having written for a bass mag is I’ve met and interviewed many of my students favourite players – always handy when I’m asked about a particular tune or technique 🙂 )

If I have students who play punk rock, I want to teach them the very best information I can about the world of punk rock, I want to show them how the great punk bassists get their sound, I want to introduce them to the music of the punk pioneers, the influencers of the genre, the attitude behind it… There’s nothing sacrilegious about transcribing punk basslines, but like reggae it’s largely an oral, experiential tradition – turning up to an audition for a punk band with a music stand and pile of manuscript is going to get you laughed out of the room…

As I said before, Context is everything, and there’s no reason to teach out of context, or lie about the context in order to try and shoe-horn one specific set of musical skills into a style that doesn’t require them…

Are there other artistic disciplines that have been spoilt by being “over-taught”? Does this happen with poetry and visual art, that the ‘academicization’ of it misses the mark for large sections of the discipline? Thoughts please…

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

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!