Bass Playing as a Sport
Approaching the bass in the same manner athletes approach their chosen field of endeavor will pay dividends in stamina, injury reduction, and improved playing. Just as an athlete trains for an event in which they have to perform at their best, bassists practice, rehearse, and gig for hours at a time, frequently paying little or no attention to establishing and maintaining an effective warm up routine. A bassist lacking a well tuned warm up routine is more at risk of injury than their counterparts who consistently warm up using the tips and guidance shared in this article.
Warming up is supremely important, because it gets the blood flowing to muscles so they can function properly. Commonly, skipping the warm up or an improper warm up means muscles won’t enjoy the benefits well circulating blood contributes to muscle function. When this happens, muscles typically cramp up, usually somewhere around the second or third song, sometimes sooner, sometimes later depending on how hard you play or how challenging the material is.
Too many of us know what this feels like. What we often do when muscles cramp up is play through the pain, and hope it goes away, which it usually does. The pain subsiding doesn’t signal everything is okay; your body may simply be telling you it has shifted the strain from the primary muscles you are using to secondary muscles to help out. When your body makes such a shift to secondary muscles, in time, these muscles will also become overused and strained. Sooner or later playing will again become painful and the situation will need to be addressed, hopefully before injury occurs.
Basic Training: Fine Tune Your Warm Up
Here is a checklist for ways to stay healthy and avoid injury by warming up properly:
- Stretch before and after: It is best to stretch before and after a gig, a warm up and cool down period if you will.
- Start slow and progress: When playing something new or challenging, start slowly, progressively building up speed giving your muscles a chance to warm up properly and avoid strain from doing too much too quickly. This approach will also help to reduce stress which we put on ourselves if we can’t play something as well as we would like right away.
Esperanza Spalding told me she advised her students at Berklee to start out practicing slowly, because if they didn’t their muscles were more likely to tighten up and fatigue. Esperanza is right and her advice underscores the theme of our discussion. An additional benefit from slow practice she finds and other players like Steve Bailey also talk about is that when we practice slowly we build up muscle memory and kinetic (motion) memory which makes it easier for us to play the same parts, later on with less problems, faster.
- Start at the top: Many bassists start their warm up at the nut and run scales, working their way up the neck. When first picking up the instrument, try starting at the top of the neck (by the pickups) and work your way down towards the head stock instead. This will increase blood flow and stretch the hands and forearms in a more gradual manner. Starting where the frets are closer together and working our way to the larger stretches makes it easier on the muscles in the early going.
- Pay attention to pain: When stretching before a gig or rehearsal, know the difference between healthful stretching and painful stretching. Stretch is good. Pain is a warning. Avoid falling into the common “no pain no gain” mindset. This “advice” is not helpful to musicians, and should not be followed, whether given by fellow musicians, instructors, bass heroes, or anybody else. Pain is our bodies’ way of telling us something is wrong and needs to be changed. Pay attention to pain, assess your technique, and make the necessary adjustments to avoid problems in the future.
Once warmed up, start playing slowly, running some scales before a gig slowly and without tension. Start with something simple before trying anything complex. If you start to feel a slight burning sensation in the muscles controlling your thumb and fingers, wait a couple of minutes to see if it goes away. This could be in either hand, but usually will be in the right, or plucking hand. If it doesn’t go away, you may be doing too much too soon. If you are playing to the point of experiencing acute pain in either hand you are probably doing something wrong and could be about to develop tendonitis or a repetitive strain or overuse injury. Stop and assess your technique. Is your wrist angle close to neutral? Are you leaning your hand or forearm on the bass? (For more details review Part 1 in this series)
Try doing some wrist rotations and shake your hands out and start over. Wrist rotations are just what they sound like—we rotate our wrists in a complete circle in one direction several times, and then in the other direction. This is a quick way to get some circulation going in the hands and wrists. The only rule is don’t force them, we need to keep our hands and wrists loose. If the circles don’t seem that big, don’t worry, as our wrists loosen up the circles will get bigger and we will gain more range of motion. Also when shaking out our hands don’t snap them like we just touched something hot—keep them loose. Motion is generally good for prevention of hand and wrist injuries because with motion there is increased blood flow resulting in more oxygen going to the muscles. The variety of positions resulting from different movements such as tightening and relaxing helps flush out built up waste products. Holding the same positions constantly, as we do, tires a muscle out and the end result is a lack of circulation which can cause muscle cramping.
Get in Shape and Stay in Shape
As musicians, benefiting from the athlete’s perspective, we are learning it’s important to stay in not only decent but good shape. This is important for longevity in our chosen careers. The better we treat ourselves and our bodies the better they will treat us, in both the short and long runs.
Do some exercise every day. This could include calisthenics, stretching, running, swimming, any kind of physical conditioning to keep the body active. Little things add up. You could start out by walking, maybe just around the block. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Park a little farther away and get some exercise walking to and from the car.
Victor Wooten suggests that warming up only the hands is insufficient. He observes that since we play with our whole bodies and our minds, one should warm up everything as if we were going to play a sport. Such non-musical activities as playing basketball, juggling, and light calisthenics help Victor feel ready for performance situations, and ensure that his whole body and not just his hands and arms are warmed up and ready to go. Working out in general will make you less prone to injury. Keeping our bodies conditioned and muscles strong and flexible helps minimize the likelihood we will be hurt. Conversely, weak muscles are more prone to pain and injury. Properly conditioning our shoulder and back muscles will reduce strain on forearm and hand muscles.
Strengthen to Avoid Injury, Improve Your Circulation and Your Playing
There is a difference between stretching and warming up and strengthening. There are occasions when we’ll want to strengthen a group of muscles, but for our purposes, the simple act of playing will help to strengthen the relevant muscles more than sufficiently. Additional strengthening will, more often than not, contribute to the problems we are trying to avoid (i.e. overuse syndromes). Some bassists believe that trying to strengthen the hands by clenching and unclenching a rubber ball, using similar devices which provide a pumping motion of the fingers or even by adding weights on to the fingers can help to develop speed and stamina.
If you are looking for this kind of ‘edge’, pay attention to the signals your body sends. If you experience discomfort after using any of these methods or devices, discontinue use. Stanley Clarke has used rubber balls to strengthen his hands, and it would be hard to argue with the results. However, he has big hands, and it is probably easier for him to strengthen his hands in this manner than it may be for a player with smaller hands.
David Ellefson has shared with me what I feel to be an exceptional hand “strengthening” exercise. David suggests wrapping heavy rubber bands around the fingers and opening and closing the fingers against the resistance the rubber bands provide. This motion improves the circulation through resistance training and is preferable to flexion which the “squeezing” methods described in the previous paragraph induce and which are, I believe, the primary cause of most of our overuse injuries.
While weight lifting is a good way to maintain fitness, certain rules apply here as well. It is better, as a general rule, for bassists to use machine weights than free weights due to a diminished need to grip or grasp, both of which may cause strain or overuse.
Exercises that are isometric in nature, that is exercises by which muscles contract or tighten with no movement occurring are better for our purposes than strengthening exercises requiring movement. Isometric exercises are good for bassists because they utilize the same actions we are performing with our right and left hands, activating muscles with an isometric contraction at a specific joint angle. Preferable to lifting weights are strap on weights which can be attached to the wrist and upper arm and can help to strengthen the shoulders and arms in a less stressful fashion.
Top Tips — Warming up and Exercise for the Bassist:
- Approach warm up with your instrument as an athlete approaches a sport— train smart to tamp down injury risk and enhance playing ability.
- When starting to play, start slowly and progress to more difficult pieces as this will make it easier for your muscles to adapt while encouraging optimum circulation which contributes to peak muscle function.
- Try running scales from the top of the neck towards the head stock rather than from the nut down, instead starting with the frets, which are closer together, is initially easier on the muscles and helps minimize stress and injuries.
- “No pain no gain” is not for us. Don’t overdo stretching there is a difference between beneficial stretching and pain inducing stretching—when pain occurs stop and review your routine.
- Warm up by stretching before and after a rehearsal or performance—the “cooling down” stretching routine, after playing, is just as important as warming up.
- Stay active by engaging in exercise on a regular basis. This will help to keep circulation moving, help keep muscles loose, and the body supple resulting in less injury and a more enjoyable playing experience.
Keep warming up, exercising, practicing, and playing in thoughtful ways informed by this series. Doing so will contribute to your overall experience as a bassist—you will have a lot more fun and sound your best.