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Sitting In: Just Say Yes

Bassist at a jam session
Photo by Josep Tomàs

There are certain things in life that require a great deal of courage… bungee jumping off a bridge, rafting through class five white water, snowboarding down a double black diamond mountain side, etc. Even the daredevil in me doesn’t have the guts to try those things. These are pretty extreme cases of having to muster up courage and it’s pretty rare that you’ll find yourself attached to a giant rubber band and hanging off the side of a bridge. You may, however, find yourself in a more realistic, yet equally terrifying scenario: sitting in.

Whether you’re just starting out as a bassist, or you gig on a regular basis, sitting in can bring out your inner scaredy cat. If you’ve never sat in before, be ready to cross your fingers and hope that your bass (and your brain), works well enough to get through the song. Okay, okay, you worry about the same thing even if you have done it before. But why? What is it about getting up to play with people that can be so nerve racking? And does it ever get any easier?

As someone who frequently goes out to play music, and who learned more on the bandstand than off, I’ve had my fair share of sit-ins. I can say that it does get easier, especially if you’re familiar with the music you’re likely to play. You get past the butterflies and you learn how to jump on stage, plug in, listen for the key, and play your first note. You realize that people are listening, but they’re more likely to listen for the good than the bad. And then, one day, you’ll be faced with an opportunity to sit in with people who are completely out of your league. So what do you say? You say yes.

I’d like to think that no matter how experienced you are, there will be playing opportunities that take you out of your comfort zone. Sometimes, it’s the music… if you’re unfamiliar with the song or genre, you may have to hear your way through and hold on for dear life. Other times it’s the players… getting up to play with musicians you hold in high regard can be quite scary; you may take a moment to wonder “how did I get here?” And sometimes, it’s the audience. Ever look out into the crowd and see someone you didn’t expect? Could it be that one of your bass idols is sitting right in front of the stage? And does picturing people in their underwear actually work?

So, in the five seconds you have to say yes or no to the question of “hey, you want to sit in?” how do you sort through all of the thoughts going through your head? One way is to not think, just do. Get on the stage, take the bass, and play. The person that invites you to sit in already has confidence in your ability… they wouldn’t ask you if they thought you couldn’t hang. This is an opportunity for you to show the audience and the other musicians that you can play (who knows, you may get a call for a gig out of it). Don’t go out of your way to impress people with fancy techniques or too many notes, just make the band sound good, groove, and be watching when the song ends.

As the question is asked and you begin to doubt yourself, be careful not to get trapped by the Negative Nancy side of your brain. It’s easy to talk yourself out of playing, so why give yourself time to do it? It takes just a few seconds to realize that the other players are far better than you are, that you don’t deserve to be on the same stage with them, that you’ll mess up and everyone will notice, that you’ll make a complete fool of yourself, and that you’ll completely ruin your reputation. This is called “psyching yourself out.” Forgettaboutit. We are often our harshest critic and for some reason, we grant ourselves permission to critique music that we haven’t yet played. Instead of chickening out, give yourself the benefit of the doubt. Worst-case scenario is that you won’t do an amazing job but at least you’ll have the courage to try. That is what people will remember.

So, the next time someone asks if you want to sit in, just say yes. Jump off the metaphorical bridge, have confidence in the bungee chords and bass strings, and embrace the adrenaline rush. It will be over before you realize and once you’ve done it, you’ll walk away feeling empowered. Perhaps you’re empowered by your ability, or maybe you’ll be humbled by the experience and be inspired to practice. Either way, you’ve taken a giant leap of faith, and that is no small feat.

Readers, how do you approach this? I’d love to hear from you. Please share your experiences in the comments.

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and playing sessions, she fronts an original music project, The Interludes and teaches private lessons. Visit her website to learn more about her music or to inquire about lessons.

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