Bass Players: On Staying Motivated and Avoiding Unhealthy Comparisons
Q: How do I come to terms to the fact that I will never be a Damian Erskine-caliber player? How do I keep myself motivated to learn when I am always comparing my sucky playing to much better players? Why would anyone – especially another bass player – want to listen to me play?
A: To a certain extent, in order to reach some of the highest levels as a player, it requires not only intense discipline and dedication but also requires either:
a) That you are supremely confident from the get-go and never doubt what you have to offer the world
b) That you are able to overcome any level of doubt (from the subtle to the crippling) and set aside a nature that may be somewhat self-conscious or hyper-critical.
While this is a bit of a blanket statement and there are surely exceptions, a vast majority of great players I know seem to either never question their contributions or have had, at some point in their development, to overcome self doubt.
I have written about and mentioned more than once that I was, for quite a long time, a fear-based player. Honestly, it still rears its head every once in a while. Part of the problem is that bass is my second instrument and I had glossed over a lot of very important things in my development, because I never expected to play this instrument professionally.
Added to that, I didn’t grow up liking or internalizing the music that I tend to play now, so my vocabulary is not as strong as it could be. Imagine scoring a great gig as a public speaker in a language that you only spoke conversationally and on a topic that was never your focus. That’s pretty close, I’d guess.
This was all compounded by the reality of existing in the web/YouTube era where we can all watch hours and hours of videos of people doing things we never dreamed possible. I know more than one wonderful player who has been crippled by the “I can’t even compete with that” kind of self-doubt with all of this going on.
My goal for this column is to convince you that we all have something to offer. Whenever I play a song, snippet or video for a student and I can sense them feeling defeated instead of inspired, I have to remind them (and myself) of those things that we can do that are unique to us. Every one of us has a musical perspective and approach that is somewhat unique. If we all had blistering chops, what would that do for music? If we all played bebop solos on the bass, if we all could slap like the dickens and play 32nd notes with four fingers at 200 beats per minute… if we could all feel and internalize deep Cuban, African and Middle Eastern rhythms and tonalities… where would the variety be?
I was recently working with a phenomenal guitarist who was commenting on how nice it was to play with an electric player who still played bass. I asked him what he meant exactly and he went on a very polite rant about the new generation getting obsessed with technique and soloing and commented that many of these guys (to his ears) are completely neglecting the role of their instrument when it is very much time for them to be playing bass. A great bass solo is fantastic, but a great bass player is preferred 100% of the time. Someone who can truly do both is worth their weight in gold.
As I’ve said, nobody cares about a technically astounding and harmonically enlightened bass solo nearly as much as they do as rock-solid bass player who can carry the song on their shoulders, freeing up the other instrumentalists to play without having to take up the slack… except for other bass players.
We should all take the wealth of musicianship and mastery out there and praise it, appreciate it and love it. Then take it all in as inspiration to explore new avenues and leave the insecurity on the curb.
If I listen to an amazing African bassist playing the music of his heart, why would I ever feel like it reflected any kind of failure on my part? He likely couldn’t play the music of my heart in the same way either. We are all leaves on the tree of music, and we are all unique and beautiful in our own way. We should be thrilled that there is so much variety and beauty out there and use that inspiration to embrace our own voices on the instrument.
In other words, worry only about being the best you on the instrument. Follow your ears and gut and pursue the music that speaks to you with all of your might. Don’t stress about where you are, but rather get excited about where you are going. This slight shift in perspective can energize you like you wouldn’t believe, and that serves to help you work harder and get “there” more quickly!
I also know a lot of older players who wish that they had been studying jazz or playing fusion music their whole lives and regret that they may never be “good enough” because they are starting too late. This is another crippling way of perceiving your place in music. We can’t worry about what we’ll have time to do or how good we’ll get before we get “too old”. If you love something, start immersing yourself in it. Even if you are horribly inept at X, but really want to understand and play X, then every discovery and breakthrough will be an enlightening and thrilling experience! Even if you only get to a moderate level, you will have had the time of your life getting there.
I borrow a lot from African and Cuban rhythms when I play. I also have zero foundation in that music, but I love playing in Salsa bands and all types of Latin jazz and Afro-Cuban music. I got my musical butt kicked repeatedly when I first started (and I still do) but every time I learned something, it was if I were seeing something wonderful for the first time. Every time I accurately understood something happening on stage and reacted accordingly, I would do a little happy dance inside. And when one of the percussionists would come up to me in between sets and try to help me understand why I should do or not do something, I took it as an opportunity to grow and learn – not as a criticism that should cause me to wither with embarrassment.
When I play with somebody who soars above my abilities, I get goose bumps. I ask them for lessons and pay whatever they want. I encourage them to take me apart after the gig and give me homework, suggested listening, and so on.
I will never be able to play the music like Andy Gonzalez, Cachao, Panagiotis Andreou, Lincoln Goines, Oscar Stagnaro, Felipe Cabrera, Munir Hossn or any number of guys. But, instead of feeling defeated because I may never get to that level, I choose to be inspired to try and learn just one more thing so I can understand this lovely music even just a little bit better.
Hierarchical thinking is not a helpful way to perceive anything in life. We all have something to offer that’s unique to us. The biggest part of the equation, in my mind is this:
a) Put in enough time on the instrument to make playing in your style as effortless as possible. If your instrument is an obstacle, then you still have much more work to do before you can truly be free to express on it.
b) Never let fear or ego be the driving force in your playing or decision making. If we put the music above our egos and the opportunity to learn before our fear of saying yes then the rewards you reap are only limited by the intensity of your work-ethic.
Thomas Jefferson said, “I am a great believer in luck, and I find that the harder I work, the more I have of it.”
This is my way of saying that when you feel insecure or just spent three hours comparing yourself to “bass gods” on YouTube or instead of feeling down and defeated, harness that energy and attack. Push that much harder. Practice more, even though you may want to play less because you hate the sound of yourself right now. Transcribe that tune that you wish you could play. Transcribe even just one lick. Don’t walk away until you’ve learned at least one thing. Forward momentum is key. You have to be willing to look what you want in the eye and charge towards it.
One small step at a time. We all only get there one small step at a time.
How about you? What helps you stay motivated and avoiding unhealthy comparisons? Please share in the comments.