The Lightbulb Moment: A Quarter Note For Your Thoughts

Ryan Madora

Here we are, smack dab in the middle of the college admission process — the worst part about being in high school. Clearly, a full day of classes followed by extra-curricular activities and homework isn’t enough to deal with; there are standardized tests to study for, essays to write, schools to visit, interviews to prepare for, and meetings with your guidance counselors. Despite having decent grades and test scores, my guidance counselor sincerely doubted my ability to get into my preferred school and wasn’t shy about saying so. “There’s an audition for the program? Well you’ll really have to impress them somehow.” No wonder I hated these meetings.

A week later, I found myself discussing audition pieces with my bass teacher. I could go the jazz standard route, perform a rock song with some technique-displaying licks, work on a chord-melody arrangement of a pop song, or perhaps choose something in the classical vein. My teacher handed me his copy of “Bach for Bass” and I immediately decided that it was something worth exploring. Reading music was never my specialty, but I wanted to make an impression and realized that this could set me apart from the other candidates. I could find the notes on my bass… All Cows Eat Grass had been engrained in my memory long ago, but I never truly mastered the rhythm side of things. Play it for me and I could play it back all day long, but decipher the dots on a page? That was a different story.

Cautiously, I opened the book, turned to “Prelude in C Major”, and discovered that the rhythm stayed consistent throughout the piece. Sixteenth notes. The whole time. This, I could handle.

So I took the book home, got started on the first few bars, and then went searching for some recorded versions of the piece. The book came with an accompanying CD, a fairly cut-and-dry performance that would serve as a good reference but one that lacked any emotive edge. Expanding my research into cyberspace, I stumbled upon countless versions of the piece: piano, cello, upright bass, electric bass, harp. It wasn’t long before I realized that even though the music was written as straight sixteenth notes, few performers executed the piece as such. Glenn Gould emphasized the second beat of each measure (the highest note in the phrase) with a sharp, staccato attack. Pablo Casals often laid into the first note of the bar and played with an element of swing, bowing quickly and energetically while moving toward the concluding theme. Suddenly, the task of reading the rhythm seemed perplexing and deceptive, despite how easy it looked on paper. This would be less of an exercise in reading and instead, be one of interpreting.

A few more days of school, a bit of practicing, and plenty of homework later, I finally convinced my parents to let me attended the local Thursday night blues jam. I was in good standing, having received an A on a recent Physics exam, and I needed a break from Bach. Bring on the B.B., the Bonnie, and the Bo. The fifteen minutes of fame, or three songs of jamming, yielded pleasant results and brought me back to my roots. An extended slow blues let me bask in the greatness of the 12-bar form, weaving from chord to chord, playing a simple, yet steady groove. A slow blues always meant following the other players, listening to the dynamic shifts in the music, and understanding the nuances of note choice and feel. I could match the kick drum rhythm, playing “one… and three… and one,” or I could play with a legato approach to the quarter notes, providing depth and openness between each attack. This was music that I understood, that I had been learning and playing since day one, and that took me to my comfort zone.

The jam ended as quickly as it began, as did another week of school. Each passing day brought me closer to the audition and, it seemed, further from being able to execute the Bach piece in an “impressive” manner. I had practiced it over and over again, memorizing measure by measure, but couldn’t settle into a proper rhythmic flow. I wavered between playing the sixteenth notes evenly and methodically, as the sheet music suggested, and pulling from the recordings of the classical masters I had discovered during my Internet search. I played it different every time, trying to decide if I should hang longer on the first note of the phrase or if I should play with an ebb and flow to the overall tempo.

Out of this frustration, I realized that my desire to “figure out” a way to perform the piece was an exercise in futility. The answer wasn’t black and white, rather it was subjective; I wasn’t simply trying to emulate another persons’ performance, I was trying to make it my own. Up until that point, most of my playing revolved around mimicking and learning how to play something “like the record,” but this was something completely different — something less tangible and with more improvisation that I had anticipated.

And then it dawned on me: it’s like a slow blues. It’s music that breathes and shifts depending on what is being played and who the player is. It’s the player’s responsibility to listen for what the music wants and what the listener wants to hear. It’s my choice to decide how to play each note, how to capture one’s attention, and how to create meaning from something that was written centuries ago. The feel could fluctuate, as it does in a blues. The sixteenth note was not just a sixteenth note. It could be played with a poignant and staccato attack, it could swing. I could create tension by hanging on one note. I could take the music from a delicate pianissimo to a dramatic fortissimo at the climax of the piece.

Keeping this in mind, I finally started taking breaths and playing by instinct and intuition. All I could do was try to chip away at the stone to reveal the beauty of the music. Never did I ever consider myself an expert at it, or even particularly good, but at least I reached a level of contentment and felt slightly pleased with my performance. It was no slow blues, but at least I passed the audition.

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!

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  1. Kirk Bolas

    It didn’t hit me until about ten years into my so far thirty-five years of my dance with strings on the fingerboard/fretboard that I didn’t have to try and play someone else’s creation note and feel perfect. If I’m playing someone else’s music, I play it close enough to the original so that it is easily recognizable, but apart from that I make the song as if it were mine own. Of course I stay locked into what the other folks that are on stage with me are doing and I watch to see if the audience is dancing, asleep in their seats (not necessarily a bad thing if the mood set is one of peace and soothing tranquility) or on the edge of their seats to see if what I and the band are doing is having the desired effect. As an example, I’m the current bassist in a band that, among other things, plays a couple of Johnny Cash songs with a punk feel…and surprisingly, it works. There’s nothing wrong with taking someone else’s music and making it your own (within reason), because that is part of the interpretive process.

  2. Ryan if you can stand the pun, this column struck a chord with me. I’ve been a “dot player” most of my life on trumpet. Coming over to the bass has left me excited, bewildered and frustrated with the how much interpretation and feel comes into play (pun #2). Two words that stop me in my tracks: “Play something”. Thanks again for great column. I continue to work up the nerve to go to a blues jam.