The Lightbulb Moment: Super Powers
“We can fly!”
“You can fly!”
“We can fly!!”
“Come on, everybody! Here we gooooooo… Off to Neverland!”
With just a few happy thoughts and a sprinkle of pixie dust, Peter Pan, Wendy, John and Michael swooped around the nursery, singing, laughing, and soaring with the greatest of ease. It was off to Neverland for an adventure… second star to the right and straight on til morning. I wanted so badly to join them. I watched Peter Pan a thousand times as a kid, hoping that one day I, too, would get the chance to jump off the ground and fly away to Neverland. It seemed to be the greatest of all powers. It gave you complete freedom; an effortless and magical gift that afforded you the luxury of seeing the world, enjoying the wind at your back, and escaping from any unfavorable situation. There are, of course, plenty of other super powers—X-ray vision, super strength, super speed—each one quite respectable in the world of incredibleness, but lacking the allure of flight.
I suppose that the dream of flying had been sufficiently crushed and deemed unrealistic by the age of five. I had been on an airplane, which is the only type of flying that most humans ever get to experience. My sights were set on more reasonable things, such as learning how to tie my shoe. What a feat that would be! I learned the cold, cold truth about super powers and the fact that they only existed in movies, comic books, novels, and our imaginations.
Fast forward a decade and my once-naïve and carefree nature had turned sarcastic, cynical, and steeped in schoolwork like any other fifteen year old. These days, my only escape was the hours spent in the basement, desperately trying to figure out how to play this curious four stringed instrument. It hadn’t been long since I picked up the bass and, finally, I convinced my parents to find me a teacher. I remember bits and pieces of that first lesson… the studio was up a narrow staircase, above a local pizza place. The teacher asked me a few questions about the bass, my musical preferences, and what I wanted to learn. Of course I wanted to learn songs… the ones I heard on the radio, the ones my friends liked, and the ones that I had gotten the TAB for. I had some mix CDs with me and we began with “Hash Pipe” by Weezer. The song started playing and within seconds, my teacher seemed to be playing along. How was that possible? Did he know the song already? Had he learned it for another student?
“How did you do that?” I asked.
“Well, you have to listen, try to find the first note, and then go one by one until you learn the bass line.”
It was like magic. It would take me hours to do what he had done in just seconds. He didn’t break a sweat, didn’t fumble around, and didn’t even look like he was trying. It was like sonic X-ray hearing: listen to music and immediately play it. I was amazed, intrigued, and completely jealous. Why couldn’t I do that?
Little did I know, the song was pretty simple and he had me playing it by the end of the lesson. Nevertheless, the fact that he figured it out so effortlessly made an impression on me. I wanted to be able to do exactly that… listen to a song and play the bass line without having to fumble around for hours. Usually, I would get frustrated, decide to quit, and eventually reconsider. It could take days before I even made it to the bridge. I didn’t want to rely on TAB and I certainly didn’t want to “read music;” I wanted to learn by ear. I wanted to pick up the instrument, play the song, and be great… no… super, at it.
Somewhere between that first lesson and this evening, I’ve developed fairly good ears. I do get stumped from time to time, faced with the Kryptonite of chord substitutions and extensions, but I’ve become slightly more graceful at working it out. As a teacher, I find myself in similar situations with students, where they are amazed by this “super power” of figuring out a song or flawlessly playing a scale. I wish I could say that all it took was a little pixie dust, but in reality, it took years and years of work. Hundreds of jam sessions, thousands of songs, millions of wrong notes. Whether it’s learning by ear, reading music, double thumping, soloing, or playing in the pocket, each bass player develops a set of skills, and it’s the drive and desire to practice that makes the difference between being good and being super.
I’d like to think that all of us, even Peter Pan, had to struggle before succeeding. Perhaps Peter fell to the ground the first time he tried to fly. Maybe he got lost the first time he flew to London. That isn’t how the story goes, but I’d prefer thinking that it takes a lot of hard work, a little bit of pixie dust, and plenty of happy thoughts to make it all the way to Neverland.
What was one of your super power moments? Please share in the comments.
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!