Some Thoughts on Playing at Fast Tempi
At some point, someone at the gig is going to call a tune at breakneck speed. Trying to keep solid time at a blistering pace can be physically and mentally exhausting for a bassist. We might drag, or miss a change. We can help mitigate these issues by applying a few ideas when playing an exceptionally upbeat tune.
We all need to breathe when we play. As we read this, it seems obvious. However, it can be a different story once the bass is in our hands. Especially when playing at a high tempo.
Under the stress of keeping a solid 340 bpm, we may find ourselves holding our breath, forgetting to breath out, or simply breathing raggedly. When we do any of these things, we amp up our nervousness level and simultaneously deprive our brain and muscles of steady oxygen flow. This leads to less than ideal playing. When a fast tune comes up on the bandstand, keep the breath flowing. In, and out. As if it where a normal procedure.
Good rhythm and good pulse are both mental and physical. If we become stressed, the physical component can be lost. If it is, our time will suffer. Keep time in your body somehow. Nod your head, tap your foot, do a dance, sway from side to side. Whatever works best for you.
Keeping the pulse in our body helps us stay on track as the beats fly by and keeps us from sounding frantic. Keeping a pulse with our body is a good idea at any tempo, but doing it at a fast tempo can help us stay loose and on target. When we are doing this at a fast tempo, however, I suggest we….
Keep the “Big Beat”
If the tempo is 360 bpm, trying to emphasize every beat in your body, or even in your mind, will likely lead to mental and physical fatigue…..as well as dragging! For super upbeat tempi, I suggest feeling half notes, or even full bars, in your body and subdivide the quarter notes mentally. This helps a fast tempo feel slower. It also tends to allow for more relaxed playing and a less frenetic sound to our bass lines.
Practice Your Time
Finally, all these suggestions are for naught if the first time you try to play at 380 bpm is on the gig. Spend some time playing at fast tempi during your practice sessions.
Pick a tune you are super comfortable with and start bumping up the metronome. Be sure to play many choruses just like you would at the gig. Pick your favorite, burning rubber version from a recording and play along. Keep up with the drummer, and the changes (!). Get used to playing at a fast tempo, and it won’t seem so difficult after awhile.
Dr. Donovan Stokes is on the faculty of Shenandoah University-Conservatory. Visit him online at www.donovanstokes.com and check out the Bass Coalition at www.basscoalition.com.
Another technique for playing fast that I use is, Once you’re in the ballpark of what you’re trying to play fast. Don’t stop at the established tempo of the song. Try to push the tempo even further so when you go back to the tempo that is required, it will seem slower and easier to play.
For playing written lines at fast tempos, I test myself by looking at the part and asking myself which finger I’m using to play a certain note in a particular measure, and what decision led to that choice. If your fingerings don’t make sense at a slow pace, and you don’t know what finger you’re using, you’re making life harder than it needs to be.
As the article mentions, keep breathing. Everybody’s initial reaction to stress is to hold their breath. This is a mistake when playing. Your brain is an engine and it runs on air. One trick I do is if I’m in a stressful playing situation, I’ll take a really big breath, and slowly blow it out in tempo with the music (i.e., big breath in for one measure, exhale for one measure). This forces me to align my stress with the activity of playing, instead of letting a lack of air ruin my concentration.