Preparing for a College Bass Audition

Bassist reading music

Photo by hodag

Q: I am thinking about entering a music program when I get to college. How should I prepare for playing bass in a college program? What will I need to know? How good do I need to be?

A: Whenever I speak with younger players getting ready to enter a collegiate music program, my first instinct is usually to tell them not to freak out and think that they have to have mastered the instrument before they audition.

If you were a master musician, you wouldn’t need to go to school for it. There the expectation that you have a lot of developing yet to do. However, they are looking for a few things in particular.

The truth of the situation is that – at least for the under-grad jazz programs that I’m aware of – if you an pay for it, you can get into the program. The auditions are more about placement than they are about whether or not you are good enough to attend. This changes if you continue on to grad school, but you can cross that bridge when you get to it.

Whenever I audition students for any kind of program, what I’m most looking at is the player’s instincts and general inherent musicality. Nobody expects you to blow the doors off of the place when you audition. In fact, I think there is a conspiracy in place that states that every audition must be held in the least comforting environment possible (I’m only half kidding). A part of the process is seeing how you deal with pressure and what you look like at your worst (the stuff they’ll throw at you that you can’t prepare for. i.e.: sight-reading an unfamiliar chart, calling tunes, throwing unfamiliar changes at you and asking you to walk through them and take a short solo, etc.) They really just want to get a broad impression of you as a musician and then move on, because they have to do it 30 more times today.

So, to the meat and potatoes of it all:

If you are entering a collegiate program, that usually means that you will be majoring in either jazz or classical. I can’t speak for classical programs at all, and I don’t play the upright, so I’ll focus on jazz programs. To my knowledge, there are no programs that will allow you to study classical music on the electric bass.

The things you will likely focus on in your jazz program are:

  1. Sight reading
  2. Improvisation
  3. Walking
  4. Jazz harmony
  5. Composition

There can be other items, depending on the program (likely some piano, music tech , such as notation software or recording basics), other genres of music, and music history).

So, in preparation for any such program:

  1. I encourage people to start focusing on reading and bits of walking, improvisation and jazz harmony but starting to practice playing through tunes in the Real Book. Usually focusing on reading the melodies, practicing arpeggio and scalar patterns through the changes, and exploring playing with intention through the changes.
  2. I will also have them focus on better internalizing their instrument by having them to everything in multiple positions and fingerings.
  3. We’ll switch tunes often to keep them working through new changes and melodies.
  4. I’ll have them notate walking lines and solos without the bass in their hands. This forces you to think through the changes intellectually. It gets you in the habit of thinking about common tones, approach tones, chord tones, trying to hear the shape and flow of a line before it’s played, etc… It’s a slow motion version of what will be happening spontaneously in your head while you play tunes.
  5. I’ll encourage them to start listening to the genre with intention (sending Youtube links and making album suggestions along the way to help open the door). This is quite important. It is exponentially harder to play any style of music with any kind of authority if you don’t have the feeling of the music in you. I’m not saying that you have to grow up with it but you must be at least moderately familiar with the style to know how it’s supposed to feel. Where the notes like to lay and how the flow of the style moves, not to mention knowing how to cop the proper tone, etc.
  6. You can’t play jazz until you can hear jazz (that’s 100% true for any style of music).

So, in a nutshell, here is what you should focus on (preferably with a decent teacher):

  1. Reading! (No joke… get on it. Your life will be so much better if you do the work now and not when you are in the program!)
  2. Harmony (understand what every chord symbol is telling you)
  3. Walking/soloing (learn how to move musically through those chord changes)
  4. Facility (removing the instrument as an obstacle)
  5. Listening

That is my pre-collegiate workout routine.

Readers, how about you? Do you run auditions or have you already gone through the paces? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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