Serious Play and the Bass Solo

Damian Erskine

A good friend of mine came to a gig I had recently in Seattle. Jeremy Sherman lives in San Francisco and our relationship began as one of student and teacher (he would fly to Portland on occasion to take a few lessons from me and hang out for a weekend) and we soon became friends both within and outside of the music world. He’s also one of the smartest people I know. In addition to being a very good bassist, Jeremy is also a bio-philosopher and social science researcher and always gets my brain going into over-drive (even if I usually feel like my brain is comparatively stuck in the mud while he throws ideas at me). He sent me a message after our last hang at my gig and I wanted to share it here. He thought this conversation would make for a great article for No Treble. I concur in theory, let’s see how I do in reality.

This is the message Jeremy sent me:

“An idea for a column occurred to me listening to you solo, something about framing oneself in the seconds before you start soloing. To hear the groove as deep as possible both rhythmically and mood-wise. As a semiotician, I note that we don’t really say anything in music. We evoke mood, attitude, ethos. We don’t express concepts, so leaning deep into the groove and mood as the muse to get a solo started that seems where you go and it shows in your solos.

I still make the rookie mistake of thinking I have something to prove. Funny I don’t feel that way in the conceptual realm. Music seems to be where I regress to my childhood anxiety about proving myself.

I know better. I’ve long said scribbling real fast with your crayon inside the lines is impressive but not as impressive as drawing something recognizable. I think what we draw is the rasa as Indian musicians call it. The mood. I like what Kai (Eckhardt) once told me too. The solo as seasoning soup, then pausing to taste it mid-solo, to see how it tastes under the influence of what you just added

What I think we aim to achieve (and you succeed) is the seemingly oxymoronic “serious play,” feeling free within a highly constrained focus (the groove/the changes). Liberated from constraints. I’ve noticed in scholarly research that to achieve that state, I have to have relaxed about potential land mines, places where, in playing I could step into something that I fear would impinge on my mojo by calling into question my academic validity. In soloing the land mines are clam cul-de-sacs, getting lost and the like.

I wrote this article on serious play a few years ago.”

Here is Jeremy’s article in Psychology Today about “serious play.”

Phew! Just the question is as long and thought-provoking as most of my responses (or more so). I also encourage you to read his article as there are some wonderful analogies and inspiring concepts contained in there.

I loved his term “serious play.” It’s something I’ve long strived for, although I never had terminology for what I was working towards until I heard that.

Getting to the inspiration for the ideas there, let’s talk about the moments leading to an improvisation and my initial intent. What I want to avoid is the tendency to just start playing patterns or rote licks over changes. This usually leads to me playing a solo that, while full of notes, is typically devoid of content. Instead, I’m hoping that I can inspire myself to hear a new melody or at least come up with something that has the potential to lead to real music being made.

My first steps are usually revolving around trying to empty my mind and oxygenate my blood (brain food). I usually start taking deep breaths, in through the nose and out through the mouth, 4-8 bars before I get to the solo. I am just trying to relax both my muscles and my mind.

My next step is to remind myself that this doesn’t have to be a BASS SOLO but, rather, an opportunity to create motifs, play with the music around me and, hopefully, get to a place of relevant melodic content. To that end, I try hard to make my first foray into the solo a strong melodic statement. This is best followed by space, wherein I can listen to what I play and try to hear the appropriate melodic and/or rhythmic response.

So far, we have:

  1. Breathe/relax
  2. Create a melodic statement
  3. Let that statement hang in the air
  4. Respond

Usually, if I’ve gotten this far successfully, I’m pretty well set. I’ve put myself in the proper head-space to play musically and I’ve set up an environment for that to continue. I try very hard not to worry about how long or short I’ve bee soloing. I try not to worry about how ‘cool’ anything I’m playing is. I’m trying not to let an weird moments or weird notes distract me from the larger picture. I’m simply trying to conceive of my solo as a short composition and doing my best to create something of depth, spontaneously.

I usually don’t criticize myself until after the gig or when I hear recordings, and I no longer do it in a negative, self-harm kind of way. (i.e., “Man, I suck!”, for example) Instead, I listen to myself in relationship to the music happening around me and make notes as to what helped the music and what hindered the music, as a whole.

If you read the article posted above, you may remember a section about ‘metastable systems’. I think of my evolution as a player much like this. The moments where I may be in what many of us call the “rut”, are moments when my ball has hit a ridge and is momentarily resting before continuing down the track. It’s in these moments that I know that my musical evolution requires an extra bit of push to get me moving again. The kind of push differs for everybody and at every stage of the evolution. For the first decade or more of serious study, that push is often technical in nature. You need to work on muscle memory, dexterity, learning to read, knowing your fretboard better, learning more styles of music, etc…
Further along in your development, it is often more about perception and cognition. It’s about being more conceptual in your approach. You think about large motivic arcs or general aesthetics.
At this point in my development, I’m in need of a little bit of both. I need to keep pushing myself harmonically, but I’m more concerned with my conceptual development.

This is where ‘serious play’ comes into the picture for me. I learned long ago that if I tried too hard or cared too much about every little aspect of what I played, I got aural tunnel vision. I would get so hyper-focused on every little thing I played that I could no longer see the bigger picture. I was also too busy beating myself up to ever allow myself the space to play.

Have you ever been playing along with something in the background? Maybe you’re setting up for your gig and you begin to noodle over whatever is playing on the jukebox, for example. I would often find myself playing the most interesting things. Immediately hearing melodies and finding them on the instrument. I would be thinking, “yeah! My ears are really working tonight, this is going to be a blast” only to begin the set and be hyper-conscious of every moment and never able to get back to that place when it actually mattered.

This drove me nuts for years. It was so common that I knew there was a reason that I would lose that mojo on the gig. It’s because I cared too much about the gig. Once people were watching and listening, I would lose the ability to play naturally. This is when I started giving serious consideration to my frame of mind when I played (soloing or not). I realized that, in order to play I had to actually play like a child plays with toys. I had to take the music and just have fun with it, with less regard for getting it ‘wrong’. Note that I didn’t say “no regard” for getting it wrong. This is why ‘serious play’ resonates with me so much.

I take what I do very seriously (making music) and have no intention of just mucking about like a methed-out kitten on the fretboard. I require myself to do the best job that I possibly can in every situation. My lively-hood and my sense of self depend on it. However, there is a fine line between cautious and tentative, between care-free and not caring. It’s taken me years to get to a place where I can usually enter the proper head-space to at least leave the door wide open for inspiration and I believe that much of what has gotten me there is a combination of thoughtful self-exploration and years of experience.

This is why I encourage all of my students to get out into the world and play with humans as much as possible. So many of us want to get it right before we get on stage for the first (or 30th) time. We learn the most and learn the quickest when playing real music with real people in real time. We’ve got to get out there and take those chances.

Another part of that article that resonated was the later portion on percentages. If you’ve only had 3 gigs, and one was a nightmare, statistically speaking, you may get nervous thinking that most of your gigs are going to hurt. However, if you learn from whatever mistakes you made and do better every time, your good experiences will far outweigh the bad and you will, as a result, become less afraid to fail. Every time I hit a clam on an important gig and the world didn’t end was a reminder that things happen and it will be ok, just pay attention, focus and do your best. I make fewer and fewer clams every time.

This is a good start to the conversation but I know that we can take it further. Please comment, share and keep this conversation rolling. I’d also love to hear your thoughts via email through No Treble or my website. I’m hoping some of you might have questions or topics of conversation based on this lengthy first step into these concepts.

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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