Tips for Starting to Teach Bass

Bass player

Q: I was asked at a gig recently if I ever gave lessons. The answer was actually “no,” but I could use the bread and also thought it might be an interesting way to explore music, my playing, etc. So I said, “Definitely! Want to get together?” Without asking something as silly as “how do I teach?” do you have any advice for how to not completely stink at it right off the bat?

A: I don’t know if anyone is a natural born educator. I certainly cringe when I think back to my early students and am downright embarrassed when I think about my first times teaching in front of a group of people (or even speaking in front of a group of musicians for that matter).

I was 100% winging it and I’m pretty sure it showed. I’ve since done quite a lot of teaching both individually as well as teaching at Jazz camps every year, doing clinics, etc… I’ve gotten more comfortable.

Granted, I tend to teach more collegiate level stuff and I still get a little stumped by complete beginners when I try to figure out how to reinforce the building blocks while also keeping it fun and engaging.

I’ve found that it definitely helps to come up with a lesson plan ahead of time. I’ll often write up an outline of what I want to go over before any kind of teaching event and, with private students, I’ll generally pre-conceive some general topics before each lesson.

The first lesson is always the hardest for me. I like to mold my lessons around a) what the students want to learn b) what I think they should really work on based on what their goals are for the instrument in contrast with what they can do in the moment.

In fact, I tend to start my very first lesson with somebody by asking what kind of player they want to be. Do they want to be a gun for hire? Jazz musician? Solid rock player? Just be able to hang a little better with their friends when they jam? I’m not one who thinks that everybody who picks up a bass needs to learn every mode, how to read and be able to shred cello suits at 300bpm by memory. If someone just wants to be a little less lost when jamming, we might just work on learning more tunes in the style with an emphasis on a bit of ear training and ability to recognize how different bass lines we learn to relate to the key they are in. If they want to be a hired gun, we might focus on really understanding harmony, reading, stylistic awareness, etc… You get the idea.

That’s me though. Here is what I imagine you might want to do before giving your very first lesson

  1. Think about how you came to understand what you know. Try to organize your approach a little bit. Take things back to the beginning and mentally chart your own evolution and progression. Think about how you might get the student to come to the same realizations that you did by virtue of the work you give them.
  2. Think about good practice routine and also try to teach them how to learn. How to focus on something. How to listen. How to practice.
  3. Come up with the first 15 minutes of the lesson ahead of time. Write an outline, take some notes, pre-determine what you want to cover but also be ready for the conversation to drift and be willing to take them wherever they need to go.
  4. Don’t just show them how to play a bass line or teach them a bass line but try to make them understand how that line relates to a scale they know (presumably major and/or minor). Try and get them understanding how to develop things on their own and how to begin to explore it.

Teaching is much more than just laying out everything you know in a tidy list and forcing somebody to work through it, step by step. It’s really about connecting with someone and trying to figure out how they might best learn and then working with them in the way that works best for them.

Of course, there are some things that just need to be hammered in and we all have to do but, for the most part, teaching is really just about showing someone how they can most efficiently and most effectively do the work they need to do in order to become the best version of whatever they want to be on the instrument (of course, you often have to show them what the work is as well but the things that tend to stick the most for people seem to be the things that they discover for themselves, so it’s often much more about showing them the path, giving them the tools and then being supportive and available as they work through their own obstacles).

Lastly, here is the best advice for any new teacher. Don’t feel like you have to (or freak out because you don’t) know everything! If they ask something you don’t know, use it as an opportunity to teach them how to figure it out by figuring it out together. Even if that means Googling the information and then figuring out how you would practice it.

Try not to get too freaked out. Just recognize that they heard something in your playing that inspired them and knows you have something to offer. Be available, be attentive, be intentional, be thoughtful, and be honest.

Try to be the teacher that you always wish you had or emulate the teacher that you really connected with. What do you wish you had known earlier? If you could go back, what would you change about the way you went about it all.

Use this as an opportunity to help somebody along and foster that connection.

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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  1. 777kvh

    HEY DAMIAN, How are you my friend? Nice article, right on the money…indeed.

  2. Steve

    This doesn’t r ally address the question, but one nice “side effect” I find when I teach is that my playing gets better.