Wonder Women: Brittany Frompovich

Brittany Frompovich

“Whatever your particular dream is, at some point you’ll have to dig in your heels and fight for it.”

For this month’s installment of Wonder Women; Stories from the Women Who Play Bass, Ariane Cap turns the tables on Brittany Frompovich, and interviews her for her own column.

Her friend and bandleader, Ashleigh Chevalier, recently shared this of Brittany: “Beyond being a classically trained double bassist and diverse electric bassist, Brittany shares her professional performance prowess, modding and repair interests, and her business experience with her students. This empowers their eternal journey in music, both on the stage and off, both for the love of it and the practice of it. She goes out of her way to uplift other musicians as well, by welcoming them into her fold, interviewing them, and sharing their work. She has persevered through physical injury to her left hand this past year, demonstrating steadfast courage and bravery, and a willingness to never give up in the face of adversity and challenge.”

What are you woodshedding right now?

I’m still recovering from complications from a distal wrist fracture in my left hand that occurred on July 14th, 2021. You can check out the entire story behind that whole day’s events at my blog, here, or at the Go Fund Me page that Ben Titus set up on my behalf here.

The hand was in a cast for 4 weeks. That first month was painful with a lot of swelling to deal with. When the cast came off in August, my wrist and fingers had lost most of their mobility; they were inflexible. I had lost a ton of muscle on my forearm and the skin had become shiny, waxy, and extremely pale… it no longer had symmetry to my right hand. It wasn’t simply atrophied muscles though. Apparently, the bone had completely healed but the fracture triggered a rare neurologic malfunction called Chronic Regional Pain Syndrome, causing excessive atrophy, plus the joints and muscles locked up in some fingers and the wrist. The disorder also goes by an older name of reflex sympathetic dystrophy, or RSD.

Most of the fall and winter of 2021 was (and is still) focused on physical therapy and exercises to regain mobility. I’m getting some strength and muscle control back in my left hand; the motor skills were just shot for a while. I can’t tell you how many plates I shattered, bottles of pills I accidentally spilled, and fresh cooked meals I dropped on the floor this past year… even after the cast was off… because the motor skills just were not there. Opening a door with my left hand was impossible for months; I still have trouble turning a doorknob.

Since the nerves were malfunctioning in the left hand, there was a bit of hypersensitivity in my left-hand fingers for quite a while. For example, skin always felt rough and coarse, like touching sandpaper. When I touched surfaces with my left hand, I had to “check” them with my right hand to make sure that what the left hand was sensing was actually correct. When I first tried to play again, I had to paint my fingertips with layers of Rock Tips (a liquid callus solution) because round wound strings just triggered so much sensory information; it was not quite painful, but it was unpleasant.

In the first month, I managed to get mobility back in all the fingers of my left hand; the wrist has been a work in progress since September 2021. These past few months have largely been focused on building strength in the fingers and arm and regaining the range of motion in my wrist. The limited range of motion is likely due to potential muscle contracture, so we’re focused on trying to release that in therapy and with a Stat-O-Dyne device.

I use kinesiology tape and wear a custom compression glove almost 24/7 to control swelling. I’m still going to physical therapy twice a week. They would like to do a stellate ganglion block in the left arm and steroid shots were discussed at my last visit. I’m not ruling out trying those things, but I am currently exploring the options of massage therapy, chiropractic care, and cold laser therapies first. Thankfully, one of my former students, Andy Melchert, is in chiropractic medicine. He also happens to be a gigging double bassist and electric bassist, so he gets the scope of the mobility we are working to recover.

So that being said… what am I woodshedding? Physical therapy exercises, for starters. This actually has given me a ton of resources and ideas for working with my students; everything from exercises to strengthen various muscle groups to incorporating KT tape to help students who might be trying to play but have limitations because of old injuries.

I am starting to pick up my instruments again these days. My wrist won’t permit full access to the fingerboard of a five or six-string bass… yet… but I try to get in some permutations every day and other finger exercises… arpeggios, scales… parts of songs, maybe some sight-reading. I was able to get on upright bass recently… again, the first time in months. I can’t reach all 4 strings yet due to the wrist, but I was able to play a two-octave C scale for the first time from half position up into thumb position. It was quite slow and deliberate, and my hand felt exhausted after two times through the scale, but that was an amazing bit of progress to have.

I had to start off with an Ibanez Mikro electric guitar and a short-scale Fender Squier Jaguar bass in the early fall of 2021. I started with those two instruments in a homemade harness that swung the instruments into a position like a Chapman stick. That allowed me to begin practicing… the fingers could work even if the wrist was inflexible. As my wrist opens up, I’ve been attempting to get back onto my regular instruments… I’m still not able to cross the entire fingerboard yet in all positions… but we’re working on that.

Once you cross the six-month line (from the time of injury), it is wholly possible that some changes with CRPS will become permanent. I’m mostly concerned that in my case, the wrist contracture could be something that becomes permanent. That does not mean I am surrendering the fight. But as every good musician knows, you adapt and change to make the best of things.

A student recently dropped off their SpectorCore bass with me for a restring and a setup. While I had it, I noticed that it wasn’t too terrible to get around on. I decided maybe it was time to pull the trigger on a pro-level four-string jazz bass. If this is my “new normal”, I might be able to get back to playing shows using a bass with a slender neck that gives me access to the whole board… in spite of my limitations. I’ve actually wanted a jazz bass for the last few years. I built a fretless four-string jazz “parts bass” a few years back, and I was intending to build it a fretted twin. Instead, when I went looking, a Spector Coda Pro 4 showed up at a price so low that building a bass… even a kit bass… was actually a bit impractical.

I’m working on everything really… building strength, stamina, coordination, then looking at tech and using creativity, to make the most of what I have. In many ways, it’s like being a beginner all over again. That being said; this experience has helped me remember how hard it is for beginners to do some of the things we ask them to do… from a pure physicality point of view. It’s been helpful for me… as a teacher… to remember that point of view.

Who are your influences?

My background is pretty diverse… a very short list; Eddie Van Halen, Led Zep, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Apocalyptica, Mountain, the Beatles, Queen, Micheal Manring, Darren Michaels, Aaron Gibson, Stu Hamm, Michael Dimin, Edgar Meyer, Victor Wooten, Gerald Veasley, Anthony Wellington, Jaco Pastorius, Eva Cassidy, Jeffery Gaines, David Wilcox, and Morphine. I also love film music, and I think that comes out in the instrumental solo stuff I write; a lot of folks describe that material as cinematic in nature.

We usually hear about the downsides of being a female bassist. Let’s flip the script… do you see any benefits?

We live in a time with some unique opportunities. When I went to my first Winter NAMM, I made a lot of professional connections that have grown into friendships. But that first year, people were still getting to know me. So the folks you are interacting with don’t really see you with any depth yet. You are, simply put, just too new to others in those circles. So, I got hit on a lot. It can be a compliment on one level; people find you attractive. Cool. But sometimes, some people will be trying to hit on you well past the expiration date of their welcome. It happens.

Fast forward a few years… I was playing at another event. I finished and moved my gear offstage to make room for the next performer. Another artist saw me and started catching up with me. Surprisingly, the artist brought up the first NAMM where he met me and asked if I remembered that he had been hitting on me a bit. He then surprised me by apologizing. It was a turning point.

It appears that more people are listening (and are receptive) to a dialogue about the issues women are dealing with, and people are inserting themselves into the process of making positive change. A friend recently commented to me “These last few years have opened my eyes up to so much that women have to deal with. We men have to do a better job policing our own.” And he is acting on that statement. He quit a working band he was in because he saw how they wouldn’t stand up for a woman who was being harassed at a show (who happened to be a guest that my friend brought to the gig). The band took the side of the harasser, and my friend gave notice, deciding these were not bandmates he wanted to be associated with.

I am aware male musicians deal with unwelcome advances at gigs as well; I’ve had to insert myself into a few situations to get women to back off from male band members who did not want the attention they were receiving from a female. Folks can forget that we’re usually just trying to do our job, do it well, be professional, get paid, and go home to our families.

That being said, I think the recent #MeToo movement definitely helped create awareness AND new advocates/allies for women in the music community. There are news articles that say the #MeToo movement did not affect the music industry as deeply as other industries like film. I am still hopeful there will be more stories of positive change resulting from the increased awareness, and that both men and women will equally benefit from this opportunity.

An early experience or influence that shaped you as an artist now?

I started out playing guitar in a garage band, where we covered everything from the Ramones and the Cure to Joe Satriani, Van Halen, and Extreme. But we also had a tendency… almost a preference… to write and create our own material, so we did a lot of songwriting in that band. And we did a lot of ear training as a group because we couldn’t always find the sheet music for the songs we wanted to play.

That group is where I found my first tribe that got into modding. We were definitely influenced by Eddie Van Halen and his DIY experimentation with modding and building. On reflection, it really shouldn’t be a surprise because my parents, even though they weren’t musicians, also embodied a lot of that same spirit in daily life.

I brought a book into high school about building guitars and handed it off to a best friend, who was the other guitarist in that group. That opened a HUGE door for both of us. We collaborated and schemed together to build guitars for our senior projects. So I and the other guitarist, named Chris Barrow, were modding and building guitars when we weren’t practicing in the band. Early on, I did the spray finishes for both our guitars with my dad’s help and guidance… we just applied what dad knew from working on car finishes. My friend Chris knew how to solder, so I picked that up from watching him.

I then went to college where I was more formally trained on double bass; in some ways, it was less gritty and more akin to learning the secrets of the musical universe… getting theory, writing for orchestra, learning about recording. But all that time I spent learning in that band really carried me forward into college; the work ethic, the DIY mindset, “the gritty underdog who digs in until they succeed” mindset, and learning about electronics from both my dad and my friend Chris… who is now a Product Manager at Biamp. It’s amazing to see where all that work eventually landed; Chris and his team are building some really cool speaker designs over at Biamp, like the LVH-900 Beamforming Venue horn.

How are you handling working through the pandemic? How has technology helped you?

Work really hasn’t slowed down for me. I still have a very full teaching studio; I just took all of my students online. I had done Skype lessons prior to COVID, but that was a portion of my entire studio. So the challenge was moving the entirety of the studio into the online format, getting the students comfortable with it, and then creating community events online to replace the in-person events. So I created open mic nights twice a month; sometimes we have special guests perform for the students, and I’ll occasionally set up raffle giveaways for both performers and audience members at the events.

I know Covid was hard on so many touring musicians, but the benefit was I could book artists for the events; these are folks who normally would not have the time to do a streamed or pre-recorded open mic event because their schedules would be packed. It was awesome to see them interested in doing surprise performances or just doing a Q&A about what they do. The students had a really cool cross-section of artists who created content for them or live streamed and spent time interacting. We covered bass, modular synths, world music, jazz, double bass, and we also had performances from local artists.

In-person ensemble offerings are no longer running; I had been hoping to do some stuff in Winter / Spring 2022, but with Omicron being an issue (as of this writing) and with the uncertainty that it is presenting… I’ve tabled those plans for the moment. Which, in a way, is fine right now… I’m still spending a bit of time trying to get my left hand and wrist on the mend.

What are your current projects that you can tell us about?

This Wonder Women series for No Treble. By the way, Ari, you are a part of the origin story of why this series even exists.

Prior to Covid shutting down NAMM, there was a group of female bassists that used to do a lunch meet-up at the NAMM shows. This was something that evolved naturally out of a question at a previous NAMM show; a question concerning finding female mentors for younger female players. Nalani and I were discussing the topic during one of the Pheonix Club Bass Bash events, and Lynne Davis and yourself had just walked through the doors of the club. I flagged you both down to join in the conversation. The idea emerged to put together a lunch meet-up where we could network. That year, and in the years since, Nalani has done a great job putting together the meet-up at each of the NAMM shows. It really laid the groundwork to inspire what I’m doing here.

However… now with Covid… we decided to Zoom the meetup for the first time in January 2021. Nalani got that online meeting organized and set up. We all grabbed a beverage of choice, settled into our favorite chairs, and we Zoomed. Our usual 90 min to 2-hour lunch evolved into a roughly 4+ hour Zoom call.

The benefit of Covid forcing the Zoom call was that we all had the time and space to get to know each other. Everyone took turns and told their stories. I was blown away at the backstories of many of these ladies. There were diverse stories… but common threads… of overcoming challenges… so many moments where we all nodded our heads on something relatable. I got off that call, feeling like these stories needed to be known. Added to the “lore” of the bass community, if you would. The same lore that most folks can excitedly explain and relate about Jaco, Stanley, Jamerson, or Victor… heck, even Carol Kaye or Suzi Quatro. Maybe these ladies weren’t as well known, but they deserved to be… they were world-class… and to paraphrase something Victor would say… “even if the world doesn’t know it yet.” I didn’t have a platform though. Until Corey Brown and No Treble offered me one. And for that, I am grateful.

Thankfully, I had started working on this series in spring and early summer 2021, prior to my wrist fracture. So once I was sidelined from the fracture and the other events from that day, it just needed a few finishing touches to launch it. So while I’m recovering from the CRPS complications, I’m working on the 2022 interviews.

There had been requests for excerpts from the Virginia Bass Forum’s video archives to be released for some time before the pandemic. I started testing ideas by doing a weekly release of archived Virginia Bass Forum content, exclusive to my students, very early in the pandemic. It was well-received in the group. So I’m organizing, editing, and releasing short clips from each clinic. This way, there’s a public archive of what transpired during the five years the Forum was going.

Otherwise, the biggest project right now is getting the health of my left hand and wrist back in good order… or developing ways to adapt and successfully function with whatever level of capacity I do end up with.

Dream artist or band to collaborate with?

I gravitate towards a pretty eclectic mix; Micheal Manring, Stu Hamm, Victor Wooten… those would be some great folks to share the stage with or collaborate on something with. Then there are solo acoustic artists like Adrian Legg or David Wilcox (should either ever need or want a bassist to go on tour with them). The rocker girl in me would love to collaborate with Jeffery Gaines, Muse, or Wolfgang Van Halen. I also have a cousin who did a lot of TV and film work in LA. We are of different generations, so my career was getting started as his was winding down. But it would have been great to have been able to play bass on one of his projects. That being said, I would love to try my hand at contributing some music for tv or film at some point.

Important cause or issue that you support?

One obvious one; helping women get more visibility in the music industry.

I’m also big on mastery, mastery studies and understanding the processes that create a master… how to get the most out of those 10,000 hours.

I’m also, much like yourself, interested in the impacts of health and diet. I really enjoy gardening and the benefits that it brings not only to my own diet and health but also to my local community. I spend a lot of time helping others… neighbors, students, friends… learn how to grow their own food and be more self-sufficient.

What would you want to change about the music industry?

This circles back to the last question; getting women more visibility, opportunity, and inclusion in the industry. Seeing streaming services pay more than they do. Seeing small live venues be able to thrive, giving everyone more opportunities. That being said; we’ll start small. Here’s a specific list of some items that might be easier fixes.

The salespeople at some of the music stores I have worked at have told me stories; there’s a certain type of parent out there who won’t let their daughter play guitar, drums, or bass. Please, don’t be that parent who forces the flute on your daughter because “girls play the flute.”

Let your kid… whether a boy or girl… have a decent chance at succeeding by actually getting them a decent, well set-up instrument that they are excited about and that they WANT to play. This sounds so basic to those of us who have played for a while, but if you are in the trenches as a teacher, you’ll see some stuff that really gives you pause. And most times, teachers and salespeople at a music store or school will only be able to do so much because they have the added pressure of potentially getting dinged if they have a poor interaction with a customer.

Here’s a very specific point for store lesson coordinators… these are the folks who oversee a music store’s lesson program. There was a salesperson at one store who realized that it was in his benefits package to take a free lesson once a week. The likely intention of that perk was for employees to get lessons and keep furthering their skills. Instead, he asked the store manager if he could take a free lesson with every instructor on his lunch break, once a week. It was his intention to get one lesson with each member of the entire teaching staff so he could get a feel for each person’s style and better match students with instructors.

Lesson coordinators; take a private lesson or two with each teacher. See HOW they teach for yourself so you can get a feel for the type of student that fits the teacher, and vice versa. Also, check-in once a year to see what skills were added or updated to your teacher’s resume… and revise their bios on the store promo’s materials. Or encourage the teaching staff to submit updated bio info once a year.

More importantly; if you want to stop teacher turnover, especially in this current environment, treat them like family. There’s very little incentive to keep teachers on staff these days; most can cut out on their own and keep that 1/3 to 1/2 of the lesson price that a store takes. So… for those who need to hear this… stop treating your lesson programs and your teachers like afterthoughts. Offer your teachers actual benefits beyond just the employee discount. At the very least… treat them like family. Talk to them and ask what they feel can be done to improve your store’s lesson program… before you hear about it via a two-week notice. Don’t wait for them to tell you; open the dialogue. Offer them opportunities for professional development through your store, if at all possible. That alone can make your store stand out from competitors. One coordinator at a store I was at saw I was working hard on my own to advance my career, and they partnered in ways that offered incentives for doing that work.

I’ve been in the position where I’ve had a professional victory; and the stores have not supported it, promoted it, or used the opportunity to advance everyone’s career/professional standing. These are wasted moments to build rapport with your teachers and help them feel like a celebrated part of your staff, not just an independent contractor.

New artist that we should all know about?

Not exactly a “new artist” in terms of a band context, but eagerly watching his solo work… John Ferrara. Also watching Darren Michaels sharing his explorations of acoustic-electric bass; some very cool ideas going on over on his Youtube channel. Check that out to see what he’s working on.

Bassists… you know we’re all about the gear. Any game-changing acquisitions?

These are the game-changers for me; the reader’s mileage with my choices will vary.

Covid presented an opportunity for a lot of experimentation since I wasn’t gigging for a period of time. I took apart my pedalboard and began experimenting with the possibilities of parallel cabling. Now, as of late, I’m learning the MOD Dwarf and exploring the sounds and the pedalboard designs that are possible with it. The Boss RC600 just arrived and I’ve been exploring that unit… it’s definitely a game changer on so many levels.

There’s also the NS Design CR6 Radius bass; that was a bass I had no idea I even needed until I spent some time with it. The action is unbelievable… a good thing since I’m presented with the task of rebuilding my left hand.

To get back to gigging in the near term, I’ve acquired the previously mentioned Spector Coda Pro 4.

I also acquired a 7 string bass, at which time I was warned by the previous owner… and I’m paraphrasing here… the 7 string is like “getting a map to an extraordinary destination only a few people will appreciate”. Covid related changes to my schedule initially created more time to explore the possibilities of that particular instrument and do some writing with it.

The latest game-changer in recording gear for my home studio setup is the Black Lion Revolution 2×2.

What advice would you have for someone wanting to follow in your footsteps?

Whatever your particular dream is, at some point you’ll have to dig in your heels and fight for it. Be ready to sacrifice something… time, money, relationships, sleep… definitely sleep… you’ll have to choose something… to get what you want.

And whatever it may be… get out there and find your tribe… that’s essential.

What drew you to the music industry?

I was drawn to music first and then trying to learn how it worked. It felt like I was (and still am) learning the secrets of the universe. There’s that whole process of trying to master my craft. Along the way, you (hopefully) figure out how to get paid to keep doing that. I’m not sure I ever said, “the music industry sounds like a great choice”… it was more a choice of how to stay involved with something I loved learning about and actively wanted to master. In a strange way, that desire to master the craft of music led to embracing the entrepreneurial side of things.

What’s an average day like for you?

The early part of the day is pretty mundane items; cleaning, pet care, errands, and household chores. The first part of the day often includes doctor’s appointments or physical therapy.

Mid-day usually is office work and prep time for teaching. There’s usually some calendering time, creation of teaching materials like worksheets or digital content, and if I’m lucky, practice time for any upcoming gigs. I try to get out for a brisk afternoon walk if possible. Then around 2:30 pm or so, I’ll be teaching online. I’ll continue until 9 or 9:30 PM with online lessons.

After I teach, I’ll try to get another quick workout in. This helps put a hard break in my day to get me to transition mentally out of teaching into the next project. Projects include working on this series, video editing, scheduling social media, practicing, web work, writing, experimenting and learning tech, arranging music, lesson prep. working on music for shows, contacting new students, scheduling lessons, working on items for the Etsy store, shipping those orders… whatever project is needing my attention, really.

What is your favorite part about this line of work? Your least favorite? Why?

I’m going to tackle this question in a list format…

My favorites:

  1. The bass community.
  2. Being self employed.
  3. Collaborating with a tribe of others who are like minded, having conversations with other musician entrepreneurs… we usually end up inspiring each other.
  4. Nailing my tone/the gig/that challenging part in the music I was working on…
  5. Getting to use my creativity.
  6. All the places I’ve gotten to travel to and experience. I’m not the most widely traveled musician for sure, but I am still grateful for all that I have gotten to experience.

My least favorite:

  1. The days when I feel more like an accountant than a musician.
  2. People who claim they want to learn the instrument, but really aren’t willing to do the work.
  3. Scheduling a balance – balancing time spent on the projects you do for the money vs the passion projects, the time spent on necessary self care (exercise and rest, for example) vs getting one more item done from that steadily growing to-do list that centers on the business…

Any final thoughts?

There’s a lot of really amazing people… artists, musicians, builders, authors, engineers… who all inspire me to grow and be a better version of myself. When you find good people in this industry, it can be an amazing experience. People know this business is hard. That being said, it is amazing how generous, kind, and supportive the people in this industry can be.

Where can we find you on the interwebs?

Austrian-gone-Californian Ariane Cap is a bassist, educator, blogger and author. In her book Music Theory for the Bass Player and corresponding 20-week online course, she teaches music theory, bass technique, bass line creation and fretboard fitness in a systematic, practical and experiential way. She just released a brand new course on ear training for the bass player: Ear Confidence - 6 Paths to Fearless Ears. Contact her via her blog or website.

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