Limitations and the "What if?"

Limitations and the “What if” attitude or “Let’s Play Chess!”


I hate to make generalizations but here goes.  There’s something about each instrument, or the role each instrument plays, that attracts people with specific personality traits.  Of course the nature of the instrument will also change the personality of the person who plays it.  Nature vs. nurture is a question here but largely irrelevant for my point.   There are scores of musician jokes (pun intended) that illustrate the musician/instrument correlation (I include vocalists as instrumentalists here so don’t be hurt) and if you want to hear some jokes just ask a musician. 


I’m a bass player.  When I was young I played little league baseball and was most comfortable playing Catcher.  I think there is a correlation.  Bassists are (for the most part) not glamorous or attention seeking.  Catchers can’t even be seen.  They wear masks.  The level of involvement in their respective situations is also similar.  The rhythm section plays more than anyone else in the band and within the rhythm section the bassist is the only player who supplies both time and harmony.

The drummer has no harmonic contribution and the chording instruments ,while playing in time, are not the primary caregivers of the time like the bass and drums.  In baseball the catcher and pitcher are the only players involved in every play and the catcher also sees the whole field, helps the pitcher decide what to throw, knows all the hitters on the opposing team, and communicates with the manager between pitches, all while wearing a mask. 


One of the primary roles of the bassist is to be supportive of the soloist.  Interactive without overpowering.  Knowing just the right thing to say at a dinner party, so to speak.  This supporting role sometimes conflicts with the ego of the immature bassist or is at odds with the chops oriented bass soloist who has trouble separating soloing from accompanying.   At a master class at New England Conservatory Steve Swallow was talking about what his music asked of the bassist.  He said something like “as far as bass playing is concerned, I hate to say it but you need to play roots”.  He said “I hate to say it” because he knew there were young bassists in the room and he was telling them something they didn’t want to hear.  It’s like telling a puppy to heel.  So Bassists are both supporting and controlling while being self deprecating.  Sounds like a mess if you ask me. 


You could make a VERY GENERAL case that the lower the pitch of the instrument the more supportive the role (and person).  So the more traditional, higher range, soloing/lead instruments are less supportive and more spotlight seeking.  [Is the ice getting thin? It’s getting very warm.] 


I’ve very rarely heard a bassist take a painfully long [and therefore] self indulgent solo.  Though there are some who think any bass solo is painful!  I have, on the other hand, personally witnessed thousands of horn solos I thought would never end.  Even Coltrane had a problem with this and complained to Miles that he couldn’t stop playing, to which Miles replied something like “just take the blank-ing horn out of your mouth!”  Accompanying these solos can bring one to the brink of insanity.  Well not quite but it’s very dangerous because it can cause you to lose interest in the music and become resentful, mad and bored.  Anyone who has felt this way in a personal relationship knows it’s a recipe for divorce.  It’s a very unhealthy way to live. 


There are a few ways to TRY to solve this problem.  The first would be the Miles approach which very few people can get away with.  You could try a modified Miles and call the offender aside politely between sets and use a joke to hint about non stop playing.  I haven’t had much luck with that one since almost everyone agrees with you but assumes you’re talking about someone else!  Of course you could just be totally direct and sincere and say “I think it would be better if you played more concisely”  but we musicians are so darn sensitive you could risk alienating a friend for years with that little remark.  The last option is what I’ve come to call the “What If” approach.  This “What If” idea developed out of a boredom with playing but has far reaching applications to all musical and life activities. 


You’ve just played your 30th chorus of “There will never be another you” and you realize you are not listening to the (never ending) soloist so much anymore and every time you pass through a particular change you play the same thing.  At this point you are ingraining mindless playing or what they call “phoning it in”.  The more you do this the easier it gets until it’s 2nd nature and before you know it that’s just the way you play.  The “What If” game is simply saying to yourself “What if I try this” which is a way of imposing a Limitation (or organizing principle) on yourself.  What if I only play on the G string for a chorus; what if I walk the melody; what if I start every chord on the third; what if I walk in octaves;  what if I only walk in the bottom octave of the bass.  I tried the lowest octave thing on a Blues once behind a trumpet player and he said afterwards,  “What was that thing you were doing?   I never heard that before, that was great!”.  So you see even if only one person is Whatiffing it can effect the whole band and inspire participation and interaction on a higher level, which is what it’s all about.  If everyone is Whatiffing then you’ve really got something and playing transcends being merely worthwhile and/or fun to being Joy and a (depending on your beliefs) spiritual human interaction.  


A final note is a reminder to let yourself be open.  That’s what this is about.  There was a time when I played a lot of chess.  I would read books and study.  One day I was playing bass and when I play I can see my fingers on the instrument in my mind, with my eyes closed (you should really avoid looking at your fingers with your eyes open while you are playing.  It’s a recipe for poor intonation and bad technique).  All of the sudden I started seeing the shapes of the chess pieces and started playing lines based on these shapes.  Rooks are either one string chromatics or cross string perfect 4ths.  Knights are 5,2,1 or 1,2,5 diatonically for example.   Bishops are augmented 7 or diminished 7 chords moving across the strings (Major 3rds or minor 3rds).  The King can move a half step in any direction and the Queen can do all of the above except the Knight’s moves.  This was a revelation to me and I’m sure something John Cage would have approved of.  You don’t always need to be thinking about harmony or tonal centers as a determiner of note selection.  You can use your own organizing devices.  After all, Music is Sound Organized in Time and YOU are the ORGANIZER.  So I encourage you to ask “What If?”  and then answer with another question … “Why not?”


Bob Nieske   July 12, 2012

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