As you have heard me preach incessantly before, I believe that a dependence on patterns and shapes in lieu of solid ear-training on the bass is a dead end street. In my observation, it seems the biggest problem that plagues most bass and other stringed instrument is that they play more with their eyes than their ears. For this reason, years ago I essentially redefined my use of patterns in the scope of my own studies and with my students, using them primarily as introductory muscle-memory development exercises that would ultimately be used for ear-training. The idea is that the more time you can spend making the unfamiliar become familiar on your bass, the more power you will have in your ability to spontaneously play what you hear first in your head. The challenge in development then becomes the act of creating and practicing ear training exercises that can be internalized. True internalization means there is no need for any sort of translation process or lag time when you go to express yourself on your bass spontaneously.
To really develop this, you have to spend a lot of time working on phrases that are not yet familiar to you. Of course, the more musical the ideas that you are working on, the better. I really enjoy taking the time to hash out new phrasing ideas on the bass that outline a particular harmonic concept or strategy. In order to work on this, I’ve utilized everything from academic components such as arpeggios and scale fragments, to pure geometric or symmetric shapes on the fingerboard, to hybrid combinations of purely random shapes. One example of a concept that I have successfully applied in my own playing is what I refer to as ‘contrary motion’.
Contrary motion refers to the idea that you are incorporating the alternation of both ascending and descending movements within the context of a musical phrase or exercise. Its unique character and effectiveness comes from the fact that it allows phrases to take on a shape that both rises and falls, and this is especially interesting for the listener. For those of you interested in developing your ear training and improvisational skills, you will quickly learn that an approach like this can take ordinary (and often boring) symmetric pattern exercises and make them sound much more musical. It is a strategy that also helps to promote melodicism and will even better your technical ability.
Intervallic and sequencing exercises are both great examples of approaches that can be used to apply contrary motion exercises. For example, a typical example of how you might play a G major scale in intervallic 3rds in a single octave would look like this:
[See example above]
As you can see, this exercise is based on the idea that you are playing intervallic 3rds in an ascending direction, played from each degree of the G major scale. When you get to the top of the octave, you then play descending 3rds from each scale degree as you head back towards the root.
Now, here is an example of how you might use contrary motion applied to the same scale, using intervallic 3rds:
[See example 2 above]
Notice that in example 2, you are actually playing only descending intervallic 3rds as you ascend through the octave. Once you get to the top of the octave, you then play ascending intervallic 3rds as you descend towards the root. That contrast in direction between the shape and direction you are headed is what constitutes the contrary motion.
I put together a handful of contrary motion exercises that you can work on and also use to inspire your own new ideas. A few of exercises are based on very common scale and arpeggio forms, but of course the possibilities are limitless. I have included a couple that will hopefully stretch your ears and your hands a bit… In addition to exploring how you might apply this to scales and arpeggios, try creating hybrid approaches that blend different contrary motion phrases together and that move across the entire range of your bass.
Exercise 1 applies the contrary motion concept to a 2 octave major triad arpeggio. It breaks the arpeggio down into 2 note segments which are played in a descending fashion as the arpeggio ascends, and in an ascending fashion when the arpeggio descends. This is a fantastic approach to use if you want to cover a large range in a small amount of time.
Exercise 2 uses 4 note sequenced scale fragments in C major. They are played in a descending fashion as the scale pattern ascends, and in an ascending fashion when the scale descends. Notice that this is not a purely sequenced scale form… It integrates some skips and jumps in between each 4 note sequenced fragment. It is a great sounding example and is an approach that I use frequently in my own lines.
Exercise 3 is simply an A minor pentatonic scale played in 3 note sequences. Here is a fantastic way to take a simple and familiar pattern and make it sound MUCH more interesting by integrating contrary motion.
Exercise 4 is a much more dissonant sounding exercise based on b5 intervals in contrary motion. It’s a bit of a technical challenge, so take your time and play with as much accuracy as possible!
Exercise 5 is a sinister-sounding exercise based on major and minor triad combinations. It is an example of an approach that is based on fingerboard geometry more than anything else. Once you get it under your fingers and in your ears, see if you can successfully use pieces of it in your improvisational approaches to add some extra dark color!
Once again, these are just a few very simple examples to get you started, and you will want to experiment regularly to find new and exciting ways to use contrary motion in your practice and performance applications. Strive to secure practice time to work on shapes and sounds that are completely new to you, so that you will learn to hear these less-familiar ideas naturally over time. Remember: There is no DIFFICULT… just the UNFAMILIAR!
Until next time, have fun practicing!