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A Bag of Tricks, or a Toolbox?

Jonathan-MoodyLast Sunday at church, we had a dilemma; the drummer that was supposed to be playing that day with us was a no-show. While I could comment on a lot of the damage that this caused, that’s not what I want to get into (and if you’ve been reading my “Freelancing…” articles, you probably already know what kind of ramifications this type of thing may have). The fact was that, drummer or no, we still had a service to provide and the congregation really didn’t care that we didn’t have a drummer. Thankfully, much of the music was very upbeat so I pulled out my best Larry Graham impersonation and slapped and popped my way through the service, keeping it simple and going back to the fundamentals of approaching my bass much like a drummer approaches their kit. The best compliment I received was from the Music Director, who said “On more than one occasion, I could’ve sworn there was a drummer back there!”

Now, you could say that I grabbed something out of my “bag of tricks” to achieve the end result. I take umbrage to this, mainly because a “bag of tricks” is usually considered exactly that; tricks that you use to cover things up. Someone that has a “bag of tricks” usually has a stigma of pulling technique out that is 1. not fully understood or 2. only used as a gimmick. As a working musician, there can’t really be any sort of sleight of hand that happens on a regular basis (when problems happen, that’s a different story). Therefore, I don’t have a “bag of tricks,” but a toolbox.

Much like any carpenter or handyman, a toolbox is exactly that; your box where all the tools are kept. Depending on your technique level, the toolbox can be as expansive as you allow it. There is so much to learn out there, why would you not spend the time to learn as much as you can, and more than that, why wouldn’t you learn as much as you could? It’s one thing to use a hammer to pound in a nail but quite another to know how to properly wield the hammer to get everything done.

Another case in point: a few years back I was in an original musical theatre production (the guitarist in the pit was the composer). There were a number of tunes that were classic metal basslines, which I was not completely familiar or comfortable with. Instead of telling the guitarist what my limitations were, I told him I wasn’t familiar with the styles. But then – and here’s the important part – I asked him what he’d recommend to become familiar. I left that rehearsal with a list of “must listen” albums (many of which I’d only heard the band names) and specific styles to glean (the Steve Harris gallop is one that pops to mind). Two weeks of solid listening and research, I was ready to play the musical the way it was envisioned. Not perfect, but enough that I was authentic.

In full disclosure, I can’t match Harris’ gallop with just two fingers. He’s a monster and me? I have to use three.

And that has paid off. Much like how a carpenter will buy tool A for a specific job and then later on, use it again for another, the skills learned during that musical theatre show have come back. A number of times when I find myself in a situation where someone really wants a forward motion feel without playing faster, the Steve Harris gallop becomes a very valuable technique to bring out. The ensuing compliments (usually followed by “That’s it!” or “Wow!”) are enough to prove that the time learning the skill was worth it.

So, the next time you’re in a situation where you need to draw from your list of skills for a particular gig, ask yourself: do you have a bag of tricks or a toolbox? And if it’s the former, what are you willing to do in order to make it the latter? Have a great month and let me know what kind of skills you’ve picked up in the past that have come full circle.

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