“Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the men of old; seek what they sought.”
I chose this Zen quote to lead off this issue’s article not for it’s obvious connotation to find your own voice rather than trying to sound like Jaco or insert bass hero’s name here, but rather to talk about technique, and why it is and at the same time is not so important, which is also zen like so we’re off to a good start.
Recently while surfing the net I came across a thread about ‘unorthodox’ technique as relates to bassists, essentially asking what people consider unorthodox technique. Answers varied and there were many, and there were no right or wrong answers as it was an interpretive question. The replies made references to fingerings, hand positions, and styles, with some opinions being very rigid and some very loose. As usual, my bias is towards a postural ideology, so I chimed in with some advice on how to hold the instrument, etc.. While I feel that there are definite ways to hold an instrument and one’s body in order to avoid injury, I also stress that I don’t particularly wish to change one’s technique, my intentions are to point out ways to avoid injury now and in the future by making (usually) subtle changes that one wouldn’t even notice in the long run once incorporating them into their routine. These changes often will not affect technique, but rather habits; slouching, playing too long without taking a break, playing too hard, etc.. In many cases, I advocate what I refer to as a ‘reference posture’, one in which proper postural considerations such as keeping one’s neck and back straight and wrists in as neutral a position as possible are utilized in the moments when one isn’t playing, such as a break in between songs or during solos, or anytime when one isn’t performing in such a way that certain technique or lack of same is called for. If someone has lousy technique but plays well, how can it be lousy? If that same someone has an awareness of this ‘reference posture’ and can go to it when they aren’t actually making noise on their instrument but in the spaces in between, this will many times be enough to break the harmful patterns that can develop from bad posture or ‘poor’ technique.
The days of teaching and following rigid technique as gospel seem to be easing up. In June I attended the International Society of Bassists convention in Rochester, New York where I gave a presentation and hung out with some of the best bassists on earth. While the convention usually primarily features upright players, many of the players double and there is no overt bias on display. This year, two of the most anticipated performers were Steve Bailey and Victor Wooten, who performed separately and together. Victor is not what you would strictly consider a traditional upright player, and will use electric bass fingerings if necessary and also had dots put in his upright’s neck, which in past years may have been frowned on by some or pointed out as ‘improper technique’ or ‘cheating’. I found none of those limiting beliefs present at the convention, but rather a much more open and welcoming attitude towards this ‘unorthodox’ technique, and indeed many players of all calibers found this an opportunity to come forward and share details about their own technique.
So while it is important I feel to have good technique and to be aware of what that entails, factors like height, hand size, instrument, and others may force one to make adjustments. And when I propose changing certain things or having an awareness of certain things that can help one to avoid injury, it is about doing what one is able or willing to do in this regard and only rarely about a complete overhaul. In speaking on this subject to grammy award winning bassist the great John Clayton he remarked, “With some players, talent trumps the ‘proper’ way to play. Unorthodox may work for them in some cases, but they know the ‘proper’ way to play.”
So as usual, mind the posture, take the breaks, know the technique, be aware, and have fun.
Thanks for reading-