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Bass Musician Magazine: Jun/Jul 2009 Issue Featuring Jeff Berlin

Jake: As a private instructor, is this something that you present to students in the beginning phase of working with them, or is it a concept that you open them up to over time?

Jeff: First day—first thing. When you come to our school (Players School) I tell them that if you can’t read, I’ll help you to read. If you don’t know chords, I’ll help you to understand them. The thing that I allow the students at the school is “not” to do anything in time. Then, I allow them the time to learn these things. They don’t have to learn it by next week; they just have to learn it before they turn 70. And the philosophy of that comment means I don’t insist that my students “get” this stuff. What I do insist on is that they “practice” it, because I know if you practice something you’re going to get it. It’s a fact, it’s a hundred percent guaranteed. So you tell people, don’t force yourself—you don’t have to learn this stuff by next week. All I want you to do is practice this principle. When you get someone who knows nothing about music, you’ve got to give them very simple principles. You can’t give them hard principles. You give them simple music to work on, and as they practice, you remind them that they’re going to make mistakes. Usually, when players make mistakes, they’ll get very upset with themselves. And I tell them…stop…you’re going to make mistakes…it’s built into the learning process. When you make a mistake don’t feel bad about it. Just stop, and review what you’ve made your error on, and sometimes that means review it ten times. So if your head start’s to ache, and your eyes get sore from looking at the music, put the guitar down and walk away from it. And when you recover, you come back and start practicing again. If you practice without duress, and you practice things at your level of understanding, you’re going to get better. And for that reason, and I brag about this openly, I have a 100% improvement rate here. Not one player that has come to the Players School has left without being an improved musician. But that’s the caveat—you’ve got to practice. And if you do the work, you’ll improve. I’ll tell them from day one, it’s my way or the highway. You paid the money, and you need to get a return. You can ask anybody that’s come to the school that’s done the work. We have had a few disgruntled students, but that’s because they wouldn’t do the work I insisted on. They didn’t get better, and then they were talking badly about me. Imagine that. They didn’t do the work that they paid to do, they didn’t follow through with the work I insisted on, and didn’t get better, and then complained that the school didn’t help them out. But anybody else that does the practice always gets better, 100% of the time, on any instrument—without fail.

Jake: There was another question that I had, and I think you’ve kind of already answered that for me, but I’ll ask it anyway. Your Players School has been in existence for a number of years now. Has that time factor altered in any fashion the basic methodology of the school?

Jeff: The answer is no, because music is eternal. What’s better than music? That’s why I don’t have anything to do with tablature…that is a shortcut for people who don’t know music, and probably don’t wish to learn it. They rely on numbers, which is not a musical approach to playing, whereas notes, and harmony, and rhythm “are” a musical approach to playing. Imagine this…they have been teaching notes and music for 300 years, and then somebody came along with a tablature principle and defended it by saying that lute players used to use it. And I’d tell guys, when was the last lute gig you ever did? When was the last lute gig anyone ever heard of? So I’m telling you, people will fight and argue their point of view rather than see the logic that a learned and studied player will be able to have the tools in a year or so that will last them a lifetime. And there are people that are reading this that have a bass, and have been playing for ten or fifteen years, and still can’t handle the blues and a few rock songs. So eventually I’d like to think that the light bulb goes on as far as realizing that you have to study with someone that understands music. You have to study with somebody that enforces the approach and the credo that a knowledgeable musician can function in any situation. A Gmajor chord exists in a Van Halen song–it exists in a Gmajor sonata by Mozart–it exists on a panty hose commercial on TV. GMajor is just Gmajor. But if you don’t know Gmajor, how can you play it?

Jake: I’ve listened to you evolve over the years as a player, going all the way back to the Bruford days. Could you tell me if your personal practice time has in a similar fashion evolved for you as well, from your perspective?

Jeff: It’s continued pretty much the same as it’s always been. I’ve always listened to players better than me. I aspire to play like them and then I look for music that helps me to do that. That’s kind of a nutshell description of what I do. I have a music teacher named Charlie Banacos in Massachusetts. For me, he’s the greatest jazz teacher in the world, and for a lot of other people too I might add. What he’s forgotten, I haven’t learned. So I go to him periodically for principles of music and I ask him to help me to learn new things. He’s very valuable to me. He’s a very dear friend of mine and part of my musical history, and I’m very fond of him. I haven’t seen him in a long time, but we still talk occasionally. We always seem to be pals at the same level. He’s a terrific guy, and again, I believe one of the best jazz teachers on earth. The musicians that I listen to, I guess I would say it in kind of a humorous way, are musicians that hurt me. I like to listen to musicians that create emotional change within me that I humorously called pain. The guy that’s causing me the most pain right now is Keith Jarrett. I listen to some of the things that he does and I’m almost riveted to the chair. I’m helpless in his presence. So I’ve been transcribing him—his sense of time, his sense of notes, his sense of melody, and his sense of harmony. This is the man that is most in my life right now. A guy that I wish I could emulate the most. I never imitate bass players. I admire my colleagues, but I don’t really find that they’re as melodic as musicians that don’t play bass can be. So I have no interest in bass players in that regard. The only bass players I truly enjoy listening to our upright players, which is an instrument I’d prefer not to play because I was a violinist for ten years and don’t want to go the route of that approach anymore. I enjoy the immediacy of the electric. My practice routines are guided by people who are playing things that are not in my life at this moment, and I want those things in my playing, so I pursue it. And I’ve always been good at that. I was transcribing things by Sonny Stitt, and Cannonball Aderly, and then Pat Martino because of the inside bebop that he had which was so great, and McCoy Tyner as well. And then there was Albert Lee, the country guitarist. He was a guy I was very impressed with. I love country players because they’re virtuosos—they play beautiful music. These are some of the people and the variables I consider as far as my practice time goes.

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