Freelancing in a College Town: Know Your Role by Jonathan Moody… In the past two articles in this series, we’ve discussed things that aren’t as music oriented as they are professional (being dependable and reliable). This month I’m going to focus more on one of the key elements that the freelancer will use on the bandstand; the ability to know your role. I’m going to break this down into two portions; the technique and the gear.
This concept was firmly planted into my brain years ago when I went to one of the Victor Wooten/Steve Bailey “Bass Extremes” shows. During the Q&A section, I asked them what they think about when they’re backing up someone. I don’t remember Vic’s comment, but Steve looked me directly in the eye and said “My job is to make the lead sound as great as possible. I will play as much or as little to achieve that end result.” I didn’t fully understand (or appreciate) the lesson until years later, when I was freelancing with a number of groups.
Oftentimes, we have the luxury to stick with styles of music that we know, are comfortable with and want to play. However, there are those times that you may be faced with something that you may not want to do, or are not familiar with. In the case of my wake up call, I was playing bass in a country cover band. I was intrigued by the monetary aspect, but was not happy with the basslines of the songs; to be honest, I felt they were below me. However, with Bailey’s comment in my head, I decided to focus more on how the bassline fit in the songs over the specific notes that were used. While I ended up only playing with that group for a couple of months, I held the group together and helped move the songs along, mainly from putting my ego aside and focusing on what was most important; the song itself.
Currently one of my gigs is backing up a folk duo. Technically speaking, I am playing a lot of root notes, and whole notes at that. However, when you look at how the simplicity of the bassline moves the songs along, it is imperative that it stays rock solid and fluid; again, the notes are not as important as the song. And to be honest, keeping something simple with a lot of movement can be tough. However, I’m having a ball with my role in this group.
Secondly, in knowing your role, you also should know what gear to bring. This isn’t your “what bass is best for metal?” thread that we’re talking about; this is more of the “Don’t bring an electric bass to an upright bass gig” statement. With the aforementioned folk group, I use my NS Design CR-5M electric upright bass, because it more closely fits the style of the music. The ability to use a bow is another bonus over just bringing an electric to this gig.
In the case of freelancing, this is one of the questions you need to ask upfront; what is the person hiring you expecting, and can you deliver? I’m in the position that I can bring an electric and/or an upright, but for some people that may not be an option (either you don’t have an upright or do not possess the skills to gig with one). If your gear isn’t exactly what the person is expecting, you need to let them know. Whether or not you think it’s a big deal isn’t important; what they think is. And from talking with a lot of peers, if you address this upfront, you’ll find out that it isn’t a big deal. But that’s the thing; you have to ask. And in that oft chance that it IS a big deal, it is better to back out at the beginning and allow them to find someone that better fits their situation over showing up to the gig with gear that they were not expecting and fighting the sound all night.
Personally, I try to bring the gear I think is necessary for doing my job well and stylistically fits. With that has to come the flexibility to change things up if they aren’t working, or if there is a specific request. I’m currently in a run of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” probably one of my favorite musicals, at the local Civic theatre. This show is scored for electric and upright bass, and the whole pit is using in-ear monitors. During the tech rehearsals, the drummer was having issues hearing the upright as well as the electric; the MD requested I play the whole show on electric. I can fake an upright sound with my thumb muting technique, so it’s no big deal. I really like playing the upright in this score (it’s my second production of this show), but personal gratification at the expense of the quality of the show is not the preferred result, nor is it the way to get hired again.
When it comes to “knowing your role” in the gig, it’s all-encompassing. Musically, you want to play what is appropriate for the style and genre of music that you’re playing. This translates into the gear that you bring into the gig. You’re definitely not going to walk into an orchestral gig with an electric bass, so make sure that whatever you use fits the music and the expectations of the person hiring you. A superior musical product is the desired result, and you need to be able to check your ego at the door in order to do as much – or as little – as is called for to perform your duties to the best of your ability.