From Amateur to Pro: A Discussion with George Farmer by John Kuhlman
A Discussion with George Farmer…
George Farmer (Facebook / website) is an electric and double bassist in New York City. Raised in Vienna, Austria, his earliest musical education came from his father, trumpeter Art Farmer, and later, at the Academy of Music and Performing Arts, Classical Upright Bass performance, and at the Conservatory of Vienna, Jazz Bass performance.
He moved to New York City in 1997 and paid his dues working in a wide variety of musical situations before the higher profile calls started coming in.
George Farmer has played and/or recorded with Art Farmer, Benny Golson, Curtis Fuller, Amel Larrieux, Duncan Sheik, Suzanne Vega, Alexis Hightower, Randy Newman, Eric Roberson, and Omar and Alice Smith. He is endorsed by Rotosound Strings and Aguilar Amplification.
He has worked on Broadway as the bassist for Spring Awakening, which won eight Tony awards, including Best Musical, Best Original Score, and Best Orchestration. The show also captured the Grammy Award in the Cast Album category in 2007.
Farmer was also the bassist for Memphis The Musical on Broadway, which won four Tony awards, including Best Musical, Best Original Score and Best Orchestration.
Most recently, he has had great success as the bassist for six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald’s show “Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar And Grill”, which won McDonald’s unprecedented sixth Tony and won the Tony for Best Sound design of a play. The Lady Day cast album topped four Billboard charts in its first week of release: #1 in Cast Albums, #1 in Jazz, #1 in Traditional Jazz, and #1 in Heatseekers.
Bass Musician Magazine: Based on your experience as a working musician, what are the one or two musical skills you see that are consistently lacking in bassists who trying to make the transition from playing at home to gigging for pay?
George Farmer: For the New York scene, I haven’t seen any skills lacking. I think people who come here know what they’re getting into. There are great bass players coming into this city every day. The experience varies, but the musical foundations are there. They know their instruments. They know their amplification. They have their act together.
Now, having said that, there is one issue younger musicians will run into: lack of experience. For example, they haven’t played eight or nine hours every day in a gig setting with their fingers falling off and still have people want to dance. A lot of players coming here straight from college don’t have that experience. It’s not something that can be taught and it only comes from playing. But it’s something that every player has to go through in his or her professional development.
Perhaps my experiences will help put some of this in perspective. I was fortunate to come from a musical family. My father was a musician and there were a lot of musical influences from my mother’s side of the family as well. I started playing piano when I was six and did that for a number of years. I moved to the guitar during my teenage years, and to be honest, gravitated toward the electric bass because four strings are easier than six!
Like many people, after high school, I had to make a decision on what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to be a musician. However, growing up in Vienna with my family, playing the electric bass was frowned upon. I had to make a deal with my parents to learn to play the upright bass just to appease them.
I started the upright when I was 18. In order to move forward, I had to pass the college auditions. I went to one of the local college’s clinics and was told to come back after a year’s worth of practice. The man who told me that was Professor Johannes Auersperg from the Academy of Music and Performing Arts. He would later become my teacher and musical guru.
I spent the next 12 months locked in a room learning the upright.
I share that because there is no shortcut to learning your instrument. You do have to spend time working on your craft. The trick is not staying in your practice space. You have to get out and get that experience. And, inevitably, that means you are going to mess up. And probably badly where someone is going to shout at you on the bandstand. It’s going to happen. You just have to get up again and keep going. You can’t let that fear of failure keep you in your bedroom.
Look at it this way. What does our practice space, the bedroom, represent? It’s comfortable. It protects us. Nothing bad can happen to you there. It also means nothing can happen there. It’s a double-edged sword. The bedroom represents your comfort zone and no progress is ever made within the safety net of your comfort zone.
After I completed my studies at the conservatory in Vienna and before that the Academy of Music and Performing Arts, I left my comfort zone and made the move to New York City in 1996. I was fortunate that some of my bandstand failures, my rookie mistakes, were made in Vienna. That allowed me to come into the New York scene without a negative reputation. It also meant I had no reputation.
I freelanced from 1996 to 2006. I played on subway platforms, night clubs, weddings, bar mitzvahs and nursing homes. I sat in on a lot of open mics and went to clinics and took lessons. I had a day gig as a construction worker for almost three years. I worked eight hours a day and played gigs that night. I got out of my comfort zone and had to work hard to increase my experience and build my reputation. And I should add, that I’m still doing that. Getting out of your comfort zone and gaining experience is a life long pursuit.
If you want to make it as a professional bassist, you need to get experience.
BMM: Along a similar line, what about personal or business skills that bassists should have but many don’t bother developing?
Farmer: It doesn’t hurt to save money. I think life business skills are more important than music business skills. Those are the skills that let you save money and make good decisions to invest in yourself instead of wasting money.
As an example, when my day gig was in construction, I had to have good tools. I simply couldn’t work if I had a dull saw or cheap hammer. The same goes for being a working bassist. You have to have reliable equipment that sounds good. Look at your equipment and musicianship as an investment. Not as the latest gadget to acquire or something cheap that will fail when you need it most.
This a subject where I’ve noticed an interesting disconnect between the worker and artist mentality. You have cats who don’t believe they have to follow the rules the working man does because they’re creative people.
I believe an artist has the same rules as the working person does. We have the same social phenomena, the same policies, and the same rules. Whatever you can apply to working a regular job should be applied to working as a musician. Yes, musicians have different hours and a different lifestyle. But, to a certain extent, we’re dealing with the same creativity.
Creativity does not live exclusively in the arts. Find someone who’s really good at what they do. It doesn’t matter if they’re a cab driver, surgeon, or construction worker. If they’re good at their job, I bet they love what they do. They also find creative ways to work in their field every day they’re doing their job.
In older cultures, you’ll find that the artist is recognized in everyone. I had the good fortune of playing with many great Gypsy musicians when I lived in Vienna. With them, everyone is an artist. I played with a guy who laid tiles during the day and was a fantastic bassist at night. He was an artist in both roles.
Let’s also not forget that being a musician is a business. We have to be profitable. How much does it take to live the life you’re living? How much is your rent? Transportation? Food? What is the cost to keep your tools in working condition?
Once you figure those numbers out, you have a very objective measurement tool to see where you are. Your perception of a situation can be contaminated by your emotional make-up. The numbers at the end of the day, however, don’t lie. If a gig pays $200 and it cost you $250 to get there, you’re losing money. Even if it’s a rewarding gig on another level, it’s a gigging model that you can’t sustain.
BMM: Speaking of gigs, there seem to be two schools of thought: Take every gig you can to build your experience and network; or be very selective and cultivate your music credentials and reputation. What are your thoughts on building a successful gigging resume?
Farmer: It really comes back to what you like to do. Once you figure that out and figure out the genre, it can go two ways: You can only play that genre and your gigging opportunities will be limited. You will probably have to take a day job or live with the financial help of your spouse, partner, or parents in order to support only playing one style of music. On the other hand, you can be a generalist and play every genre and gig you can in order to make a living. But, you have to remember to also play the music you love when you’re a generalist.
There’s nothing wrong with taking a day gig and paying the bills if your heart is in one genre of music. As a generalist though, you will have more options. You can make gigging your day gig. You can play weddings, socials, night clubs, etc. and still have your style of music that you’re really into and not only pursue that style, but also excel at it.
Now, you have to ask yourself what does it mean to be a specialist? You need to have your own sound and your own unique approach to music. Are you going to get that approach by only playing one style of music? Or is that going to be a culmination of your experience from other types of music? I don’t think that being a specialist or a generalist is necessarily exclusive to each other.
You are in charge of your career. These choices are not being made for you. As the player, you are ultimately responsible for the outcome.
To be more specific about taking or not taking gigs…I’m not a big fan of being selective about your gigs. It’s not to your advantage to be that picky. You have to get out there and get beat up a couple of times. It’s a good thing. You build a reputation by delivering a solid product. Your reputation is solidly linked to intent. Your intent should be to play the hell out of any and every gig. And even if you fail, your intent is still there and will be recognized.
BMM: If you had five minutes to sit down with a young musician who wanted to make a go of it as a professional bassist, what would you tell him or her?
Farmer: Get out of your comfort zone. Go out and play as much as you can. Go out and listen as much as you can. There’s no way around that.
If the scene in your town is such that you can just walk down the block to a gig, then do it. If there is no scene in your town, find one in another town. Take a close look at your personal and financial situation and decide if you need to move.
A player plays. Period. He or she will do everything in their power to continue to play. If that means taking a day gig in order to be a musician on the weekends, then that’s what you do. If that means taking every gig that’s offered to you, then that’s what you’re going to have to do. I’m not much for easily saying “no” to something. I’m too curious and you will never believe how interwoven situations are. Someone who heard you five years ago may hire you tomorrow. The more you can open yourself up, the better it is for you.
I have a personal philosophy that whatever is out there, in terms of music, I can do it. I may not be the best at it. If I can’t do it well, then what do I need to learn or practice, to do it well? It’s part of the experience and personal growth as a musician. You have to overcome your fear of failure.
I have to add one very important point. You need to ask yourself what music speaks to you the most. What do you love to play?
If you’re not playing that music or living that lifestyle, then you need to analyze your situation. Are you taking the necessary steps to achieve your objectives?
The players that we look up to ask those questions of themselves and have found, or are in the process of finding, those answers.