Bassist Brittany Frompovich – Why Is Music Important (The Panel Experiment) by Brent-Anthony Johnson…
Who are you, and what do you do?
I am Brittany Frompovich, and I’m a performer, clinician, and music educator. As a performer, my shows range from booking myself as a solo artist, to working as a bassist in a wide range of ensemble situations. I also teach private lessons at various locations and online via Skype.
Who are your primary musical influences?
There’s a real mash-up of genres and artists that influence me. In my teens, I was into bands like Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Joe Satriani, Van Halen, Steve Vai, Queen, and Extreme. In college, as a classical bassist, my ear tended to gravitate towards Baroque pieces. This was a period where I also began gravitating towards singer songwriters like Jeffery Gaines, Jim Croce, and David Wilcox – who were huge influences on me. I would say influences in later life include Bill Frisell, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Eva Cassidy, Edgar Meyer, Michael Manring, Michael Dimin, Steve Lawson, Adam Nitti, Bryan Beller, and Anthony Wellington. I also find myself inspired by what Darren Michaels, Aaron Gibson, and Scott Varney do as singer-songwriter/bassists. I’ve always been drawn to world music as well, and that influence shows up in my music.
Can you tell us about your earliest musical listening and performance experiences?
My earliest listening experiences were being exposed to my family’s musical tastes. My mother was into a mix of genres. A good sampling of what she likes includes Johnny Cash, Frank Sinatra, Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul and Mary, and Arlo Guthrie. She also has several classical albums that we listened to from time-to-time. Dad liked country and some rock and roll like Kenny Rodgers, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, and the Beach Boys for example. My grandparents also lived with us, and my grandmother had a stereo cabinet up against the wall that was common to my bedroom. So I’d hear artists like Patsy Cline, Glenn Miller, and Benny Goodman.
At some point, I got a portable radio as a gift, and I would stay up late and listen to a variety of radio stations until I fell asleep. I discovered all kinds of great stuff there such as metal, classic rock, early 80’s pop, and Motown on the oldies stations.
As for my earliest performing experiences… I had my dad’s clarinet, a toy guitar, a small synth, and a toy piano in grade school. I played clarinet in the elementary school orchestra, and was in a few school plays. In middle school, I got a better guitar. I was self-taught for quite awhile. But, eventually, I was able to get lessons, and I also played in a rock band in high school. That was the beginning of really getting “the bug”, and getting serious about understanding music.
Also, what projects are you participating in lately?
There have been a variety of things I’ve been working on…! I have a few tracks I am working on for various people (and projects) right now. Additionally, a local TV station filmed and produced a documentary about me, and that was a huge honor! The storyline follows me through different aspects of my life… from teaching private lessons and group classes, to playing solo bass shows, playing in ensembles, and leading and teaching student ensembles. I was pleased that many of my students were also able to be included in the filming. The film is in the works – and being edited at this writing.
The past two months have been largely taken-up with rehearsals and shows – including playing bass in the pit for a local production of the musical Avenue Q. I get to play both electric and double bass for that show… and it’s been a blast!
What are you listening to musically, in the past 12 months that has enhanced the way you think about music and your craft?
Everything affects musicians…even if we dislike what a musician is doing! Here’s a small sampling of artists that have had an impact on my recent listening habits: Michael Manring, Aaron Gibson, Steve Lawson, Darren Michaels, The Aristocrats, Trip Wamsley, Donovan Stokes, Annie Lennox, The Bad Plus, Black Country Communion, Chickenfoot, The Meters, Victor Wooten, Johnny Cash, Michael Dimin, Trey Gunn, Rob Wasserman, Scott Fernandez, Evelyn Glennie, Rench, Squarepusher, Dixie Dregs, Michael Hedges, Morphine… and Esperanza Spalding.
I’m also listening to a lot of classic rock because I’m working on material for a student rock orchestra. I’ve had to think about how certain pieces would have to be arranged, in that context. Therefore, I’ve been listening to Queen, Led Zep, Heart, The Who, The Black Crowes, Rush, The Stones, Apocalyptica, Jethro Tull, Mountain, Zoe Keating, the Hampton String Quartet, Miles Mosley, The Section Quartet, Kronos Quartet, and the Vitamin String Quartet.
If we wanted to listen to you, which recordings would you suggest? Along with that, which recordings are your proudest of, and why?
I don’t gravitate towards any one recording in particular – as far as a recording I’m proud of. I believe there is always room to grow and improve.
How does your personal musical voice directly relate to the function of the basses? Also, what are your main instruments?
I play many different instruments, and I think that comes out in my playing. Many folks have commented that my approach on the electric bass guitar is still very influenced by my upright training. My note choices on passages tend to be more “upright-like” – which means moving linearly along one or two strings, versus moving across several strings and staying within one or two fretboard positions. My approach isn’t something I’d given a lot of thought to until folks pointed it out to me. Several guitar techniques also cross over into my bass playing. For example, I definitely quote Rory Gallagher in the way he used pinch harmonics at times. Chording on bass is a welcome concept because of the guitar background.
But the most important thing, in regards to function, is that first and foremost I listen and try to play in a way that serves the musical situation. A friend heard me play in an ensemble setting for a show I was hired for. They were very surprised that they did not hear my “signature sound” all night. (I’m using their words to describe it, not mine.) They are familiar with what I do as a solo artist, so I think they were expecting a certain tone. I explained that at this particular show, it was not my job to express a “signature tone”, but to be versatile, supportive, play the pocket, and to fit in to what the group needed. For some tunes, I needed to have a cello-like voice in the upper registers of my upright to support a ballad. At other times, I had to play Motown grooves on electric. My job was to blend and to be a good foundation for the group. That’s how I approached and played the gig. Being appropriate to the musical situation I’m in is the biggest factor that will shape my voice and the function of the bass.
My main basses are: a Spector Euro 6LX, a NS Radius CR5, a LightWave Saber VL 5 string, an NS CR5M electric upright bass, a Syme/LightWave fretless 5 string bass, an Eastman 605 double bass, and an older Czech built double bass. I also have an Ibanez Ashula that I’ve been playing around with for altered tunings and other ideas. I’m currently using Warwick amplification.
Describe your musical composition process.
Usually, I start by getting an idea captured as quickly as possible with the nearest recording tool available to me. The idea doesn’t always come from a bass! I’ll write using guitar, cello, drums, hand percussion, or I may also sing the idea. Usually, the nearest tool is my iPhone, or my tablet. I will capture the idea as an audio file… and, possibly, as a video file. If my Boss RC-300 looper is nearby, I will record the idea. After that, the idea may be developed further using either the looper and/or my laptop.
In some situations, I will sit down and compose more formally using Finale or another piece of notation software. Really, the method I use depends on whatever I am hearing in my head.
How does music affect your culture and immediate environment?
The physical manifestation of my relationship to music in my immediate environment is hard to ignore. One of my adult students paid a visit to my home studio recently, and commented that it was amazing to see how my home has been taken over so completely by music! I often jokingly say, “Residential music store is a good look in home décor these days!” For most folks, it’s a rare thing to see a house so overtaken by music. I recently watched a documentary about Evelyn Glennie (on YouTube) and I related to how extensively her instruments had taken over much of her living space and her office.
So, I get all kinds of interesting reactions from people who visit my home. Some people are very inspired when they see the level of engagement and commitment that music has literally taken over my environment. Some people are put off by it, and don’t understand it. Others have even said my “she-cave’ trumps their “man-cave.” Still others come in and immediately feel the urge to engage in creative activity! I love how it hits folks!
What would you be, if not a professional musician?
I could see myself in various careers… I would enjoy a career that involved working with my hands, such as woodworking, Luthiery pottery, or as some kind of craftsman/tradesman. Another good option would be working in the sciences or computer related field. I was also interested in studying marine biology for a time when I was younger.
What is the greatest sacrifice you’ve ever made while in the practice of being a musician, and how did that sacrifice affect you?
Hmm… Sacrifice is an interesting word. We always give something to get something. I’ve certainly given… and I’ve gotten a lot back! But, it was never felt like sacrifice. It has felt more like I made a choice because I had to prioritize. My priority was simply to be a better musician.
We all make sacrifices to get through life. Look at the sacrifices parents make to raise their children… Or, when someone starts a small business. Some of those choices might be tough, and we might not enjoy them… But, that’s part of navigating the consequences of a choice. We make choices based on our priorities. The difference is that we can choose to view those choices we make as “sacrifices”, or as part of aligning yourself with our priorities.
I’ve simply made choices that lead me to the things I wanted. That means giving up something that wasn’t as important. If it wasn’t that important, it probably wouldn’t have made me that happy anyway.
Describe your standing practice regimen. Also, what technical (and musical) aspects of your playing are you currently working on?
Practice, for me, changes over time, and for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, good projects show up with short timelines and hard deadlines. Two such recording projects showed up last week, actually. Other times, I have a long-term project that becomes very time consuming for various reasons. So, practice can become very strategic – between teaching, gigging, and the nature of the projects I get involved in.
I would say, early on in my life, “practicing” was learning songs for shows, concerts and recitals. As I’ve gotten older, I still feel a pull toward that, and there’s a definitely real joy in that, for me. That’s why we play after all, right? But, I try to use an approach that focuses on three areas to keep my growth better balanced.
1) Repertoire – Reviewing challenging tunes I haven’t played in awhile… to keep them fresh in my hands. I also play through pieces on the upright and tunes from the Real Book. Sometimes I pick a song that I like and learn to play it by ear.
2) Technical skills – Drilling the notes on the fingerboard, so they stay hard wired through doing a variety of finger permutations with the metronome for speed and dexterity. I choose a scale and drill it. Also, sight reading, ear training, and putting in time – working on the upright to keep intonation skills and physical strength up-to-speed.
3) Then I spend time working creatively – writing or arranging material, improvising, and working out any song ideas that came to mind. This isn’t really practice… But, some of this always seems to happen as a result of practice. Creative ideas may evolve out of some part of regular practice.
I keep a journal of what I am working on so I can come back to areas and ideas that need further work. This is VERY valuable when you go down the rabbit hole because a good project showed up with short deadlines or a huge time commitment! I can pick up my journal, read the last entry, and get back to work on whatever items I had to momentarily put aside. The journal also helps me recall specific details of practices, and I find it helps me recall and re-enter the mental space I was in while I was getting that work done.
We call it “practice”… But, at the end of the day, practice is really just a form of problem solving. We are taking time to work on areas of our playing that we feel dissatisfied with – while making a new and desired skill permanent (and consistent) upon execution, improving a technique… working on tone, and developing speed.
What does music, and being a musician, mean to you – at the deepest level of your being?
It’s a multi-faceted gift! It gives me a medium to give back to others in a very unique and personal way. For example, we were performing some shows during the weekend of the recent terrorist attacks. I approached the shows that weekend with a real hope that our performances would help folks in the audience have a better day… even if only by getting folks to disconnect from the stress in their lives for awhile. Enjoying live performances improves quality of life; performing during that recent weekend was a huge reminder of how valuable that gift is.
Music has been the medium to grant me many great experiences, and it’s given me opportunities to travel, and it has allowed me to meet wonderful teachers, students, friends, and peers. It’s also a gift that needs to be respected and nurtured. There’s always so much to learn…it can be both overwhelming and inspiring at the same time.
Music helps me process the experience of living, and the study and performance of music has been insightful, metaphoric, and often informative to approaching other aspects of life. It teaches lessons about time management, mastery, patience, listening (what relationship doesn’t improve with more listening?), mindfulness, being present… the list of skills literally goes on and on.
It’s a calling. It’s a gift. It’s a relationship that requires work and respect. I’m grateful for it.
How important is it to understand the Language of music?
A non-musician approaches music with virtually no education about music and still understands the emotive content of what the music is saying. They may not be able to tell you what a tempo marking means… But, they can tell you if a song is slow or fast… and they can certainly tell you what the song invokes for them. So, there is communication happening there.
However, it is essential for musicians to stud, and to get inside the Language and develop fluency. It’s developing the skill set so one can express oneself fully with ease, and to identify the nuances and inflections that add depth and authenticity.
Are you involved in educating others?
Yes. I currently teach from four different studios located around NoVa and Richmond, Virginia, and online via Skype.
What is your teaching philosophy?
I try to get people addicted to music! It doesn’t matter if they want to be a recreational musician, or if they are aspiring to have a full, or part-time, career in music. In everything I do with them, the goal is to deepen and further their relationship with music. I also want people to have a relationship with music beyond just being a listener and a consumer of music. I want them to get a handle on being able to create it for themselves and express their own voice.
For all students (no matter how deep their commitment level) I really try to create a sense of connection and community. That’s essential! I want to get them involved in the culture of music as much as they will permit. Part of that is having concerts, clinics, and recitals on the local level. That expands from there to taking interested folks to concerts, clinics, and other events that happen all over our region. It’s very important to get people out of their houses and connected with a larger sense of music community. It can be a real struggle because people are so over-committed these days. Having those community experiences is a huge factor in helping students stay committed to studying music. Community building is a very important part of my teaching philosophy.
Also, if you could change one thing about the way music students learn, what would that be?
Making sure ALL school music programs were properly supported, well equipped, and running on appropriate budgets. There are school music programs out there that run on a yearly budget that is less than an average household spends on groceries for one month.
It would also be great to see music programs scheduled in a way that demonstrate that music is a priority and not an afterthought. There are school districts that have scheduled their orchestra programs to meet before school even starts….so these kids are getting up earlier than their classmates to go to school in order to have the experience of being in orchestra. What message does that send to the orchestra director and the kids? Not to mention what message does that send about the value that school places on music?
I’ve also seen some school districts schedule their honors and AP classes in a way that forces students to drop ensembles in order to take the honors classes. The students often don’t want to quit the ensemble classes. And parents become concerned about their child losing interest and quitting. This also puts an ensemble director in a difficult situation when they are trying to build a strong program; strong students are forced to drop out due to schedule conflicts. These problems are not happening in every district, but it is happening.
How do you collect the series of seemingly random influences and articulate them through music?
Its really just part of processing the experience of living, I believe. As part of processing the experience, the idea wants to come out as musical expression. The process helps make sense of the experience. It’s the common thread shared by painters, poets, writers, photographers, sculptors, and any other folks with a creative streak. No matter what the chosen medium is, one is just processing what we need to express. We process that reaction in our own time. Sometimes it hits all at once and we have to work with it immediately…as in drop everything and get it recorded as quickly as possible before it is gone!
Can music ever truly become commercial? Why, or why not?
There are many talented people who are making money in various music related careers: artists, songwriters, session musicians, and composers for film, games, commercials, and TV scores. So, there is an industry where music is a product that is bought and sold. That industry has changed over time, and that can be another lengthy conversation all on its own.
Not all music being created is going to be an ideal “product” for the established industry… and that’s fine – as connecting with a listener is what makes music ultimately successful. That said, there are plenty of musicians who strive to create music without having to worrying about the pressure of commercial success. Charles Ives is a perfect example of this – in that he worked a career in insurance so he could create exactly the music he wanted without financial pressure. Some musicians balance creating the music they want to express while working to attract an audience that supports their authentic expression. Thankfully, independent musicians have many more avenues, these days, to connect with their audiences and independently attract patronage for their projects, if they choose to do so.