Brains and Basses

How to learn something new after 50

“Lifelong learner” is one of the aphorism tossed about as a great directional trait. There is a distinction between passing interest (which historically was an artifact of “managing by magazine” when print magazines conveyed trends) and truly absorbing a new skill. It’s remarkably hard to do once you’re in the second half of your career. Competing and conspiring issues of distractions and stressors, brain plasticity, and a sense of urgency to reach minimal competence quickly do not work in your favor.

I always wanted to play bass guitar. Sitting in the student waiting room at Caiazzo Music in Freehold, NJ (where Bruce Springsteen bought his first guitar), I was fascinated by the rows of long-necked, four-stringed basses. I never traded in the clarinet and saxophone for bass until an ill-fated attempt to teach myself at the age of 19. “Poseur” was most appropriate, in every interpretation from not knowing how to properly hold the bass to the fact that I didn’t have enough money to buy a bass amp so I went full Rube Goldberg with a cassette player line in pre amp to my new stereo receiver. Loudness did not make up for lack of talent, and that was the end of the experiment until I decided, five years ago, that I had the time, energy and money to buy a proper setup and get proper lessons.

I have a long history of playing (and listening to) music, but after a long hiatus, musical notation, theory, and the basics of band interplay took a while to surface again. My first few attempts to learn songs via tablature (not true musical notation, but the equivalent of the color-keyed piano notation to teach beginners) didn’t yield anything that sounded like Stealer’s Wheel “Stuck In The Middle With You” or Steely Dan’s “Peg.”

Long preamble to get the creating space part: I needed to create space in which to learn, practice, and reach minimal competence at my own tempo. It took five years, five bass teachers and nearly a year of pandemic isolation for me to realize how to soften that bias against learning:

  1. Get a teacher. The day I decided to take lessons is the day I realized I had literally no idea what I was doing, and that was an acceptable starting point. Little aphorisms like “sandwich hand” (for how to position your fretting hand, thanks Max) made a huge difference. The advantage of being an older learner is that you have more points of reference; the disadvantage is that you don’t instantly draw the parallels. Get a teacher (or coach or advisor, they’re all teachers).

  2. Get the right teacher(s). I actually take lessons with two different and distinctly unique teachers. One is local, in-person, and has outstanding playing mechanics. I learn phrasing, fingering, and how to build something musical with those sandwich hands from him. The other is a touring musician (out of work for a year), whose bass playing is an adjacency to her jazz and funk trombone playing. She has taught me how to listen better, how to think about structure, and how to pick apart solos. I’m a better musician through the combination of both approaches.

  3. Make space, literally and figuratively. I started practicing in my home office and found the staccato of interruptions made practice less efficient. After two productive weekends cleaning out a storage room my son used as a home studio, I set up all of the equipment needed for private, isolated practice. With Zoom based lessons, the home studio has been a requirement.

  4. Forms matter. One of the things I despised about high school music practice was the emphasis on scales. Every honors band audition had a requirement to play scales on demand, and I never quite understood why. Had I looked out the back of the school to the football field, I would have seen the team doing sprints, simple blocking drills to focus on foot movement, or shuttle runs to build up muscle memory. Scales drive the same goals: the essential repetition of a skill builds comfort and confidence. Phish’s Trey Anastasio channels the Dead’s Jerry Garcia talking about the importance of basic scales. I’ve been a huge fan of O’Reilly’s katas to provide a safe space in which to practice design skills. Every time I sit down to play, I work through some variation of scales, focusing on the playing shape (another hand position exercise) and getting them smooth and even.

  5. Listen. Seems somewhat obvious, although the questions posed by my teachers are usually “Why is the bass player playing those notes? Where is he going?” Listening aggressively helps you pick out structure and in a band setting, you avoid competing with the drummer to lay a musical foundation. Superb bassists don’t always play a lot of notes but they listen to all of the notes to form that rhythmic “pocket” - none better than late Tony Markellis.

Chris Squire from Yes, Jon Camp of Renaissance, and Geddy Lee from Rush were my guitar heroes. That list extended to Mike Gordon, Mic Todd, James Jamerson, Jaco Pastorius, Stanley Sheldon, and Rocco Prestia. Musical idols are implicit teachers, the same I consume books about Steve Jobs and Pixar I plug into their music to find ideas and concepts that literally resonate.

There’s been another nice artifact of picking up music again: When I see someone’s guitar or keyboard in the background of a Zoom call, we have an instant connection and point of reference for some off-topic networking and mental solos.