A beginner bassist's foray into the unknown

Recommendations to Newbies

In four days, its going to be 4 years since I started this blog.

Since experiencing this beginner’s music theory class from Coursera, and blogging every day for a solid 5 weeks, I’ve been thinking about how I’d proceed to learn electric bass (notice I didn’t call it bass guitar) if I had to start all over again, or what advice I’d give to other newbies who are trying to get their bearings. The two main roads are self-study and getting a teacher, but there are different lanes on both of these roads.

I don’t believe in the concept of truly independent self-study anymore. This is because, as much as we can feel that we’re teaching ourselves by not having a formalized music education, we self-studiers still rely on outside resources, like books and videos. This is still utilizing a teacher by proxy on some level. Once we begin exploring our options, we’ll discover bass-centric websites, online discussion forums and other resources. We might branch out and look at other generalized music resources as well. The internet is the great enabler here, giving us access to more information, and more misinformation, that any generation before us.

I also think that there are different flavors of formalized education. Enlisting the services of a teacher, taking a class, enrolling in a music school and engaging in online lessons via something like Skype are all different ways of interacting with a flesh-and-blood mentor who can guide us along the path. These are all different though. sitting knee-to-knee with an instructor isn’t the same as being in a classroom with a dozen other students, and both of these differ from pinging electrons back and forth in a semi-static manner like what Coursera offers or a dynamic and visually interactive manner like Skype.

And, of course, there are even midpoints between the two of these, like learning with a friend who’s not well-versed, but who knows more than zero, or having formal music education with one instrument and then trying to apply it to another.

Anyway, I think there are two basic types of people, with regard to education process, who might want to learn music, and learn to play bass in particular. Here’s what I’d recommend if prodded in the middle of the night (like it is right now):

Self-studiers:

  1. Get the Hal Leonard Bass Method by Ed Friedland to learn how to play. It will get your fingers moving and will teach you how to read music along the way. Don’t let that scare you. Reading notation isn’t as hard as people make it out to be, and Ed takes baby steps. Those people who make it sound scary most likely can’t read music to begin with, and there’s this old adage about humans fearing that which they don’t understand.
  2. Get Bass Guitar for Dummies by Patrick Pfeiffer. Ed’s book will teach you how to read and will get you playing. Patrick’s book will teach you theory. Yes, reading music and understanding music theory are two different skills. Don’t be afraid of this as well. Just read it over, a little bit at a time, to get familiar with the words and concepts. After a few months, you’re going to know a lot more than what you started with, and its going to be really encouraging.
  3. Take an online class like Coursera’s Developing Your Musicianship program, after working through Ed’s book and reading some of Patrick’s. This will let you interact with other students who are learning music. Its not just bass, but it applies to bass. You’ll see where you stand, in relation to other learners, but you’ll also have projects to complete and have the opportunity to get into other people’s heads via the discussion forums and peer review assignments.
  4. Join Talkbass. They’re fantastic. You’ll be introduced to ideas and concepts that you never thought of, you’ll find views on the stuff that you do think about which you hadn’t thought of, and you’ll get to see how other people who study or play bass think and apply themselves to their art. You’ll also find out what the best bass for metal is. Make sure you ask them that. 😉

To supplement any of the above, StudyBass is probably the best free bass method on the internet. Read it and use it. Also, if any of the above recommends practicing something up and down the neck of the bass, or in all 12 keys, practice it using the Cycle of Fourths. Don’t just go up and down the neck in ascending or descending order. Mix it up via the Cycle. I wish I had known about that much sooner. It will force you to practice all over the bass and eliminate the fear of horizontal movement that more positional playing can potentially ingrain.

I think that will take you past where I am, if you stick with it. Once you’ve reached that point, then I think that learning more specialized musical styles becomes part of the next step of development.

Formalized study:

I don’t have too much experience here. I’ve had 2 instructors. One of them I never talk about. I had 2 lessons from him and he didn’t teach me anything. He was an older, Scottish guy who mostly let me pay him so he could talk about himself and tell me about how he was once involved in computer programming and how machines will replace musicians shortly when it comes to composition. He threw a fit when I called ahead to let him know that I wouldn’t be able to make it to class on the 3rd week because of my responsibilities at work – it was like a bad breakup kind of fit, only from a person 20-30 years my senior who should have been able to understand that my supporting clinicians who are keeping people alive in nursing homes has to come before my desire to express myself on an instrument. One can become a matter of life-or-death much more quickly than the other. After his hysteria, I never went back, and it soured me to instructors for years.

The other person, I liked, but ultimately, he didn’t have the knowledge that I was truly after, and was more of a guitarist and pianist than a bassist. I also took only 2 lessons from him. He would have definitely molded me into a pattern player and was focused on playing via hand shapes, but didn’t read music or profess to understand any theory. He could play piano really well though. I need to understand how that kind of thing happens. Its something I’ve started to explore, but I’ll talk about that later in the year.

Virtually everyone on Talkbass recommends individual instruction. I don’t know how different it would be from a classroom setting, if any music schools or music programs are available to new learners. I’ve taken small steps in this direction via the Coursera course, and a few years ago, via the International Institute of Bassists (IIB). Overall, I’d say that the IIB is much more detailed than Coursera. The lessons are comprehensive and cover theory and reading, as well as other topics, like discussing learning process, how to practice and other things. It can be overwhelming though.

My main problem with the IIB class is that I didn’t know the notes on the fretboard, and it was something that the curriculum implied could be learned in a short frame of time (about 2 weeks). I think its possible that someone else could do this, but I’m not that person. I’m going to tackle it again this year though. Going through the Hal Leonard Bass Method and then the IIB class (Music Theory for Bass) are my two bass goals for this year. The Coursera class has essentially become my warm-up and confidence builder.

Coursera’s class leaves me with mixed feelings. I haven’t completed it yet. Week 5 will begin in 2 days, and then we have one week left after that, so its still a work in progress. I think it needs to be revised though. There are a lot of typographical mistakes for people who follow using subtitles in the videos, and I think that the professor in the videos needs to look at what he’s said in some of them and really bring some of the more open-ended thoughts that he puts forth to a conclusion. There are vocabulary concepts that are introduced in the beginning that aren’t explained, but if its meant to force students to do their own research, that should be stated, because there’s the danger that students will walk away with different understandings of fundamental topics, which is probably the opposite of what formalized education should try to achieve.

Coursera is free. The IIB cost $24. I think. Coursera is a 6-week class, so its a month and a half. The IIB class was 12 weeks, or 3 months. Coursera has online discussion forums, and the IIB had weekly live chats, plus email and phone support. I used the email and chat from the IIB to ask questions about some of the topics and to just learn more about the other people in the class. The Coursera discussion forums don’t seem to get any input from staff. I’ve read posts from other students that I found very informative, but there has been no official support, only community support and answers from other students with varying degrees of knowledge and experience. So, like a lot else in the world, there are pro’s and con’s to either.

Sorry for the blabber that this turned into. I don’t have an editor and got interrupted for about 90 mins. in the middle of this to rescue someone from the snow who got locked out of their house. Its about 2:30 in the morning now, so I’m going to just publish this and let the words fall on the blog where they will.

Good night.

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