Lesson 3: Play nicely with others
A big band is a unique thing. It’s like a microcosm unto itself. You have at least 18 personalities to deal with. There are some with mercurial personalities and some who are more consistent. You have to find your way to fit in. I’d offer that the most important thing is to be yourself: not act in a manner antithetical to your true self. If you’ll succeed, you’ll have to succeed with who you are. Being that close to fellow performers playing music always brings out true character. If you don’t fit in, it’s probably best for everyone to know that early.
My recommendation is that you come into a circumstance observing rather than asserting. When you speak, seek to understand before you seek to be understood. Understand and respect the tradition. My first time on the bus I sat down near the front. Mike Williams, boarding the bus behind me, stopped and said, “You don’t sit there. You sit in the back of the bus”, then promptly took me to my seat. At the time I didn’t know if he was hazing or helping, but I took his instruction and sat in the back. (Turns out he was helping.) This was part of the way things were done in the band.
Lesson 4: Keep improving
So, I made it through the first set of gigs OK. But there were certainly rough spots. Maybe the audience didn’t notice them, but I and other band members noticed them. The difficulties were caused by several things. Some of the music wasn’t clearly marked. Sometimes it was that the last bassist didn’t mark it well, sometimes it was that the arrangement had recently changed. Either way, I’ve got to mark or memorize the part quickly to meet the expectation is that I play it correctly next time. The band is forgiving, but only for so long. This is borne out by a conversation with one of the band members in the airport on the way home. He explained that an opportunity arose for me, in part, because the former bassist wasn’t improving. He was making the same mistakes time after time.
I took this feedback to heart. I’m now trying to target the parts that need work, and discussing the parts with other musicians off the bandstand. I need to understand what to play before I can execute it. I might even ask the director to give us a chance to practice the parts to make sure I’ve got them right.
I’m also reviewing the charts off the bandstand. Now that I’ve had a chance to hear the music I can compare the charts to what I’ve heard. Going over the music this way helps me understand the arrangements and what nuance the music needs at differing points.
Lastly, I recorded our last show on my cell phone. I just turned on the recorder and put it out of sight on the floor near me. Sure, it was a very poor placement for balance and fidelity, but the point was to have a recording which allowed me to objectively review my performance. In reviewing the recording I can judge how better to support the ensemble horn lines, where I’m making mistakes and what I’m supposed to be playing in those parts. (There are a few songs where I’m playing the notes, but I’m not feeling the intent of the composer. This review allows me to hear all the parts to better understand what’s musically intended.)
Beyond the music itself, the bass is a beast which requires a lifetime to tame. There’s always room for improvement; I’m speaking now of the fundamentals that a bassist employs to make music. It could be in the form of musical theory (how comfortable are you really in your understanding of modes), or performance (how comfortable are you really reaching 10ths across the entire fingerboard?), or fingerings (how comfortable are you really playing an entire composition in thumb position?), or technique (how comfortable are you really playing a bowed bass solo?). You get the point. There’s always more you can do in your practice sessions which to allow effortless creation of music. My preparation for my opportunity with the Count Basie Orchestra consisted of two things; 1) listening to the repertoire, and 2) because I felt my intonation and comfort with the fingerboard fading, I purchased a new Zimandel book (my old books were pretty worn), pulling out my bow, and played through bassic classical exercises. Everyone’s different. Every opportunity is different. You’ve got to be able to assess what the opportunity requires and what you must do to deliver the music what it needs. If you do so honestly you should get (and keep) a lot of gigs.