How To Not Be a Dumb String Player


A Quick Note: This is part of  a series of posts about “How To Not Be a Dumb Musician”. These posts outline common frustrations associated with certain types of musicians in an attempt to become better musicians. Enjoy. 

Alright string players, here’s the deal. When you’re playing classical music and you’re with other string players, you’re in your own world, and you guys do great. But when you get called to play with a group that has drums, bass, guitar, keys, or vocals, it’s completely different. Right now the band members don’t understand you, value you, or appreciate your influence on the greater musical universe, much like the Star Wars Prequels (yep, it’s gonna be that kind of article). And just like Jar Jar Binks, you’re driving those guys crazy. I’m gonna give it to you straight: here’s how to not be a dumb string player.

How the rest of the band sees you. I'm sorry.

How the rest of the band sees you. I’m sorry.

Why This Matters

Just like the Star Wars Prequels, string players are near and dear to my heart. As a bass player, I’ve been in both situations. I’ve played classical bass music all through elementary school, middle and high school, college, and several small local orchestras. I’ve played in symphonies, and I’ve competed in classical competitions. But these days, I spend most of my time on the other side of the musical spectrum: pop, jazz, folk, and even the electric bass.

Whenever I’m playing electric bass in a group and they bring in string players, there’s always tension (much like bringing up the Star Wars Prequels around lifelong fans). This is mainly due to classical musicians having different styles and quirks than pop/rock musicians. In these situations, I often find myself defending the string players to the rest of the band, in the same way I defend the Prequels – “Guys, they’re not that annoying! Can’t we all just get along? Okay Episode I isn’t great, but the other two have a pretty great story!”

The rest of the band is NOT happy with you.

The rest of the band is NOT convinced.

Believe me string players, I’m on your side. You guys add a LOT and I just want us all to get along. So please remember that before you send in your angry comments. (Prequel haters though: bring it on)

What Not To Do: Keep playing measure 34 even though the singer mistakenly skipped 4 bars.

Sure, you’ve got sheet music in front of you, but that’s not the most important thing. The singer is. If the singer jumps to a different spot in the music, that is absoutely their fault, but you need to roll with the punches. Use your ears. Figure out where they jumped to, and just go with it. (After the gig, direct the singers to this article)

The worst thing you can do is to just keep playing where you’re at, even though it’s off. Even though the singer is wrong, you should follow them. By stubbornly staying in the “right” place, you’re making the whole group sound bad. The rest of the band members do this automatically (only because they’ve been working with singers their whole lives).

Instead: Use your ears. Roll with the punches.

Pictured: the singer, who is wrong, but oh so right.

Pictured: the singer, who is wrong, but oh so right.

What Not To Do: Be unable to improvise

The classical world is generally one with a lot of structure. If you play anything other than the notes on the page you’ll get dirty looks, or your stand partner will poke you with their bow.

The pop/rock world tends to be a little looser. While it’s not as open as jazz, there’s still some room for improvisation, if not for full blown solos, for small fills here and there.

Learn how to improvise. This will help you in 2 ways:

  1. You’ll be able to roll with the punches easier when the singer gets off (see above). Being able to make up a few lines in order to fill the space can cover up an otherwise obvious trainwreck.
  2. Being able to improvise makes you more valuable to 4 piece band players. No, you don’t need to be able to take “burning” jazz solos, but being flexible enough to make up a part while playing with a band is a big deal. It shows the band that you’re “one of them” (Like when Jar Jar becomes a Galactic Senator in Episode II… you know what, bad example). When they need a violinist, but don’t have a specific part, you’ll be the first one they call.

Instead: Be able to improvise enough to get by.

What not to do: Keep bad time

If you’re in a string section playing with a larger band and a singer, that’s a lot of people on stage. It takes work to get everyone in the same place, musically speaking. If you’re solely relying on the band for where the time is, things are going to get off. Make your own time instead.

To be clear, I’m not talking about being an jerk and shoving your idea of where 1 is down everyone’s throat. I’m talking about being much more aware of where the beat is on your own. If you’re always reacting to where the beat is from the band, you’ll always be late. On the flip side, if you’re a little too anxious, you’ll rush through those 16th note figures.

In classical music, there can be much more flexibility with the time. This is not the case for your pop/rock brethren. The drummer may even have a metronome in his ears during the performance. The whole band might! They are locked into a much more definite sense of where the beat is. So work with them on that. If you try to push or pull the time with the band, everyone loses.

Instead: Bring your own solid sense of time to the table and work together with the band instead of against them.

What not to do: Have a bad attitude

It’s going to be difficult to not take this next part personally (providing you haven’t taken the rest of this personally). Here we go:

There can (not always) be an attitude among some (not all) string players of elitism. This happens often enough that I think it’s worth mentioning. String players who act like they’re better than everyone else on stage (for the instrument they play, playing what the consider “real music,” being musically “right” (sticking to the chart instead of going with the singer)) are the worst and the band members don’t want to work with those players.

This is true of any instrument (guitar, bass, keys, drums, vocals included) but this attitude seems to be particularly prevalent among string players in a non-classical setting. Everyone is on that stage trying to do the best they can to make something musically coherant. So be kind, flexible, easy to work with, and non-judgemental of the other musicians on stage. This will go a LONG way.

For any band members reading this, this applies to you too! Treat everyone on the stage with musical respect, even if they’re being a real Jar Jar Binks.

Max Rebo says, "Keep it cool. We got a gig tonight"

“Keep it cool. We got a gig tonight, man!

Instead: Have respect for your fellow musicians of all kinds (even if they’re just a dumb ______ (insert instrument here)

Wrap Up

To sum it up: be easy to work with, kind, and flexible enough to roll with the punches. String players who do that are the ones that band musicians love to work with.

Don’t be a Jar Jar. Instead be R2D2: easy going, flexible in all situations, friendly (even though he doesn’t speak anyone else’s language), and arguably the real hero of the entire Star Wars Saga.

Photo Credit: Ajay Suresh