This post originally appeared in “The Load In” the weekly digital magazine from Startup Musician. To sign up for free, fill out the form below.
My musical journey began at the age of 5 when I started taking piano lessons. At the age of 10 I picked up the bass, playing in my school orchestra, and electric bass at home. I continued taking private lessons and playing in groups all through junior high and high school, then went to college… then back for more college. When I finally finished school, I experienced something… odd.
You see, I had been used to years and years of receiving information. Things like how to properly hold a bow, left hand technique, and music theory. It was like I had been taking in a deep breath for years. I was taking all the information that came my way, absorbing it, and not doing much with it. I was very much in “student” mode. I was ready to learn, but timid to try things out in the real world.
In college, alongside my private lessons, classes, and school groups, I was doing my own study. I went through a huge Pino Palladino phase (which you could argue I’m still in), then James Jamerson, then my hip hop phase, then electronic, then Ray Brown etc. The point is, my interests were wide and varied. The thing is, I always felt a little guilty for loving these other things because they weren’t what I was working on with my teachers. They were teaching me what they knew, but didn’t think much of Kanye’s Graduation, or John Mayer’s Continuum, or Daft Punk’s Discovery.
So when I got out of school, I had absorbed all this information, years worth of lessons from various teachers, theory classes, playing in groups in and out of school, and practicing on my own. I started playing with other musicians around town and playing on recordings for friends. I was doing everything the way I thought they wanted it to be done. Largely the response from other musicians was good. I was pretty good at the bass, I mean I should be after that many years of school, right? But I always walked away from gigs or recording sessions feeling uneasy. I always felt like I wasn’t quite there. I was doing everything “right” but it still felt like something was missing. I leaned toward the K.I.S.S. method (Keep It Simple, Stupid), figuring I don’t want to be that obnoxious guy that overplays.
One day a friend of mine asked me to record some bass from home for a song he was working on and send him the track when I finished. Since I hadn’t done a remote recording thing before, I decided to send him multiple takes. I recorded three individual, different passes. He would have options to choose from since he wasn’t physically in the room with me to make the call. Here’s how I approached it:
Take 1 was the simplest take. This is was the KISS take (simple, not Gene Simmons). He would probably end up using this one.
Take 2 was pretty simple, but I added a few more fills here and there. My thought was maybe he would grab a few ideas from this take and mix it in with Take 1.
Take 3 felt like a joke. I knew he wouldn’t want to use it, but I tracked it anyway. On this take I played even busier, past the point that I figured he would want. Over my shoulder loomed a 6 inch version of every teacher I had ever studied with, looking on in disapproval. (In reality, they wouldn’t have been mad, but I was timid, remember?) I figured since I wasn’t playing like them I wasn’t doing it right. But I pressed on and recorded a full take. I let my guard down completely and just cut loose.
You already know where this is going, don’t you? He loved take 3 and that’s what he used for the recording. I was shocked. Take 3 wasn’t sticking to the strict rules I thought I had to follow. Take 3 wasn’t how my teachers would play it. Take 3 was… me being me.
As I continued playing for more recording projects and playing with other musicians live, I realized something. It’s embarrassing to say, and it’s going to come off as REALLY cocky, but I swear this comes from a place of total humility.
I finally realized that I… kinda knew some stuff.
All the information I had taken in over the years was starting to come out. But not just the scales and technique and music theory. The Pino, the Parliament, the Kanye, it all started pouring out in my own new way. No, it wasn’t what my teachers would play, but that’s a good thing. After years of taking a deep breath of information in, I was finally letting it all out.
Obviously, this has a time and a place. If the gig calls for whole notes, I play whole notes. But in certain situations when there’s a little artistic wiggle room, I’ve learned not to be afraid of my own subtle style. I’m always shocked to learn that people like it. After years of breathing information in, I finally let out a big breath. In the time since I’ve learned that that’s what we’re supposed to be doing: breathing in and out. Take in some new music, soak with it, and let some of that come out in your own music.
You… probably know some stuff too. Don’t be afraid to let your own musical style out. You probably know some stuff. And you’ll probably do it in a unique way like no one else. Don’t do what you think you’re supposed to do. Just do you.