Tuesday, January 28, 2014

With a Steady Hand

       One of my favorite teachers once told me that making music was akin to being as furious as you’ve ever been and at the same time being more exuberant than ever before while carrying a mug of hot and piping tea across the room. Whew. 

Knowing myself, this is a recipe for disaster. As you can see from this picture, I can't even keep the blood of my enemies on the bone. Okay fine; its strawberry wings sauce from Jack's Pizza. But it's still messy!

Making music, however, is important to me, and as such, I always feel the need to confront myself and make the improvements and adjustments that I know I can will myself towards. I’m not really satisfied with quitting when the right notes are hard to find. I’ll never go down without a fight, essentially. This music thing is really more about self-discovery and progression than it is about songs. 

How do we keep a clear and focused mind when our emotions are anything but? To which side of the emotional scale do we tend towards throughout the day? To what do we give in and feed? And, how are we supposed to carry some hot tea across a room during all this?  

This answer is as easy as you can imagine in theory and as difficult as anything else in practice. We carry the mug with a steady hand. 

When making music, it is important to remain steady. We have to be of balanced mind and balanced breath in order to account and be prepared for all the nuances of performance. Certainly we can all recall how hyper-exaggerated all of our senses are during a performance; we truly seem to notice more, and we do. This “more” can be more of a distraction if you can’t keep a steady heart during the process, after, and before. 

A lot of musicians have some sort of ritual to help them prepare for the show. Anything works, as long as it helps you settle in to your environment without being dull. You can be sharp and steady; be ready. My whole musical life is made up of rituals. Some notable ones…

1. Basketball Jerseys 

2. Scarfs 

3. Clapping with a metronome before a show with my eyes closed. No pictures of that holy place. 
4. Dancing

5. Sneakers/Sneakerz

These are all ways that I help prepare and keep my mind and heart steady. You would have to experiment with something that works for you. Obviously my little tricks tend to be kind of silly; that's because I'm a silly person if you haven't figured that out.

        Of course it is very important to have your life steady in order to be steady in your music. The synthesis of life and music happens at the exact same point. There is no single correlation. It is all the same. 

The following three tips I’ve learned regarding steadiness have really helped me conquer what I would have referred to as some sort of psychotic imbalance between my brain and reality. This can be fun to experience sometimes, but isn’t the best mindset for creating music with others.

Physical Steadiness: Don’t Be Afraid to Move
A lot of people will tell you that your body reflects your mind. While this is true sometimes, it is dumb to make generalizations about our own bodies. Only our brain is capable of putting our bodies’ thoughts into the English language for us to understand in that way; as such, it becomes a very confusing game of telephone. 
        Life is extremely dynamic; it is also, as I keep mentioning somewhat morbidly, transient and over very quickly if we are lucky and even quicker if we aren’t. Life moves constantly; like water, it crashes over pebbles and plants. It comes out on the other side in different ways, but always returns to the steady flow of the water cycle. We can learn so much about playing the bass from water. 

        Let your body move and let it breath. Don’t be afraid to dance and don’t be afraid to clap your hands. Even bouncing my shoulders to the beat can sometimes steady my proverbial hand for the rest of a performance. We must never be too attached to any one position; we must only be attached to the dynamics and ever-changing position of life. 

Generate Your Finger Strength From Your Hand: It All Comes From Somewhere
As musicians, we tend to put so much emphasis on our fingers; their precision, their strength, their endurance. We tense up our fingers so much to hold on to the music that we want to love so much. Obviously your finger strength is valuable as a musician, but where does it come from? The muscle fibers in your finger receive some help generating power from your hand; your hand from your forearm; your forearm from your shoulder blade; your shoulder blade from your core, etc. 

We cannot emphasize one part of our body as the reason for music. Music would exist if we did or not; so it is important to understand this vitality of influence from sources you’d never expect. 

This way, we don’t depend wholly on our fingers to create music. We don’t depend on anything other than faith that the music will be there. 

Give Your Brain Breaks: We Aren’t Machines 
I’ve been trying for a few years, but the reality of life is that I will never become a machine. No matter how much time I spend clapping quarter notes on a metronome; no matter how many days I spend with routine after routine; it has no effect on the fact that some days I am in it and some days I am not. And, if I’m being honest with myself, I am in and out of it constantly all the time on every day. 

The reality of having a steady hand is that it won’t always be steady. So sometimes, instead of spilling the tea all over the carpet, we should just leave it on the counter for a while. 

It is very difficult for me to take breaks while practicing, but every 45 minutes seems to have become a popular idiom for myself. In addition to giving my body and mind time to unwind and recharge, these forced breaks have taught me a thing or two about restraint, which is an area of life that I know is one of the many secrets to being helpful and being happy. 

It is impossible to be perfect; but we can always be close by striving in the right direction. True musicianship comes from honoring your discipline, your influences, your spontaneity, your training, your creativity, your life experiences, your impulses, etc. It comes from a myriad of resources and, when we combine those resources with all those other factors of a day to day life, it came become confusing.

Breathe, dance, and throw on a basketball jersey. If we curate a healthy mind and body thru exercise (on both ends...running and reading. and lifting), we can have the steadiest hand in the room. 

And sometimes we are going to spill the tea. I spilled a lot on myself this morning, which is what prompting me to write this. But fortunately, unlike tea, you can always pick up the compounds of music and make something beautifully expressive. 

slow and steady plays the bass,
Benjamin Ryan Williams 

Friday, January 17, 2014

Always Keep Your Heart Open

There are a great many number of things that a young bass player can learn to improve his playing. He or she can learn about the importance of having backup strings, or the about the pertinence of adequate preparation. He or she can be told about the value of practicing with a metronome, and how sometimes meandering around in the scale is better than playing the scale from top to bottom. The information out there that can help one learn how to play bass better is limitless and infinite. Everything is already out there; even that which hasn’t been discovered yet.

To me, today, the most important lesson to young and old bassists alike is to always keep your heart open.

Before we should sit down to play, it would always behoove us to tune our instrument. On some level this means to make sure our 4 strings are tuned to E, A, D, G (if we are in standard tuning). On another level this means to attune ourselves to our particular environment. If we are playing a fancy party, it might help to appreciate what that means and how that is precisely unique from a frat party. On another level, this tuning our instrument means to check and see how the ultimate instrument, our heart, is doing.

I have to credit Madeline Bruser with helping me appreciate this tuning of the heart. I simply thought that sometimes the music flowed with truth and other times I had to force it. I never knew that this act of opening your heart can be made easy with some concrete steps of vigilant effort.

So how do we tune our hearts to be open? For me, the first step is accepting the vulnerability of the moment. Music has always been so amazing to me because I understand the transient nature of each performance; of each chord; of each single beat. Here one minute, the next gone. This is the reality of music and this is even the reality of all things. Nothing lasts forever. This is a crushing concept to think about before playing music, but this is also incredible hopeful because each mistake doesn’t nearly matter as much as you’d think. And, if nothing lasts forever, then the only solution is to appreciate whatever is happening currently with all of your heart.

The next step is to
be thankful for the opportunity in front of you. I could have been hardly more lucky so far in my career as a musician, and any chance I get to strap on my bass and jam out is unbelievable. But even if you are only playing in your bedroom at home, think about the amazing opportunities you have compared to people in destitute countries. Think about the amazing opportunities you have compared to people in the past. Many people have been jailed for practicing and performing music throughout time’s story. Here we are with the opportunity to be a part of that without the strife. This is an amazing feeling.

Again, recall step one and accept this moment’s vulnerable demeanor. Perhaps I will wake up tomorrow unable to move my fingers. This thought makes me sad, but it opens my heart to appreciating the opportunity to move my fingers today with precision and power.

When we reflect on the preciousness of all in our lives, our hearts warm and vital energy flows thru our bodies and our minds. The heart is open and, much like the bass itself, adds harmony and texture to every other physical and mental aspect of our bodies.

Finally, we have step 3, which is to consider the frame. Music is not performed in a vacuum; it is played in a hall; it is played in the state of Georgia; it is played on the earth; it is played in the year 2014; it is played to people who have had different days; it is played in a town where their football team with high expectations didn’t perform well; it is played by us, who sometimes have vastly different days.

We must be observant and consider the frame of our performance. Our heart will be attuned towards sympathy and empathy to all aspects that participate in the performance, of which there may be infinite outside influences. Although we can do nothing to control those aforementioned influences, we can accept them and thank them and consider them. They are there and so are we. Let’s be thankful.

Although none of this is truly technical advice, I believe that the musician could always benefit from remembering to always keep his or her heart open. Music is the language of the heart organized into mathematical patterns; it is truly communicative, but only when performed with the gusto and appreciation for the transient nature of life. Notes are here and then they aren’t. A chord is played and, while its vibrations never end, we can never keep it quite the same in our ears. It simply leaves our life. Or maybe we leave it.

This understanding of the duality between true joy and true sadness can create true music. And while exposing the heart is frightening, realize it is the only way to be the best musician you can be. 

You simply have no other choice.