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My Experience Singing and Playing Bass for the First Time and What You Can Learn

singing and playing bass at the same timeSince moving down to North Carolina, I was looking for a new musical project I could sink my teeth into. Back up north, the main bands that I had played bass for were all rooted in funk somehow, whether it was jam band-funk, funk rock, funk metal, dance funk – you name it.

None the less, I stuck to playing bass. It’s what I signed up for. And I didn’t do any singing.

My first project that I joined down here in North Carolina was something brand new: an indie folk band in the same vein as Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear and Iron and Wine.

Everything was new. Different people, different tastes, different playing style and different tone settings. But most of all: singing. Something that I never had to do before and was brand new to me.

Even now looking back, I think it was a smart decision to stick with this project after being asked to sing harmonies. It added a new perspective to my playing and really kicked me in the butt when it came to learning to sing and play bass at the same time.

So what was the point of this post?

I want to share my experience with learning to sing and play bass at the same time. Rather than sitting in a room, away from other musicians, singing arbitrary notes and harmonies without any real impetus or reason to do so let alone any real reason to keep up with it, I think this experience and what came from it was something different and certainly worth sharing to anyone looking to sing and play bass at the same time.

Crash Course in Singing and Playing Bass

I arrive at the first practice and there are 4 other musicians in the room. We begin jamming on the music part of a Fleet Foxes song then Eric, the lead singer and guitar player and the person who brought all of us together through a Craigslist posting, begins to break down the sung sections of the song.

Though the chords were simple and structure was easy to memorize,  what made the song difficult was creating a 4 part harmony with the other members in the band.

Each of us were given a series of notes that corresponded to the chords of the song that the guitar was playing. All of us were singing a different note – not the same note.

Eric counted us off and we began singing.

And I was terrible. Boy was I terrible.

My pitch was unrefined, shaky, shallow, all over the place, I was singing from my throat not my gut and had a hard time settling in to the other notes being sung.

Kind of what was to be expected, I suppose.

But naturally I sunk back, I didn’t really project, I spent more time trying to center my pitch and then move from pitch to pitch. Actually playing bass was the last thing on my mind (but it was soon going to be front and center!)

We went through a few run through of the song, still my parts were shaky but doable. Academic musicians call this sort of thing sight singing, singing on the spot and doing it as you go. The vocal equivalent to sight reading music.

As I sang and played, I could feel my brain splitting into 2: one end focused on singing and the other focused on my bass playing. Easily – one of the weirder feeling’s I’ve experienced as a musician.

I could feel myself spacing out and making strange facial contortions as I sang and played. I needed to mentally cope and process with the contrasting motions.

Immediately, I noticed that my skill on bass changed. My characteristically busy style of playing was reduced to playing root, third or 5th notes. Musically “safe” notes that don’t make too many waves and fundamentally hold the song together.

It was the most challenging band practice I had ever experienced. Bar none.

Aftermath:

But when all was said and done after that first day of playing, I felt that I had learned more in an hour than I had in a long while AND discovered that I had the potential to learn more.

Sure, trying something the first time meant setting yourself up and falling on your face. BUT it didn’t mean I had to fall down and stay down. Scott Adams, the Dilbert comic creator, called these kinds of situations failing forward, where you fail, but you come out learning something new in the process.

That is what singing and playing bass for the first time that day meant to me: I was terrible at it, but it set me up to build on that failure. It showed me what I needed to work on specifically and gave me a compass in the right direction to begin learning this unique skill.

Were there moments of embarrassment? Sure, but they were short lived. I didn’t die from them. In fact, I say I came out a better bass player because of them.

But by no means was I laughed at or shooed out of the room or fired from my new position. It was just revealed to me that what I thought wouldn’t be that hard turned out to be very hard and to bring my original skill level of playing back up to match my singing would take time.

 What You Can Learn From My Incident:

Granted, I’m writing to be a very candid, point-of-view experience. Your experiences may vary and might get different results and satisfactions from different ways of learning the skill. This is my way of sharing a stripped-down, (what I like to think of as) a real-world scenario. My hope is that you can get something to use from this.

The next time you find yourself thinking about wanting to start learning how to sing and play bass…

1. You’re going to sound terrible the first time. Accept it and realize you won’t be terrible forever.

2. The fastest way to get started learning something new is fail. Preferably in front of other people. I had tried to learn to sing and play bass in my room a few times, listening to only myself. The problems I immediately  encountered were:

  • I had little drive to continue learning the skill because there wasn’t any reason to continue learning it.
  • It sounded strange to me just singing to myself in my room  and even stranger knowing there might be someone listening the room over (cue shyness).

When you practice singing and playing bass at the same time in isolation, there is nothing to provide you with feedback except yourself. The problem with us is that we’re biased towards ourselves and don’t judge ourselves clearly or rationally.

In a situation where you’re expected to perform on the spot, it doesn’t matter how much bedroom training you have. It’s likely not to translate out the same way than if you were to actually play it and practice it under as real-life of circumstances as possible.

In front of other people, personally speaking, I didn’t want to be the worst person in the room. As a result, I learned that with that as my motivation, I suddenly had the drive and had connected the mental dots to make that happen.

I found myself learning, understanding and processing advice faster than ever and putting it to action faster than I ever would have in my room alone.

4. Work in small bits (or chunks) when practicing. During that practice, I had, about 3 singing parts out of 5 songs. 2 were chorus parts and one was an introduction section. All of which lasted no more than 12 bars long and did not involve any Frank Zappa-esque note runs and the singing. These, by the lead guitarist’s design, were pretty small chunks for myself and the rest of the band. None outside of the guitar player was really doing any heavy lifting or being tasked with tremendous singing duties.

This was particularly good when it came to going home to practice. I only had a couple of other parts to practice and none of those parts were terribly long musically or terribly in depth.

5. There is a good chance that the notes you’re singing are also being played somewhere else in the song. Moreover, the harmonies we sang often moved in the same direction as the guitar player’s lines. As a result, there was less to thinking about “where is this note?” and worrying about reference points.

 

So at the Next Band Practice…

I recommend finding your lead singer and asking if there are some parts you can add harmony to. It doesn’t need to be every song all the time for the duration of the song. Maybe just 8 bars of the chorus or a handful of words that are meant to be accented throughout the song.

Decide for yourself if you want to match pitch with the singer or sing a 3rd, 5th or even a 7th above what he/she is singing for harmony.

The bigger purpose is actually seeing and feeling what it is to sing and play at the same time in as real of a situation as possible.

 

Check out No Treble’s article by Damian Erskine for more information about singing and playing bass here as well!

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