A year of double bass
Just over a year ago I decided on a little bit of a whim to give learning the double bass a try. What began as a curiosity quickly hooked me, and suddenly I was in a very serious and committed relationship with the most difficult instrument I have ever attempted to play.
Here’s where I started, green and unfit, and still playing with a straight end pin (I switched to a Laborie bent endpin setup after a few months and it was a revelation):
I threw myself into practice, particularly learning how to play with the bow, and a year into my journey I have emerged from my bunker having played some gigs, made it mostly unscathed through a concert with the South Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, and filmed a lot of videos of me failing at various aspects of playing, which I documented on Instagram as part of Hilary Hahn's #100daysofpractice challenge. There are some gems in there, like me trying to play barred 4ths for the first time…
Practice discipline doesn’t come easily for me. I have always loved starting new things, but finishing them is a different matter. Once the honeymoon phase of a project wears off and the thrill of the chase dulls, it can be difficult to muster up the motivation to keep going through the difficult bits. Perhaps part of my determination comes from double bass being just so bloody difficult. It is a grumpy beast much of the time, and one that I have become determined to win over.
My partner Adam joked the other day that if I’d put the amount of hours I’ve spent on double bass over the last year into practicing guitar I’d be a shred-master, and he’s probably right. But the key, I guess, is that I have never been motivated to practice guitar this way. Somehow bass just feels like home. Much of my motivation comes from my amazing teacher Anita Hustas, and from the aforementioned Adam, who is also a bassist and gets the rough end of my tantrums about how difficult the instrument is… sorry Adam.
I’ve also found plenty of inspiration from listening to lots of bass music and the Contrabass Conversations podcast, and finding inspirational players to follow on social media. I’ve discovered the joys of nerding out about the instrument with other bass players and modifying my instrument setup in an endless quest for tone and playability, and seem to think about bass most of my waking hours. In other words, I think I’m a bass player now. I have even had my own “wow that’s a big guitar” and “bet you wish you played flute” comments from strangers while wheeling my bass down the street, a double bass club initiation if ever there was one.
Overall I’m so proud of the work I’ve put in and what I’ve accomplished so far with the bass, but I’m also deeply aware of just how far I still have to go. Performing at a professional level as a vocalist means I have a very strong idea of what I’d like to sound like on bass. Taking such slow and stumbling steps toward that vision is incredibly frustrating, and I’m sure many musicians who pick up a second instrument can relate. There have been days when everything is tense and difficult and sounding like a pile of steaming excrement, and I’ve thought “you’re not even a year in, cut your losses and quit before you waste any more time!”, but I’ve pushed myself to get back onto the instrument the next day, when a good night’s sleep has softened those voices.
An unexpected consequence of my bass journey is that I’ve started deeply questioning my musical future. I have put so much time and effort into the instrument and barely begun to sound musical, and anticipating the work that still lies ahead has made me think deeply about where I am aiming. What will fulfil me creatively, and make all that slog worthwhile? While being able to play bass and sing will improve my employability as a performer, and hopefully allow me to find a better balance between my teaching and performing work, what I really want to do is write and play my own music on the bass.
This brings me to creativity, and it’s something that has been largely missing from this first year of double bass as I have worked to develop my strength, coordination and basic technique. To address this I’ve devised The Dryad Project, and I hope that you will join me on my journey. The project follows on from 2016’s Song-Chain Project, and will be a creative composition project led by my work mastering the double bass. I am starting a new #100daysofpractice challenge specifically working on this project, which you can follow on Instagram or Facebook.
You can read more about the project here, and I look forward to having you join me as I exercise my creative muscles once again.