Instead of another depressing asthma related post, this time I thought I thought Id take a break and write about something a little more cheerful. Im referring to a favorite hobby of mine….playing the bass.

Its no secret that I’ve become quite an accomplished marathon walker, despite severe breathing difficulties. But, I bet you didn’t know I’m also a musician. OK, a part-time wannabe musician. Well, actually a part-time wannabe jazz bassist. In fact, if things had turned out differently when I was young kid, I might have even tried to make a career out of music instead of working in the medical field. Wouldn’t that be something.

As far as the the type of music I like, well that would be just about be everything. Being bass oriented though, I tend to gravitate to jazz, big band, and pop music with lots of hooks and walking bass lines. But regardless of the type of music I like to listen to, the reason I play is because it makes me happy…it makes me feel good. It feels good, even if only to play along to other peoples music. That’s what most bassists do anyway, right? Currently I play the electric bass guitar, mainly because its versatile, but if I had the space, Id love to learn to play the upright acoustic bass as well. The two instruments are so different.

Though I played the trumpet throughout my Elementary School years, I didn’t begin playing the bass (seriously) until almost 50 years later at age 58. And other than a handful of formal music lessons I took, albeit from one of the best bassists in the world Rick Shaw, I’m totally self-taught. I wouldn’t say I’m particularly talented, but I do have a pretty darn good ear for bass lines and rhythm, and can play pretty much anything I hear. When you consider that I get very little sleep because of my breathing issues, it’s amazing that I have the concentration to play it all.

Anyways, to celebrate the season, here’s a few Christmassy type tunes and a sample of other stuff I like to play. You might have to adjust your EQ settings on whatever device you’re listening on to prevent the bass from drowning out the rest of the music or visa versa. Oh and don’t forget, this is just a hobby for me , so I’m totally allowed to screw up and make an ass out of myself……lol

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I do most of my music practice and recordings between the hours of 4 and 7 am. Not because Im fond of getting up at the crack of dawn, but because its hard for me to breath if I lay in bed too long. Its much easier for me to breath sitting up. So when I do get up, I figure I might as well do something constructive to fill those early morning hours. What could be better than playing an instrument? A lot of times Im so mentally exhausted during practice that I have to play totally from memory or reflex. The point is, I practice almost every day, regardless of how crappy I might feel. I do it because I know my skills wont improve unless I keep at it. Amazingly my breathing actually improves as I play.

My interest in music and the recording arts actually began when I was a young kid, we’re talking 1960’s and 70s before the advent of computers, CDs or even Cassette tapes. Back then, music was recorded on magnetic tape and then transferred, manufactured and sold on vinyl records.
At age 9, quite by accident while messing around with a Beatles record on an old record player, I noticed that by speeding up the turntable from 33 rpms (which is the standard play speed for an LP), to 78, it would not only create that classic “Chipmunk” sound”, but the bass line and the drum beat of the song would really stand out. Knowing basic musical notation, which I learned from playing the trumpet in the School Band, I would use the family piano to match up the notes I was hearing on the speeded up record. I would then transpose the notes to the proper key and write them down on paper or just commit them to memory. I would then play the record at normal speed and play along using my friend’s bass guitar. Quite a process, but being a perfectionist I wanted to make sure I was playing the same exact notes that were on the song.

50 years later and my approach to learning a new tune is pretty much the same, except that I do it digitally. Nowadays there are also backing tracks available for many popular tunes that you can play along with. A backing track is essentially a piece of music that contains all of the instruments except the one your playing. When using a backing track I write and play my own notes over it. If Im learning to play a tune from an original artist without a backing track (ie from a CD or the audio from a YouTube video), Ill transpose the notes as exact as I can, then filter out the original bass line and record over it. Again, when Im playing over someone elses bass line, I try to play the notes exactly as originally recorded. The reason I do this, is so that my playing doesn’t clash with the original bass track. When it comes to playing a bass line that was originally recorded using an upright bass, its a little trickier. For those tunes I have to modify the sound of my bass guitar so it sounds more acoustic, more hollow. In addition to just playing the notes, I also try to emulate the technique and style of the bassist who originally performed the piece. There are umpteen styles of playing out there and I want to learn all of them.

Sometimes Ill luck out and find a nice piece of music on Youtube that will actually have a ScoreSync. These videos are cool because you can see the actual musical score, including the bass line, turning page by page synchronized with the music. When I find one of these videos that I like, I download it to my computer. I then use software to filter out the original bass line. Once that’s done, and assuming I can see the notes clearly enough on full-screen mode, I add back the bass line by playing the notes on my own bass. That’s what you see doing on my finished practice videos . Music teaching software programs like “Smart Music”, which is used throughout the country in High School and College music classes, use this technology as well. Its a good program and one that Ive used to practice sight reading.

Here’s what a typical ScoreSynch from Kendor publishing looks like……….

ScoreSynch

If the music score is too small to read on the screen, I have to pause the video every 8 bars ( or whenever the page changes), and take a screenshot of it. Some of these tunes have as many as 12 pages to them, so it can be quite a task. After I screenshot all the necessary pages, I then have to enlarge the images so I can actually see them. This can present problems as well, because as you enlarge the images of the notes, they get blurry and difficult to read. Fortunately, I can usually tell by the key signature, what notes Im looking at. This process sounds crazy I know, but that’s how you do it if you can’t afford to fork out $60.00 for the actual chart.

Below is a sample of the tiny screenshots of music notation I took from a Youtube tune I like by my composer/bassist friend, Kris Berg. After piecing all of the 12 screenshots together, I was finally I was able to play it. (Knowing Kris, he probably would have just sent me the chart for free, but that would rarely happens with other artists)

I should add, that while ScoreSyncs, static or printed musical charts are great to have, the bass lines that are included with these, are not always 100% accurate when it comes to the notes that are actually being played on the audio track. Musicians will usually improvise and deviate from the written notes, or sometimes the transcription itself may be a little off. So when I learn a new piece, I always rely more on what I hear on the original recording than what Im reading on the chart.

I can play a 5-string bass as well, but my preference is a 4 string. Simply because the neck is thinner and easier for me to play. If I come across a tune that requires a lower range of notes, I can sometimes get through it by down-tuning the strings. This isn’t ideal because the looser the strings are, the more they tend vibrate on the frets. If I come across a piece that has more than a few low Bs Cs in it, Ill either play it on a 5 stringer or skip it all together.

Playing an instrument and learning a new piece of music provides a much-needed distraction from my breathing issues and the stresses of life in general. There are times when Ill start playing a tune feeling like pure crap, only to get lost in the music and feel pretty good again. It’s amazing how that happens. And its not just me, check out this article that my Psychologist forwarded me about music therapy and ICU delirium.

Perhaps you have a hobby that takes you away from your Health woes, at least temporarily. If you do, Id love to hear about it.

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