Focus is sacrifice…right?

Discussion in 'Orchestral Technique [DB]' started by Garagiste, Jul 30, 2021.

  1. Garagiste


    Feb 16, 2013
    Brooklyn, NY
    I heard this a while back in a business context and it stuck with me. And from my experience, it’s been true. But what does that mean for those of us who play multiple instruments? The three that I play are double bass, electric bass, and piano. And if I had to rank them in order of importance to me, I would place them in that order. I’m learning piano in the context of a degree I am pursuing which requires a certain number of credits in keyboard competency. I also use piano for composition, which at this point is just limited to school assignments. Next is electric bass, which was my first instrument, and which I still love to play. I’m in a Soul band and that’s my highest profile gig at the moment and the source of most gigs I do. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly is double bass. I’m pursuing a BFA in jazz bass, but I’m also a big fan of orchestral and classical music, and the repertoire possibilities that the double bass affords. So, my question for those of you still reading is, do you ever feel that playing multiple instruments means that you are taking away focus and proficiency on a single instrument? If I spent all my practice time on double bass, might my technique might be better? For reference, in 2018, I all but closeted my electric basses and just focused on upright. That definitely pushed me forward on the instrument. These days, I love both, and I want to improve on both. Perhaps playing multiple instruments at a reasonable level of proficiency is on balance a better approach than focusing on one for a slightly better ability. I want to be able to play cello repertoire on the bass and be able to join an (community-level) orchestra. I also want to be able to solo like Willie Weeks on the Fender. In other words, I want my cake and to be able to eat it too. Who can relate?
  2. Definitely not. They all inform each other. I just started playing gamba, violone, and cembalo, and they are all informing my double bass playing and opening new doors and avenues of expression. Music is music and we should all learn as much as we possibly can and follow willingly wherever the path guides us
  3. zootsaxes

    zootsaxes Inactive

    Mar 6, 2015
    For what it’s worth, I play about 25 instruments proficiently on a competent level (sax players are expected to play S/A/T/B plus all the woodwinds, etc) but I have, in my old age, renounced everything but upright bass so that I can develop next level chops on something. There is a big difference between, for example, “arranger’s chops” or “pedagological chops” (ie, good enough to teach) on piano vs. being able to play with the fire of Oscar Peterson or the grace of Ahmad Jamal. You can absolutely hold yourself back from that upper level by trying to butter your bread too thin, so to speak. For a well balanced musical life, I suggest - one main “performance” instrument (chops!), one harmonic instrument for tune learning and hearing progressions (guitar/piano/banjo/uke, etc), one percussive instrument (kit, djembe, congas, brushes on pizza box, etc), and one horn - for fun and sense of phrasing (flute is ideal because it can be quiet, it’s portable and in C)… And you gotta sing..
    Last edited: Jul 30, 2021
  4. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator Gold Supporting Member

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    Yes and no. They all inform each other in some way, but time spent doing something else is time not spent doing the central thing. This is why I haven't played/practiced piano much in the past 20 years or so since I took up DB. Another more positive way to think of it might be to use the word "compromise" instead of "sacrifice". That at least shows that you are getting something in return as part of a conscious, intentional decision.
    mtto, matdras, Cecilia and 8 others like this.
  5. AGCurry

    AGCurry Supporting Member

    Jun 29, 2005
    St. Louis
    Proficiency, possibly, as in "touch" or "chops." However, my experience is that playing more than one instrument helps me be a better musician. Chris uses the word "compromise," and it's one I choose to make.
  6. Wasnex


    Dec 25, 2011
    There is some truth to the idea, as there are only so many hours in the day. But I think you also need to consider your personality, ability to focus, and priorities.

    I actually consider versatility to be my super power. I don't like doing the same thing over and over, so it was very hard for me to do really long practice sessions on one instrument. But I could spend all day practicing if I spent time on multiple instruments, or in multiple styles. No way I could ever be a top jazz or orchestral player, but I was actually fairly competent at both. This suited my personality well and it turns out my versatility was a great asset for my career in a military band.

    Piano in particular is really an awesome instrument, especially if you see a future as an arranger or composer. IMHO it's pretty much the best tool to learn and study theory. My process was attend theory class to learn about a basic concept, practice and explore the concept on piano, complete class assignment facilitated by piano, and finally adapt and apply the concept to bass. So to me the piano served as sort of a bridge in the learning process.

    From my observation, most people tend to specialize, so they fall into either a classical category or an improvisational category. People that specialize in one category tend to have different ways of thinking about music and also different priorities. Ask most classical players to read chords and improvise, and they are likely to be totally lost. Classical players also tend to really struggle interpreting swing feels as the triplet can vary significantly. So it can be challenging for them to fit into a big band even when they are playing a written out section part.

    Likewise ask a jazz player to interpret the phrasing, articulation, dynamics and tone inflection of a classical piece to make a melody really expressive, and they will likely be equally as lost.

    These differences are partly because of different learning experiences. But I also believe each person's intrinsic mental processes and natural abilities are significant factors that influence which specialty a person will choose. The best players are attracted to a specialty because the characteristics and requirements of the music are more inline with who/what they are.

    It can be very difficult for a specialist to cross over and perform (well) outside of their specialty. What I found is I was generally significantly better in both categories than most people who were playing out of their specialty. However I was not as good in category as the best specialists.
    oldNewbie, rickwolff, matdras and 6 others like this.
  7. Garagiste


    Feb 16, 2013
    Brooklyn, NY
    “What I found is I was generally significantly better in both categories than most people who were playing out of their specialty. However I was not as good in category as the best specialists.”

    I could live with that.
    Keyser Soze and Wasnex like this.
  8. lermgalieu

    lermgalieu Supporting Member

    Apr 27, 2000
    Bay Area
    I think @Chris Fitzgerald is right - yes and no. While they may inform one another and, for example, an understanding of piano can up your theory game on bass and group playing, DB in particular take a lot of sheer physical work to be at the top of your game. Piano too, in a different way. I think EB is something you can shortcut a bit and still easily play in bands and such unless you are looking to do virtuosic shizz.
    Chris Fitzgerald and Wasnex like this.
  9. ILIA


    Jan 27, 2006
    "Focus is sacrifice" is a business concept? Yeah, focusing on a business's core business makes good business sense in some cases, but in music you can't just outsource and automate and sell off parts of your "company."
  10. james condino

    james condino Spruce dork Supporting Member Commercial User

    Sep 30, 2007
    asheville, nc

    Absolutely, the most useful skill I have as a gigging bass player is the fact that I have played guitar since I was five years old. It allows me took over at the guitar player and follow everything they are putting out with ease, making up for all of their imperfections, idiosyncrasies, and inability to effectively communicate with other musicians for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of gigs.....!
  11. Anthony White

    Anthony White Supporting Member

    Dec 31, 2010
    Auckland, New Zealand
    Both 'sacrifice' and 'compromise' have connotations that could be negative.
    How about 'breadth' or 'depth'?

    If you are a photographer, both a long prime and a wide prime are extremely valuable lenses. Each leaves something out of the picture, and draws attention to different important that you want to include.
    Last edited: Jul 31, 2021
    matdras, Keyser Soze, Cecilia and 2 others like this.
  12. zootsaxes

    zootsaxes Inactive

    Mar 6, 2015
    No one has made the women analogy on this thread yet, so allow me. I feel like when you find the right nitche, whether it be axes or genre of choice or style or hobby or girlfriend, you don’t have a problem specializing and focusing your attention on that one. In my youth it seemed like something that was much more of a conscious decision than I realize it actually was and I wanted to explore all the options… But, all roads lead to the same instincts about your attractions/repulsions. Listen to your gut and follow the path that feels most like your personal warm fuzzy spot, don’t look back, and stay in your wheelhouse (at least professionally). Now, for fun, study whatever you want and play all sorts of instruments and styles, but don’t put any pressure on it and don’t “self identify” with it. In my experience, it takes a lot of “effort” to switch gears between different instruments, conceptually and in terms of performance (chops!). Compositionally and in practice time, no big deal - but there are different goals. I know lots of horn players that skate both sides of the jazz/legit fence and all the more power to them, but it’s not my bag and that’s ok too. Strokes and folks. Bottom line is just to enjoy the process and don’t stress about it - there are no wrong answers when you’re putting the time in to develop a more intimate relationship (with music, partners, life, anything really).
    Last edited: Jul 31, 2021
    Wasnex and Garagiste like this.
  13. james condino

    james condino Spruce dork Supporting Member Commercial User

    Sep 30, 2007
    asheville, nc
    "jazz / legit" ???????????? ***...
  14. zootsaxes

    zootsaxes Inactive

    Mar 6, 2015
    Yeah, sorry, not the best choice of words - but they’re not mine, I swear - vestigial slang vernacular from my college days. “Legit” of course referring to the “classical” repertoire and sound conception, as opposed to jazz. A lot of guys have been making fabulous strides to unite these conceptions in recent years, but saxophone literature is still very limited and super niche outside of a university/education context, relatively speaking. No symphony gigs for “classically trained” saxophonists… you can spot a “primarily” classical guy trying to play jazz a mile a way, though.
    mtto likes this.
  15. ILIA


    Jan 27, 2006
    On, second read, I now realize what you are asking, and I should not have wasted any time impugning the business analogy.

    Being good at multiple related things can be a good long-term artistic and career strategy, but it's not a good idea at this point. For now, get as good as you can on the one thing that trips your trigger--the one thing that you have to force yourself to stop doing at the end of the day (vs forcing yourself to start doing). If you are a double bassist in a BFA in jazz program, I hope that one thing is jazz bass, because if it ain't . . . .

    The question is, then, when does one start branching out, and what minimum groundwork has to be laid now so you can successfully branch out it the future, while you are focusing on jazz bass in the present.

    To answer the first part of the question, you start branching out when the returns on your investment of time become so diminished that it isn't worth it to focus all your energies on only one thing. For most people, when you first start out in an undergraduate music program and early in your professional career, you improve by leaps and bounds (at least that is what is supposed to happen and if that's not happening, you better evaluate your program and/or yourself). Typically, as you progress further along in abilities & in your career, your four hours a day of practice return less and less improvement (both artistically and professionally). Finally, there is a point where the 4 hours/day of practice that yielded leaps of improvement earlier in your training and earlier in your professional career become small steps (albeit consistent and steady steps towards the pursuit of improvement that never ends and never should end). This is the point where adding the secondary competency not only yields more artistic, expressive, and professional opportunities, and might well be more effective in improving your primary competency. For example, you mentioned piano as one of your proposed additional area of focus. Playing piano won't help you as much now, as a developing jazz bassist, but in the future, it will be huge in opening up your aural sensitivity and awareness on the bass, and it WILL make you a better bass player (by leaps and bounds). This, in addition to making you marketable and fulfilled as an arranger and/or composer, or maybe even a gig as a pianist on an easy lounge or rock gig, if you get to that level. This takes us to the second part of the question about what is the minimum that has to be accomplished now in the additional areas, while you are focusing on jazz bass, in order to lay the foundation for the future additional areas of interest. A good undergrad music program does just that. For example, using the piano example once, again, take your keyboard competency courses seriously. There will be too many around you who will do the bare minimum in those courses and never touch the piano again if they don't have to, after the courses are done. Don't be that person. Those people will be the ones serving up the coffee, while you perform.
    Garagiste likes this.
  16. Wasnex


    Dec 25, 2011
    ? Indeed. It's actually a common colloquialism.

    Legit Saxophone | Forums |

    There is a fairly large repertoire for legit sax, and those who specialize in this area will take a different educational path than their jazz loving peers. Their priorities and skills are more like other classically trained musicians, and they typically have trouble swinging. Many, if not most are clueless when it comes to improvising over chord changes.

    On the plus side, in my experience a legit saxophonist's tone and phrasing tends to be far superior to their jazz counterparts.

    I wouldn't say this is a great recording, but you get the idea:
    Last edited: Jul 31, 2021
  17. I believe that the ability to play numerous instruments and sing serves to make a more well-rounded musician. I specialize in classical string bass, but recently came back to the electric bass (fun!) and as a late comer to teaching have learned piano, some band instruments and Irish fiddle just for fun. Sure, there's not enough time to become or remain very high level on any one...but IMO if you reach a high level on one or more instruments it's ony a matter of maintaining your chops.
    Last edited: Jul 31, 2021
  18. Couldn't have said it better myself
  19. Garagiste


    Feb 16, 2013
    Brooklyn, NY
    I appreciate all the thought you put into this response. The only caveat is I’m a 49 year old dude returning to school to finish the undergraduate degree that I left incomplete when Bill Clinton was president. I didn’t even play an instrument when I was in college the first time. I started electric bass in my late 20s and learned pretty quickly because I had talent and a good ear, but didn’t progress beyond a fairly good amateur level. Then I spent most of my 30s focused on drinking and skirt chasing. I turned 40, got sober and got a double bass. At 47 I applied and got accepted to The New School. So you can see from my CV that my timeline is all bass ackwards, as it were. I’ll graduate when I’m 51. So I don’t feel like I have a career as a jazz bassist ahead of me per se; I’ll be happy to be a competent working local bassist in NYC and to do some teaching. I’m already teaching electric bass, and I’m toying with the idea of a graduate degree when I finish my BFA, possibly in a more classical context. Again, I appreciate the thoughtful response. I think much of it still applies to my situation. Cheers!
    james condino and AGCurry like this.
  20. Wasnex


    Dec 25, 2011
    A person who competently doubles on bass guitar and upright tends to get more work than someone who slays on only one of them. To make a living on one, you need to be exceptional. In my experience, my skills on upright opened up more opportunities than bass guitar. Usually there are significantly fewer competent upright players, I.E. less competition for jobs.

    IMHO, most musical services do not require prodigy level skill. However, being a better player can open some doors. In my experience people often care more about how hard/easy it is to work with you, and how many songs you know of the top of your head.
    james condino and Garagiste like this.
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