Lesson With Jeff Bailey

While in the Twin Cities I was lucky enough to get some time with Jeff Bailey, one of the younger breed who’s figured out how to succeed in the new economy of the music business. His experience as a player includes a lot of interesting and diverse projects. He also finds time to be the head of the bass department at McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul. I suspected he’d have a lot of teaching ideas and I wasn’t disappointed.

Here’s his bio: http://www.mcnallysmith.edu/faculty/jeff-bailey

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The Transition to Upright

Most of Jeff’s students in the bass program at McNally Smith are native electric players; he talked a lot about helping them make  the switch to upright. “It takes the whole first semester, sometimes through end of Sophomore into Junior year. We’re literally just working on scales. It’s a huge instrument for them and unless they’re used to playing fretless, their brain isn’t used to making the minor (pitch) adjustments. They’re used to being asked to play shapes, but not to be accountable for the tone or for the pitch.”

And so I’ll sit there and make them do something easy (sings a slow walking line – “doom, doom, doom”). “We’ll do a lot of just like, F major. And we’ll talk about the shifting points, I made up all these bowing games for them. You know it’s still a neck, it’s still a bass, but the job is a little bit different – how our muscles need to work.

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You can download this here: jeffbaileyexamples

He has an  exercise that he’ll assign for electric players to get used to classical upright fingering (ex. 1). He’ll do it pizz and with the bow. Then they’ll do it up an octave to get used to the different shapes of thumb position with the harmonic “G”

He showed me another nice exercise for pitch (ex. 2), a series of two-note shapes. The challenge is to match the pitch of the same notes from the previous measure, even though they’re on different strings and in different octaves.

Listening

Jeff’s approach is geared to raising his students awareness, which means stressing aural learning instead of just reading notes. “I got really tired of books. Because when you’re staring at the page,(it’s harder to hear what’s going on in the music).

“Some of them are so anti-jazz, because their version of jazz is cocktail *bleep*. So, I’ll get a collection of five or six versions of a thing and I’ll say, ‘for the next ten minutes I’m going to play you different stuff. Just raise your hand when you hear the top of the blues form.’”

Listening also means transcribing: “I have them doing a lot of transcribing… Before they even start upright they’ve already transcribed Ron Carter. I make them do a transcription (on electric) of the intro and a couple choruses of Ray Brown on Ernestine Anderson’s Never Make your Move Too Soon record, “As Long as I Live”; It’s like a ‘Ray Brown feature.’ So they get it on electric, but that’s almost a year before (they pick up the upright), so there’s all this stuff that’s already in their ear, like little recipe cards. And we’ll just do quarter notes, no fancy stuff.“

Tone

Teaching good tone, for Jeff, is also about listening: “I’m like ‘you gotta get the chicken wing.’ I’m a Ray Brown nut… So I put them in a corner and I want to see this chicken wing. (he mimes playing a bass with the old-school, one-finger Ray Brown-style. I notice he’s doing a big circle with his arm and engaging his whole body.  I mention this to him.) “Yeah, I get freaked out because they start out going ‘doink, doink, doink’ (he mimics a student playing using only the finger). Number one, it’s an awful sound, but it’s like, well, there’s going to be more required of you, so take it slow. But it’s also, like, this (big arm motion) is supposed to match that cymbal (he points to an imaginary ride cymbal).”

I use the Mike Richmond book; I love it – it’s very systematic. And I’ll ask them, like, ‘memorize this one chorus.’ Really just half-position, first position stuff. And I want to hear them just grind it out. And I turn them to the corner – we have these little practice rooms – and I make them stand in the corner. I want them to feel the power of the notes moving.

I talk about ice skating, because they’re so used to the electric bass ringing for them, and if you want more bass you just turn up the bass, so there’s all this stuff that’s just a gimme, So one way for us to work on tone is to think of the ice skater with one skate on the ice at all times (he mimes skating), so we want the long notes, you know, ‘booommmm, booommmm, booommmm,’ not ‘do, do, do.’ We’ll literally spend a whole semester on F, which is fine.”

“Graciously, Gary (Raynor – Jeff’s esteemed colleague at McNally Smith) has set up all the basses in the school with all different kinds of strings. He pulled out his bass, giving me an opportunity to geek out on the tone of his gut strings.  

Technology

Jeff’s program takes full advantage of digital technology:“I also use Logic (recording software) a lot, and I’ll record them, and then visually we can see where they’re off, but also sonically.” He’ll have the student record the same lick “ten times, or twenty times – synch into it, so you’re not worried about notes, you’re not worried about shifting, it’s really one-dimensional. Just go for evenness and length.” They will look at the waveform on the screen “because some of them are great students, but they’re ears are not really great yet. So, visual learning helps.”

“I have a bunch of real loops that I use, I don’t know if you know the ‘Loop Loft,’ but it’s great (https://www.thelooploft.com/collections/drum-loops). I’ll download these loops and get something going (mimes drummer playing a steady ride.). Sometimes I’ll bring in a ride cymbal and play along.”

At McNally Smith, students are required to record themselves for a portfolio – this is built into the curriculum. This blows me away – that every student will come away from his class with representative recordings that they can use for hustling gigs.  Also, “for my tests in my class, fifty percent of it is them going to the room by themselves and recording… in the computer in Logic with a playalong track.

But Jeff knows there can be a downside to technology: “One of the papers I’m working on for my masters is about ‘The Negative Effect of YouTube Music Lessons,’ because they’re watching and they’re very visual,  and they’re kind of crutching their way through all these remarkable things but they’re not (going through all the necessary steps.)” On the limitations of distance learning and YouTube learning: “I feel like the student’s perception of what they’ve gleaned from it is somehow.. power-packed. But you can only do so much self-assessment of, like, was I in tune? Even if it’s, like, a Skype lesson the compression gets a little weird…”

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Works cited:

Ernestine Anderson, Never Make Your Move Too Soon, “As Long As I Live,” Concord, 1981. Compact Disc.

https://www.thelooploft.com/collections/drum-loops

Mike Richmond, Modern Walking Bass, Pedxing Music, 1994. Print.

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