Ask Jeff: Learning the bass academically

Hi Jeff. Your comments are intriguing. I’m wondering just what you mean by learning the bass “academically”. What does one learn when one learns the bass academically?

Mark, by email

In a nutshell, to learn your bass academically means to learn what music is, not what bass is. The bass is incidental and is secondary. If you have a bass, you need a reason to use it, which is why academic music comes first if you are seeking it out. Academic music includes reading music and learning about harmony, melody and rhythm in a factual manner. But this music can’t be too far above your head and it can’t include too much content. This makes for an unpleasant learning experience. Any good teacher will know this. In a few weeks of learning academic stuff, you will be a changed player, and the change is permanent. What you learn in academic music never goes out of your playing – but it does depend on what you work on.

Jeff BerlinAcademic music connects your hands, mind and instrument, and this connection begins right from the very first note that you learn academically. Your mind identifies the note, then it tells your hand to find the correct fret to play it. If you are doing this while you are reading music, then you are doing everything that you need to do to learn how to play better. This is the en- tire academic experience – there is nothing else to think about except to play that music. Players always ask me what the fastest way to learn is. This is. In the long term, there is nothing faster to help you to play better than academic music. Still, if there are some that doubt my comments about the pure effect of academic study, then let me ask you a simple question. What have you got to lose by trying it?

If I seem critical of the educational system in general, I am in a dilemma here. I know that teachers teach out of love and a deep belief in their methods. It isn’t their ethics that I am concerned with. It is their methods. Here are four thoughts that I have about this.

  1. Electric bass teachers create their methods and philosophical approaches to fill the void that they have made by not teaching music.
  2. These teachers might not be teaching you music because they don’t know enough about it to teach it.
  3. Bass teachers might not believe in music as a teaching method.
  4. As a community, bass players seeking instruction aren’t interested in learning music.

What do you think about these statements? To me, these com- ments address an unspoken agreement between teachers and students; teachers teach lessons pertaining to the art of music because they don’t teach the mechanics of it. Many students are fine with this because they only want to play, but not learn the notes first. If you wish to improve, then I say that music is the only approach worthy in academic music. But if you disa- gree, then ask yourselves these two questions.

  1. If I am not learning music when I pay for improvement, then what am I paying to learn?
  2. If I can’t play well, then how will non-academic music lessons help me to play better?

Let me know your thoughts.

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One comment on “Ask Jeff: Learning the bass academically
  1. Steve says:

    Hi Jeff,

    I am in complete agreement with your statements above.

    I know this to be true because as a teaches I would have more students who commit to lessons for longer if they were really interested in taking the time to learn rather than wanting a quick fix to play better.

    I always tell students that the quickest way to develop is to practise slowly and thoughtfully and that in actual fact things will just take as long as they take.

    I find a large part of my teaching time is spent trying to change the
    the mindset of the student, changing the habitual thinking that tells them that every time they pick up the bass, it’s a performance, something to get right every time. This is particularly the case with players who have played for years but who have no formal training or academic understanding.

    I would have more students if I gave them what THEY wanted rather than what I know they need, but I stubbornly refuse and persist in the belief that they should get value for money in educational terms rather than learn a few impressive licks that simply serve as an ego boost but which have absolutely no fundamental value.

    I believe in your approach, Jeff because I know it’s tried and tested historically.

    All the best,


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