Just the other day I said goodbye to a musical instrument that had been with me for the better half of six years. A utilitarian workhorse of an instrument meant to take on the road, this bass ended up meaning a good deal to me and I wasn’t sure how I would feel parting with it. I definitely wanted to take a second to reflect…
I’m not sure there is really an exact equivalent relationship to the one that a musician shares with their instrument. It’s somewhat like the one that a craftsman shares with their tools, or an artist with their respective creative instruments, allowing one to express their inner selves into the physical world. I’m definitely biased but this outer to inner transformation seems most direct (or immediate?) to me in the form of musical expression. Watch the greatest woodwind players breath in air from the world and combine that breath with themselves then pour it into their instrument and into the world. Watch a pro pianist watching their fingers fly over the keys as if they are watching the concert unfold, and not playing themselves. Watch a drummer close their eyes and get lost in it, knowing exactly the feel and space of the kit. It’s instantaneous and seemingly magical. The instrument gains a life force from the player. Under ideal circumstances It IS the player and the player is IT
With perhaps the exception of vocalists, I’m not sure anyone feels this deep connection to an instrument right away. Maybe I’m wrong here and it’s a part of the spark that keeps young players going, but at least for me it did not happen on day one of playing the double bass, my first instrument. Not even close. I was privileged enough to go to a public school that gave string instrument lessons in the summer between 3rd and 4th grades. I naturally wanted to play bass because my Dad was a bass player and with his encouragement signed up. I was also tall enough (I remember them coming to measure me in the 3rd grade) so I was in. As long as I carried it! Mom and Dad wouldn’t do that. Looking back it was my first gig. The first song, the open D String.
Someone once broke down the realities of playing a string instrument compared to the piano and it always stuck with me. The physical act of producing a note with any kind of acceptable tonal quality on a string instrument is much more laborious and complicated compared to the instant gratification of pushing a piano key. No disrespect to ANY pianist. It just takes more time to develop the somewhat unnatural and physical parts of basic technique. Feeling at all comfortable with the bow can take months and anyone that plays seriously knows that it requires daily maintenance and attention to play with a good tone and in tune. I think I’m fortunate that a lot of that basics happened when I was young and inspired. I’m not sure I would have the patience if I started from the ground up today.
It wasn’t until college, with the prompting and direction of my bass professor Pete Paulsen, that I started thinking about the physics of the bass and their relation to tone and playing. I was preparing increasingly difficult exercises and music for lessons and becoming bogged down by my approach. I had to learn to be more efficient! This was a huge leap for me conceptually and for my playing and I bet anyone who has moved to advanced levels on any instrument have made these incredibly important discoveries and done this hard work. He encouraged me to travel and explore the path of the sound from brain —> arm –> hand –>bow/fingers –> string –> bridge –> top to bass –> world. It was a new beginning for me on the bass. I was learning the best way to connect with my instrument. I was learning how to transfer myself into the bass.
In 2011, out of school, I joined The Stray Birds as their full-time bass player. Like most bands trying to make any money we toured a lot. It quickly became apparent that I would need to find a better way to travel with a double bass. Ideally I needed a way to fly with one. From what I knew at the time, it was an extremely costly to-do both in buying a massive flight case and the oversize fees incurred to actually use it. I had heard rumblings of a guy in Nashville who had designed a bass that fit into a much smaller package and even weighed just under the standard 50 lb checked bag limit. How you ask??? Apparently he neck of the bass was built with a hinge and it “folded” into a specially designed panel that opened in the back of the bass. I googled it immediately and saw it with my own eyes (on the internet). I did some more reading, asking around and eventually went for it, probably also motivated by the fact that we had dates booked for a fly-in tour and I needed a solution. Thus began my life with the Chadwick Folding Bass and I was off.
Over those 6 years, people asked me all the time, “How do you like it?” and I never really came up with a short way to answer. I’ve always kept with the fact that it enabled so many opportunities and saved so many dollars and headaches. After playing it for a while, it was a bass that I “knew” with some muscle memory and that was something I never would have had renting and playing random basses everywhere I went. I even recorded with it in the studio with some success. Me as a starry-eyed college student that had been working on efficient musical expression had quickly transformed into someone who was trying to pay rent by playing music and I knew thought for sure that there had to be a few things sacrificed to make it all happen. It came to be that my instrument’s tone would have to be one of those things. The pathway through my instrument to the world was less than ideal and it paralleled a lot of the sacrifices that musicians (not touring with bloated budgets) have to make to take their show on the road. Oh well, it’s better than that not playing at all! There were times where I HATED it. The tone was dull and it was unresponsive. Playing it acoustically was certainly an underwhelming and sometimes frustrating experience. There was just no making up for the opening in the back of the instrument.
It wasn’t the most ideal situation but this bass was a huge enabler for me to travel and see some incredible places. We traveled all over the states and Canada. We went to the UK and Europe together. I’ll never forget the all the times we fought baggage agents together. All the times I folded it down and put it “bed” in the coffin case. That one time when the neck fell off and Gerald and I glued it back together in London. All the strings it ate. That one time it ended up in Reno (I’ve still never been there???). And of course all the music we made together. I’m happy to be passing the folding bass on to my friend Mali who maintains a busy touring schedule with her band Lula Wiles and she’ll keep it moving. We met up on the NJ turnpike as she lives in NY and I in Philly. It felt like the most appropriate place to do pass it on, with cars from all over the country passing us at 80mph. This transient bass will live to see many more places and that’s exactly how it should be. Play well my sweet one.