Playing and Teaching as a Gift

There is a bass busker who sometimes plays at the corner of Swanston and Collins Streets. He plays a five-string Yamaha BB-something. I saw him there some months ago. I didn’t give him a donation as I didn’t have any coins. And thus, I decided not to take his photo, too. It seemed like too much of an objectification without actually contributing anything.

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Lunch times are better with funk

Some months later, I saw him walking south along Swanston Street. He had his bass on his back and was lugging his amp on an orange trolley. I greeted him at the lights and said: “You play bass, don’t you?” He smiled and said yes. I said, “It’s a Yamaha BB, isn’t it?” He replied, “yes”. And then we stated our names and shook hands. I told him I’d come down to watch him later. It was a minimal but friendly exchange.

So after having my mediocre sushi I wandered down to his corner. He was playing opposite a NAB atm and in between some bicycle racks and some flowers. His bass was held high and close to his chest. He played tight bass lines to the backing track of drums. Now and then he slapped. He was often playing in the upper registers, but he was never showing off. He didn’t shred for shredding’s sake. A few people stopped to watch and some gave some money.

After ten or so minutes I left and put some in too. I guessed that there was about $20 in his tray. He had seen me taking his photo and after I had put the money in, he was generous enough to say thank you. I walked further south along the wide and busy footpath and nearby there was a violinist busking. The electric bass could still be heard. Soon after there was a person making portraits. Across the road there was someone doing something with seemingly homemade percussion instruments.

I am trying to think of the economic role busking plays in a musician’s life. What kind of musician does one become when one busks? Busking is a kind of ‘gift’ of a public performance to an audience that largely doesn’t care. It runs a precarious line between being a nuisance and being a pleasure. I like this player for his style and unobtrusiveness – despite playing an amplified instrument. I occupied the paved and performed my own ‘watching’ or appreciation of him as a bass player. I was getting my bass fill by watching on my midday walk.

I am guessing that the money from busking mitigates against other losses incurred in the business of being a musician rather than enriching the busker. It is a precarious and vulnerable act. Wikipedia says the term ‘to busk’ comes from the Spanish term ‘buscar‘ meaning ‘to seek’.  I’m hesitant about the term as it implies a condescension towards the player/musician which is more related to their economic position rather than their skill.

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The economics and giftness of bass playing reminds me of Tom Kenrick. Perhaps he is my favourite online bass human. He runs a website, Free Bass Transcriptions. The website, as the name suggests, makes available dozens of transcribed bass lines for download. The transcriptions, rather uncommonly, don’t have tablature: this is a part of Kenrick’s take on learning the bass.

For Kenrick, tablature isn’t an adequate tool for expressing musical information. I think I see where he is coming from. Tablature reduces playing the bass to an act of painting-by-numbers. It is prescriptive about where one should place one’s fingers, while not providing adequate information about the shape of the melody or the feeling of the rhythm. Standard notation is capable of doing so.

Full disclosure: I have relied on a few tab-renderings of bass lines in learning songs such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers song Soul to Squeeze and Olympic Airways by Foals. I play along with the video and work out the timing. Learning a song in this manner is never as fulfilling as learning through standard notation.

Kenrick doesn’t charge for his transcriptions, but professionals who use his materials are encouraged to donate via the PayPal option. He has also recently published a small e-book, Better Bass Practice, which is available for purchase at a cheap price. The book is more about time management and practice routines than it is about providing technical information.

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Put it in your shredder

Kenrick’s videos on Music Theory and the economics of playing gigs are deliberately dry. (Both videos have less than 200 views after some months on the interweb.) It is as if he is having a crack at other online bass stars who act in a charismatic, humorous and charming manner. Kenrick rarely shows of his bass playing chops during a video. If I remember correctly, he only plays to illustrate a musical idea, rather than to show of technical virtuosity. Instead of emphasising a teaching idea that will help one quickly learn a new bass skill, Kenrick stresses the slowness and probable boringness of practice which enables one to become a proficient musician. There are no gushing statements about the cheapness of the deal being provided and how it will ‘unlock your true musicality’.*

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Busking is an occasion in which financial gifts can be made in real time: face to face and admist the busy-ness of the urban landscape. One can see one’s potential donators passing by: they might be indifferent and are likely to be preoccupied with updating their status. On the other hand, hundreds may stroll through Kenrick’s website, download a file, before a visitor stops to press the yellow donate button or to actually purchase the aforementioned e-book.

*I’m kind of thinking music is about creating something rather than revealing something deep inside of us. I feel that I have to ‘work’ every time I attempt to play my instrument. I have to work at it as much as I have to work at writing, editing or translating. If I am able to unlock anything, it will come through years of focussed practice, rather than opening a subscription to an online teaching service.