How you stand greatly affects how you practice and perform bass
As I mentioned in my September newsletter, I was recently involved in a recording session, with several weeks of 3-hour rehearsals. Unlike the other instruments in the big band, I had to spend all that time on my feet. In spite of a mildly humiliating, pre-rehearsal stretching routine, I’d still end up with my feet, legs, and back aching. While my yoga practice has allowed me to stand up and play bass for much longer than before (a combination of proper alignment and equal weight distribution), I was clearly still struggling.
I have a friend who tells his drums students that to practice, all they need to do is “sit down” at the drum-set. This made me wonder if bass is particularly challenging to practice because we have to motivate ourselves to “stand up” to practice. Even when I practice electric – which can be practiced sitting down – I stand up to replicate a typical performance stance.
A few years ago, I was working on an electric bass/drum duet with my aforementioned friend. I was complaining about how standing up with the weight of the bass in my shoulder strap made me sore. I wished that someone would develop a stand to hold the electric bass in place while I stood behind it to play it. My friend said he knew a bassist who had done just that to accommodate 4+ hours of playing a night. After a few weeks, this bassist developed irreparable carpal tunnel syndrome. The stand made it easy to engage in highly repetitive movement – which is a recipe for disaster.
Both experiences have led me to believe that the key to standing up and practicing is to be consistent, but build in a great deal of variety. This helps to prevent aches and pains, as well as helping to prevent serious repetitive stress injuries.
While I try to be consistent in my stance, posture, and alignment for bass playing, I have started making conscious attempts to build in variety into my playing. Here are some strategies that have worked for me:
- Don’t stand too much (no many how many “Sitting is Our Generation’s Smoking” articles you encounter on social media) – eventually I started using a stool in rehearsal to give myself breaks from standing, which made a huge difference!
- Instead of standing all the time, try to balance time spent in various postures (sitting, standing, walking, and exercise) in both your musical and non-musical life
- Be shameless about stretching whenever possible – try to stretch the areas of the body that are most taxed, in ways that are opposite to typical movements (for example, back bends to counter being hunched over)
- Try to equally distribute you weight between your right and left legs – staring at the bottom of the feet and working up through the ankles, knees, and hips – but make subtle shifts in this distribution to promote variety
- Experiment with footwear; always play in comfortable shoes (oftentimes a tall order for female musicians) or play without shoes (if I do so, I make sure to have on thick, inconspicuous socks)
- Make sure to stretch out your ankles and calves regularly (even discreetly during rehearsals or performance), because they’re the true workhorses of standing bass playing
Obviously, all of these suggestions are based on anecdotal experience, not scientifically-valid evidence. Nonetheless, I encourage all bassists (and others whose practice involves spending large amounts of time standing) to experiment with techniques for building variety into their consistent movement practices.