Hearing Protection

Years ago, after playing professionally for many years, both live and studio work, lots of acoustic jazz, but also a wide range of musical styles, but none at what would be considered excessively high volume levels, I went to Michael Santucci of Chicago’s Sensaphonics for the test. I was disappointed to learn at the time, when I was in my forties, that I indeed had a hearing loss in my left ear, with the right happily being unaffected. This loss, fairly common I believe, is a “notch”, meaning the damage is in a certain specific frequency range, in my case 5K-7K, roughly the area in which the ride cymbal frequencies tend to reside. Above 7K it was found to be normal and the same below 5K. From that time until the present, I have been a consistent user of hearing protection.

The pro plugs can be fitted with filters in different levels of noise reduction, usually -15db and -25db the most common. I had some -9db filters at one point, which I really like, but mostly used the -15db ones and they work well for the range of my work. The bottom line for me is that I love playing music wearing the earplugs and do not find them to be detrimental to me in any way. I think wind instruments are more of a challenge and so I defer to those players but will say that I enjoy playing flute, which is my only wind instrument, with the plugs, though it’s different. Playing bass, guitar, piano, etc. is a blast because I hear a good representation of the sonic image, just softer, and at the same time I can sing along with my playing which, in some cases at least, gives me a bit of a stronger sense of self image and presence. So, I highly recommend earplugs for your health and musical longevity.

Recently, I lost one of my pro plugs, and so had to resort to over the counter products and want to report on the two brands I purchased. I think both work very well, though I do plan to eventually get a new set of pro plugs. I think, for students on a budget, it’s important to state that these products are very close, if not the equal of the pro product. The main criteria I would mention are getting a good seal while being comfortable to wear, providing a reasonable representation of the sound (not muffled) and providing sufficient protection.

I purchased a set of “Earasers” plugs, at around $40 and also a set of “Hearos Rock and Roll” at around $8. I’m finding the Hearos to work well for general gigs with some degree of volume. Vendors like Guitar Center also sell other variations of the Hearos which are less noise reduction, so surely will be even more enjoyable. They are -26 db, so a little more than I would like, but I’m doing ok with them. In other instances, the Earasers are giving me more detail, so they are worth the extra money I think, but might not be enough protection for some gigs. The most important thing to notice is that they come in different sizes so you need to choose carefully. Go to their website and go over the video instructions. https://www.earasers.store.

So, my advice is to protect your hearing and do it today! If you have the money ($150 for the plugs along + an exam) the pro plugs are the best, but just don’t lose them! In the meantime, I think the over the counter products, the right brands at least, are very close, and so I highly recommend you consider them. There are other brands out there, so my report is not scientific, but just on the two I chose to buy. Feel free to comment with your own experiences with earplugs or related questions.

Four Key Elements

I must be honest and admit that while I don’t always adhere to what I”m about to tell you, I definitely feel better when I do!

For the musician I think that it’s important to have a daily regimen of core activities some with and some away from our chosen musical instrument. For me, there are four essential activities-exercise, meditation, core work at the instrument and improvisation. You will undoubtedly make your own list, but I would say that this would be a very good place to start.

While core instrumental work, such as technic, scales, rudiments and such and improvisation can both be thought of and experienced as meditative, I do find/feel that pure meditation is a separate practice and should be explored as such. . For me, a Zen style of meditation, quiet sitting with an empty mind (or facsimile thereof!) is very rejuvenating. Cycling or running, especially running, is the best for me. If I find time for these two practice away from the instrument, I’m in a much better place when I do get to it. I think it’s a good balance to have one of the away from the instrument activities be active and the other be passive. Practices like Tai Chi, Yoga do both, so you might have active and passive in one discipline. As I said, find your own way. To be fair and complete, reading music in a deep way is equally meditative, so we all design our own program. Find what works best for you!

At the instrument, as I think we all realize, the more efficient our technical system is, the better we’ll be in terms of musical output- we’ll play more, it will sound better, and we won’t hurt. Further, it will actually feel good, as in the best thing we could possibly be doing for our health and well-being. This is why I believe core work at the instrument is so essential for the complete musician. People who get this down when they are very young are blessed to be able to not have to think about it so much, but there’s still a maintenance factor and damage can and will occur is the system is not functioning efficiently. This is why I highly recommend a significant amount of core practice in your work at the instrument. Most students I see are still very much getting it together when they arrive in college, so that is, in particular, why I’m mentioning this to my college students.

Improvisation is the balancing element, in my view, and should be port of the core work, before we get to playing a specific tune, form or chord progression. On the one hand it’s important to be able to play a particular rudiment, such as a finger combination, scale or the like, in an exact, prescribed manner. On the other, applying such rudiments in play both reinforces the assimilation of the device and helps build the creative juices along with the overall comfort of the physical aspects of the player, and the sound. I’m talking here about improvisation which if free of any particular preconceptions, such as playing a certain tune or form. Basically, if I spend ten minutes on a chromatic finger study, working to perfect its execution literally, I want to spend ten or more minutes improvising, but improvising using primarily the same kinds of chromatic figures. So that’s the fourth element, the act of play.

So there you have it, four elements in your core work – exercise, meditation, core technical work and improvisation. See if you can begin each day with all of them before moving on to a specific tune or piece. I hope you find this thinking helpful in your own work, let me know if you have a comment or question.

The Importance of Exercise

Hello and welcome back! It’s been some time since I last posted, but I will be writing now on a much more regular basis.

I want to talk today about the importance of exercise and physical well being for you as a musician. Playing any musical instrument is a form of exercise in itself,  especially playing string bass. Therefore, part of the journey for all of us is finding an approach to the bass that gives us a healthy physical activity which strengthens our body and helps to keep us well, as opposed to putting us in pain and giving us some kind of ailments like overuse syndrome or tendonitis. We are all individuals without a doubt, but what I’m striving to do as a teacher is help each of you define, develop and refine your path, and the physical aspects of playing the instrument is a very important part of that.

As I get older, I am able to assess my own strengths and weaknesses, especially having been in an accident in 2014 where I was hit by a panel truck rounding a corner and also having gotten my self into some issues with long distance running, starting with achilles tendon. I feel pretty good about having developed my own way of playing the bass over the years and realized after the accident, which was a direct hit to my lower spine, how strong my back really was. Because I play several instruments, I saw, starting with the first time I tried playing, a week afterwards, and starting with guitar, how much I use my back to play all my instruments. So, I’m encouraging you to continue to develop the self awareness of your body’s role in your practice. And, I’m also suggesting you include exercise and body/mind work in your program. This has always been a key element for me, and certain studies I pursued were very important in my own development, in terms of the physical strength and flexibility I describe.

I encourage you to investigate various disciplines in this regard, but I want to  give a couple examples which have been quite important to me. Our family physician is also a Tai-Chi practitioner, and so I was influenced by him a great deal and learned several poses which I practice. I also pursued Alexander Technique in Chicago long ago with Ed Bouchard and was helped by him very much and it’s very much a part of my playing. For those here at school, Champaign Urbana is a kind of epicenter of AT, so I would encourage you to look into the local scene when you can. AT is hard to experience on YouTube, I would say, it’s a one on one kind of thing. I’ve not studied Yoga, other than some YouTube videos, but can tell you that I think it would be another wonderful avenue to pursue. There are several other kinds of bodywork I’m not really familiar with, including Feldenkrais, so if you know someone really into some discipline it might be worth investigating.

Of course, physical exercise, such as swimming, running and biking are very important too. It may be that just a brisk walk or bike ride will be all you’ll have time for, but some kind of aerobic exercise is important for health.

Weight training is another matter. I think it’s got some great potential, but it needs to be balanced, and I think it’s logical to suggest that the work be mostly lighter weights and high reps and not power lifting. I don’t think too many of you are into that, but it has come up in questions from students. There are some bassists out there that like to talk about the physical power aspect of playing, and it’s true when you look at someone with a really large stature it might seem, or in fact be, the case that making a big sound is easy. As a teacher, I always take the position that it’s the use of the self that makes the difference.  Music starts in the mind and and the soul and as you come into touch with your own sound you will find the way to release. Thus, we need an efficient well formed physical mechanism, you and your bass, to do that.

Speaking of YouTube, I’ve found some wonderful video courses in a variety of areas, especially Tai-Chi and Yoga, that would be good places to start.

As hard as we all work on our musicianship and our bass playing, it really important to have this balance and establish it when we are young. It will pay off later, I’m here to tell you!