When I was eighteen I started attending the music school.
Until then I had always played by myself or with my band, and everything was just for fun.
As a music student I discovered myself as competitive, I wanted to be better than everyone at everything, and it was hard because there was so much I didn’t know.
I watched my friends playing music from artists I’d never hear about and techniques on the instrument I didn’t know existed. It was like they were speaking a language I couldn’t understand, but I wanted to be part of it.
I remember that every time someone was chosen instead of me during a casting for a show or whatever it hurt me because I knew I could do it, but I was missing the focus. I was not chosen because I was not playing my way, I was trying to imitate my companions, and they were mostly imitating someone else. It’s useless to say this approach didn’t help me living music in a healthy way, I was bouncing between arrogance and a low self esteem all the time and everything was about what the others were doing.
I’ve been through this for four years, then something happened.
I started busking and suddenly I had no one to compare with, it was all about myself, and there were no other bass players on the street (actually I’m still the only one who plays bass on the street as a job here in Milan).
I had to find a way to bring my bass on the streets, my own way of playing, because I had no one to take cues from, and as I tried I discovered people liked it.
I’m telling you this part of my story because today I’d like to speak about competition.
It’s not unusual in music schools or in musical environments to be driven towards a “standard” that you have to meet to be considered good at playing.
When there’s no one who does it, we do by ourselves.
In my case this standard was not a style or technique, but the idea I had to be prepared for any situation because that was the goal at my school.
And then I discovered something that was particularly hard for me to accept, and it was that I couldn’t. Any musician has his strengths and weaknesses, but in most cases there will always be someone who’s better than you, and I just found out that there would always be something out of my league.
Beginners (but not only them) have the tendency to imitate others. This happens all the time, not only with our friends, but also with famous musicians. If we consider how many bass players changed their way to slap after Flea came out with RHCP we have an idea of what I’m saying. The “play like” thing works well when we’re teenagers in the first band of our life, we arrive at the rehearsals room and start playing Muse’s Hysteria and everyone is like “oh yeah you’re so good” (every bassist of my generation used to play it as display of power, who denies it is a lier 🙂 ).
People often do this in an attempt to “absorb the power” of that musician, to be like him/her, but being able to play another bass player’s line is no more effective if you didn’t develop your own personality in the meantime. It’s like trying to be Coca Cola with a home made beverage, you’ll always be only an imitation.
To be inspired by other artists is good because we always have to learn from what it has been done before us. Competition is good, sometimes, so we’re encouraged to be better and better. But it’s important to recognise to what extent it can improve our playing and then develop our sound to create something that’s only ours.
Every time you spend hours and hours to play like someone else you’re missing the focus like I did. Music is an art, and art is expression of self. Building your own identity is what makes you complete as a bass player and musician.
Ask yourself what you’re good at, and start from there. There are so many possibilities you don’t even imagine, but as long as you’re yourself you’re on the right path.