The Boston Phoenix
July 8 - 15, 1999

[Out There]

Bass instincts

Notes on recovering the freedom to be bad

by Clea Simon

No way around it, some things just sound bad. There's "I value you as a friend." There's "we want to thank you so much for your interest." And then there are actual lousy sounds. Dissonance. Cacophony. Really bad noise. I know about these things. I have recently decided to relearn how to play the string bass.

The decision wasn't an easy one. No sudden whimsy grabbed me and insisted, "Pick up a large orchestral instrument that you haven't handled in more than a decade." No, the idea of acquiring a wooden fiddle the size of my desk had to grow on me like an artistic fungus for almost a year before, last month, I acted on it.

I write about music, and I have often justified my criticisms with the argument that I, after all, am not just a writer, but also a musician. I played string bass all through school, even bowing along with a local amateur orchestra for a season (although I did drop out during interminable rehearsals for a staged Traviata). For a good few years after that, I applied myself enough to the electric version of the instrument to anchor a few bands consisting primarily of friends.

But my last band broke up years ago, and since then, I realized, I had become just another sour fan, trashing other people's honest work. Although I thought of myself as a musician, I no longer really knew what I was talking about.

After that realization, I guess I could simply have quit being a music critic. More than a few people would have been grateful. But my epiphany awakened the opposite reaction in me: instead of giving up writing about music, I wanted to start playing it again. I wanted to know once more the joy of the golden, bowed tone. And then one night, I saw it. There it was, at the house of a real (i.e., working) musician -- a string bass, propped up in the corner. "Oh yeah, I'm using it for some studio work," my host explained. "Good sound."

"Mmmm," I responded wittily, and stared for the rest of the evening at the tall, dark body across the room, with its little brass-framed head. I was hooked. One afternoon with the Yellow Pages later, I had in my home a lighter-toned version of the same. Plywood, sure, and student quality, but a six-foot, golden, handsome stranger nonetheless.

But what a stranger. I plucked his strings, and he murmured to me. But when I rosined up the bow and reached to draw it across the strings, I was hit by a moment of awkwardness. Where did I stand? What should I do with my knees? After a few minutes, these things came back to me and I breathed easily again. But then the bow hit the strings, and I was appalled. The bass is distinguished by its rich, rumbling tone. Its soothing purr of resounding earthiness. Its Richter-level tremor of delight. The sound I produced was more like a whiny whisper: half air and half squeal. I pressed harder. The air gave way to more squeal and, with a little more rosin and a good deal more pressure, an unearthly groan. This was the instrument I used to play and play well, I reassured myself. But it had been more than 10 years, and my comeback would take time.

I got a book. I even read it. I twisted my hand into a close approximation of the curved grip in the illustrations, and I tried again. Scales, simple open strings. A week passed, and the notes began to make sense. It began to take a little longer for my hand to freeze in a convulsed claw shape. Within weeks I had even begun to make recognizable sounds. And then a new and horrible realization hit me: I was playing bass, all right, and I was playing it loudly. Very loudly.

What had I expected? The body of the string bass, which gives the instrument its resonance, is the size of a small launch. And until one masters such subtleties as finding the right note or placing the bow on a string without looking, there is not much one can do about dynamics. I had a choice: squeak, or saw away with all my might. Which, after you've been at it for an ear-wrenching half-hour or so, is no choice at all. I came, I sawed, I'd like to think I began to conquer. The going was rough. I played regularly and the notes started to find their own places, but there were more of them now, and they were still very, very loud.

When I was a girl making these noises in a house in the suburbs, the only people I could bother were my parents. But now, living in a Cambridge apartment, I had a dilemma. Yes, I wanted to practice. Well, I wanted to get better, anyway, and that meant applying myself assiduously. But did the writer upstairs really need to be subjected to the wheeze of missed strings? Did the nurse next door have to listen to my quavering whole notes? Did I want anyone to hear me doing anything so badly?

That question was at the core of my unease. I, like so many of us, define myself as a professional; whether it is my writing or my cooking or any of a thousand other little jobs, I like to feel proud of my accomplishments. It has been years, in fact, since I have ventured forth with a coy disclaimer -- a smiling "oh, this isn't very good" -- and expected anything less than a full and enthusiastic rebuttal. But at bass I am not very good. And so now I am working not only on my arpeggios, but also on my ego. I am telling myself that perhaps being bad is okay. More than okay, perhaps. Because I am finding that being bad at something -- being bad loudly -- is rather freeing. And I like to think that anyone within earshot envies me, at least a bit, for my willingness to let go of the polished ideal. To get down and dirty in the muck of pure novicehood, and, armed only with glee and enthusiasm, start something new.

So I am learning, little by little. I am trying to learn, along with the A-major scale, a sense of pride -- pride in my bravery, if not in my inherent musical skill; in having the courage to pick up the bow once again and saw energetically, if not expertly, onward.

Clea Simon is the author of Mad House: Growing Up in the Shadow of Mentaly Ill Siblings (Penguin).

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