Play With No Tension

Playing bass in the pit orchestra of Into The Woods, I was facing a bit of a challenge. The first musical cue in the score comes when a guy walks on stage slowly, and says “Once upon a time…”. While the actor says the line, the conductor is counting off two beats of a fast 6/8 tempo, where the bass plays a tricky double stop on the upbeat of the first measure, and there is a loud ‘crack’ from the percussionist on the downbeat immediately following. And if there’s one thing I hate, it’s loud abrupt noises.

For me, it is a very stressful 2 seconds! I found myself cringing in anticipation of the moment, and the tension made my bass sound scratchy and awful.

Then, one night last week I decided to try to remain perfectly calm and not worry about the timing of the cue or the tone my bass would produce. I simply prepared by visualizing the sequence in slow motion, and then just trusted that my musical instincts would take over. I think I played the cue pretty well that night. Certainly no worse than when I was worried and tense.

The next day, I was eager to create that feeling of ease and relaxation in my jazz organ playing. As I began with practicing scales and arpeggios, I asked myself over and over “Is it possible to play this with less tension?” and I usually found that I could decrease the amount of tension more and more. Eventually, it felt like my fingers were doing nothing but flopping around loosely, but my articulation sounded much better than before.

Then when I practiced tunes, I told myself to forget any agenda and play freely, trusting my musical instincts to guide my fingers rather than my analytical mind. The results were interesting: I saw myself playing sweeping, encompassing lines rather than timid fragments.

I think that when people go to see a jazz group perform, they don’t want to see someone on stage being analytical and timid. They would probably rather see someone communicating their emotion in grand, free gestures. That’s what I’m working on being able to do.

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