Saturday, June 27, 2009

Showing Off

During his band concert last week, my son the electric bassist (and fiddler and composer) was unexpectedly flung into the spotlight. Midway through the set, the singer stopped to introduce each band member and then had each perform an impromptu solo. The guitarist, an experienced player, was introduced first and dazzled, or at least stupefied, the crowd with time-honored rock guitar gyrations: fast and repetitive licks, volume that steadily rose like the sound of a jet engine winding up for takeoff, and a final frantic run up the scale to the sonic range favored by attacking birds of prey. The crowd reacted uproariously. The guitarist finished and took a bow.

I glanced at my son. He was positioned at the right side of the stage, between the drummer and the keyboard player. My son appeared distracted. His bass playing looked steady but his fingering didn't seem as crisp as usual.

The drummer was the next one to solo. After his introduction, he began fervently pounding and battering his drum kit. The crowd howled with delight. He finished with a great clatter and set his drumsticks aside. I noticed that my son looked concerned.

Now only the keyboard player and my son were left playing. The keyboard player, a veteran musician closer to my age than my son's age, got his introduction and took his turn in the spotlight. His solo following the basic form used by the guitarist -- faster and faster, louder and louder, higher and higher. He showed off to the crowd as his arpeggios ratcheted up to a stratospheric finish. By now, my son's face showed unmistakable distress. His bass playing, barely distinguishable under the noise of the crowd, was robotic and unfocused.

Now the bassist, like the cheese in the nursery rhyme, stood alone. The singer yelled out my son's name. Wearing an expression of desperation, my son cranked up the volume and added a few extra frills and twitches to his simple bass lick. But it was clear that he had nothing prepared. The well was dry, the car had no gas, the pie had no filling. The crowd quieted in anticipation for the fireworks to erupt from my son's bass, but the fireworks never came. My son labored on, doggedly repeating his lick to avoid freezing up entirely. He gave imploring looks to the other musicians to join in and rescue him from this interminable solo of doom. The crowd grew restless. I heard a few conversations start up amidst the tables in front of me. Many more painful seconds passed before the singer threw in the towel and gave the signal for everyone to resume playing and bring the song to an overdue close. There was scattered polite applause from the crowd.

This was a valuable learning experience for my son. A rock musician needs to be able to show off.

After some post-concert commiseration, I advised my son to memorize a generic bass solo -- a flashy number with lots of mindless rhythmic noise and flashy fingerboard sliding. No subtlety, no wit. And the bass needs to roar to a climax at the top of its range, like a Gatling gun firing in falsetto.