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Investing Advice for Musicians

I want to offer some dry investing advice for today’s music students. Diversification hedges uncertainty. Although my core accomplishments as a double bassist have opened many doors, my other musical skills have unlocked many others. Not all doors will lead somewhere, but the more keys you acquire, the more opportunities you’ll have. And while the whole world is locked down, I find it an appropriate time to pause and reflect on how my musical origins and values have led me down this path. For a long time, I was taught that the image of a successful double bassist was that of an orchestra member. A life in which travel plans, concert dates, and artistic decisions would all be made for you. At the Yale School of Music, Don Palma challenged that image: he premiered some of the most important works of his time, traveled the world playing in Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, studied with jazz legends, and now conducts his own orchestra. Defiant of orthodoxy, he had a scrappy and diverse career and always put the music first. He lovingly reassembled the dislocated wisdom I had received during my undergraduate studies, encouraging me to be me — to compose, to arrange, to do something new with the instrument. “Up bow, down bow…” he’d say, “just play Beethoven.” Existential threats to our industry are nothing new. When I started graduate school back in 2012, the promise of making a living from Beethoven cycles was breaking as we witnessed orchestra strikes and lockouts all over the United States. Our new careers would look different. We were told to become entrepreneurial. To take personal responsibility for our artistic lives and reframe our goals around “portfolio careers.” To have multiple revenue streams so that we might become “too small to fail,” as one teacher affectionately put it. To do a little bit of this, and a little bit of that, but to still be great at that one core thing. This new mindset of diversification struck a chord with me because I was raised by tinkerers who did little bits of everything.
Advice for Musicians Double Bass Sam Suggs

Nurture — Advice for Musicians

In my family, having a wide collection of skills, interests, and knowledge was a treasured value.  The sound design of my childhood was marked by the repeating laser blasts of the “Daily Double” on Jeopardy!  In a recent interview, the “Greatest of All-Time” champ Ken Jennings said, “The [contestants] don’t have photographic memories… They are just more interested in ten times the things you are, so more facts stick.”[1]Ken Jennings: “Don’t Neglect the Thing That Makes You Weird” (People I (Mostly) Admire, Ep. 4) October 2, 2020 @ 11:00pm by Steven D. Levitt.  My father is exactly that kind of person with a variety of interests and a sticky memory.  An engineer by day, he runs the Buffalo Ornithological Society meetings on Thursday evenings and can identify any bird by silhouette or by sound.  He practices jazz guitar nightly and recently learned to build a radio-controlled lawnmower using YouTube.  He learned to steam wood so he could bend a new rib for my mother’s childhood cello — one dark night, her staggeringly tall father put his size 13.5 shoe through the upper bout.

My grandfather, also an engineer, played in a 12-piece amateur dixie banjo band called “The Iron Strings of Buffalo.”  They had matching red and white pinstripe suits.  He was also a mechanic and ran the Model A Restorers Club of Western New York, which provided historical cars for the 1984 baseball film The Natural.  An extra who could also operate an antique stick shift, he is the only one in the family to collect taxi fare from Robert Redford.  He married my grandmother, a beloved elementary school teacher who played stride piano even as dementia ate at her perception of time and place.  Everyone on my father’s side of the family grew up playing instruments, although no one did it professionally.  In a twist of fate, I entered Northwestern University as an engineering student and exited with a degree in music theory.

My musical journey began at a piano restoration shop in downtown Buffalo, where I took jazz piano lessons starting in kindergarten.  Moving forward twenty years, my childhood piano lessons were one of the best investments for my portfolio career — while a graduate student, I made most of my earnings as a gigging pianist.  I was a resident artist at the university president’s house and would provide entertainment for parties and fundraisers.  I accompanied student recitals, taught beginner piano lessons in the community, and worked as a technician consultant doing inventory on pianos around campus.

During the interview for my current position at James Madison University, I was able to put my keyboard skills to further use.  I lectured from the piano in my classroom demonstration, accompanied students by ear in the masterclasses, and shared a simple Brubeck-inspired encore to close my recital.  Many of the applicants were impeccable double bassists, and I am certain I was not selected on the merits of my playing alone.  My diverse portfolio made me stand out as a complete asset for the School of Music where I could be asked to teach classes in improvisation, theory, and general education, in addition to teaching DMA, MM, and BM lessons to a wide range of performance, composition, jazz, music industry, and education majors.

Nature

Almost a decade ago, I formed a contemporary jazz trio named Triplepoint with two percussionists.  We came together in order to perform a cover of Death Cab for Cutie’s Unobstructed Views on my first Master’s recital.  Although now we commission composers to write for an improvising trio, in the beginning we played weddings and cocktail gigs.  Eventually we traveled all over the world together to perform concerts in medieval North German castles and rural West African villages.  On the road, there were times we could only rehearse using our voices or instruments we found at a street market — a melodica, an acoustic bass guitar, and a frisbee.

When the three of us met in graduate school, my bandmates were part of the Yale Percussion Group.  Run like an elite Olympic swimming team by their professor, every member of that ensemble was a model of complete musicianship and discipline.  As performers, their every motion was choreographed and meaningful, and they could play anything.  By “anything,” I mean they could play any piece of music and could make music out of any “thing.”  I tell my students that all instruments are fundamentally percussion instruments.  Remove the strings on a double bass and it’s a percussion instrument.  Give a trumpet to a toddler and it’s a percussion instrument.  Even if there is no instrument (like Mark Applebaum’s Aphasia, or Thierry De Mey’s Table Music) or if a composer invents a new instrument, it is the golden touch of the percussionist that turns anything into a musical anything.

“What then”, I asked myself, “is the philosophy of the bassist?”  On the historical continuum of ground bass to walking bass, we are improvisers and composers, accompanists and soloists.  Anchors of harmony and structure.  Thieves with a duty to create new repertoire.  To paraphrase my old friend and jazz educator Danny Ziemann, there’s no knob on the radio for cello.  Bass is everywhere and bassists are omnivorous creatures.  Fender P-bass Fridays on a cruise ship.  Gut strings and period bows Sundays in a church.  You choose to become a bassist like you choose to go to a buffet.

And for a student and their family, becoming a bassist can be a minivan-sized proposition.  I think this is why many come to the bass as a second instrument during their teenage years.  A common entry point to classical music for bassists in America is through the world of pop, folk, jazz, or rock, in which the line between “singer-” and “-songwriter” is thin.  I believe we find ourselves more courageous to become composers and arrangers than other string players.  Beginning in my first Master’s recital, I myself made a commitment to perform one original composition on every recital — and I’ve held to that streak for eight years.

If you want to add the identity of performer-composer to your portfolio, simply start performing one of your compositions per show.  My favorite part of writing my own music is the freedom I feel in performance.  Jazz musicians talk a lot about how their “sound” is their fingerprint.  And I misunderstood this for years to mean their tone.  The “sound” is the locus of all the choices that a player makes, including note choices.  The only way to discover your sound is to start composing.  And only by going through that trial can you fully appreciate and enliven the moment-to-moment musical choices of another.

Necessity

Although double bass and its cousins are welcome into the house of popular music, the little door to the string quartet club is too small for us to fit through, and the bouncers don’t appreciate us loitering around.  In most conservatories and festivals, chamber music collaborations are assembled based on instrumentation.  Like being picked last for dodgeball, all bassists know the joy of being clumped into quartets to play amongst ourselves.

To me, the solution is simple.  Prioritizing Instrumentation puts the bass on the sidelines.  Flip it.  Gather the people first, then tailor the music to fit the instrumentation.  Arrange.  I started tinkering and getting comfortable with music notation software and all of its shortcuts at a young age.  When I began, I cared very much about having a library of sound samples to make the work-in-progress sound nice.  Now, I don’t care how it sounds on the computer.  I use MIDI sounds just to check for typos.  I mostly taught myself to arrange, using textbooks on instrumentation and orchestration.  Eventually, I studied how to write in the styles of other composers through independent studies in model composition.

In graduate school, I proposed an ad hoc group for a chamber ensemble.  We were a great bunch of friends, but an odd bunch of instruments: electric guitar, double bass, bass clarinet, tuba, and percussion.  We were technically approved to perform an open instrumentation work by Frederic Rzewski called Come Together, but instead, I transcribed and arranged Strobe, our favorite EDM track from Deadmau5’s For Lack of a Better Name.  We ended up presenting our own concert-as-cocktail party series, and those are some of the happiest memories and most teachable experiences of my education.  Arrange so you can surround yourself with the people and musicians you want to spend time with.

Another semester, I assembled a group of good friends to perform Prokofiev’s Quintet in G minor.  Our clarinetist, however, won an award that took him out of the country on a month-long tour, only to return the week before our performance.  There was not enough time to rehearse the mammoth piece to the quality we had planned, so I put together an arrangement of a familiar Rossini overture we played in orchestra earlier that year.  After one rehearsal, the music came together in a loose and fun performance that caught the attention of the clarinetist’s mentor.  Later that week, he commissioned me to arrange more music for him to be performed at Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.  This was a breakthrough opportunity, and I worked all night to deliver it the next morning.  He loved the work I did and after a few more projects, he generously said, “Well, why don’t you join us for the next performance?”  Arranging was the key to unlocking new networks and performing opportunities — creating the opportunity to share the stage with my musical heroes.

We could have cancelled the concert, but substituting that silly Rossini overture changed my life.  You never know who might be listening or which key will be the right fit to unlock the next opportunity.  It might not be the one you expected, and nothing in this career is certain except for your work.  Hedge your bets, diversify your skills and talents, and collect as many keys as you can.  That’s the only way to be prepared for the unknown.

Sam Suggs (@s3suggs): Professor at James Madison University (Harrisonburg, VA, USA), faculty of Heifetz Institute, Sewanee Summer Music Festival, and BassWorks; composer-in-residence with Frisson Ensemble; winner of International Society of Bassists 2015 Solo Competition and Concert Artists Guild 2016 Competition; Northwestern University, BM Music Cognition and Theory; Yale, MM, DMA.

Ref.

1 Ken Jennings: “Don’t Neglect the Thing That Makes You Weird” (People I (Mostly) Admire, Ep. 4) October 2, 2020 @ 11:00pm by Steven D. Levitt.

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