Esperanza Spalding - April 2008
A musical prodigy since her early childhood, Esperanza Spalding had become the concertmaster of her local community orchestra in Portland, Oregon by the time she was 15 years old. Through the encouragement of her high school band director, Spalding began playing bass and left high school a year later to enroll in the music program at Portland State University. Aided by a full scholarship, Spalding soon relocated to the opposite coast for three years of accelerated study and expanded networking opportunities at Berklee College of Music. Even before she completed college, she excelled at landing coveted touring engagements and recording projects with the likes of Patti Austin, Joe Lovano, Pat Metheny, and many other luminaries. In 2005, Spalding completed her bachelor's degree at Berklee and then accepted a teaching appointment which made her, at age 20, one of the youngest faculty members in the history of the institution. During that same year, she was also awarded the prestigious Boston Jazz Society scholarship for outstanding musicianship. Just within the past couple years, she has already performed at many of the world's leading jazz clubs, concert halls, and festivals in Canada, Italy, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Brazil, and the United States. On May 20, 2008, Spalding makes her debut to a worldwide audience on Heads Up International with a self-titled release that features a glimpse of both her instrumental and vocal chops on a collection of a dozen tracks which combine the sounds of jazz, soul, pop, and world music.
In this interview, Spalding discusses Esperanza, studying and teaching at Berklee, playing acoustic upright, singing, being a role model for female bassists, and more.
After spending over a decade playing violin and orchestral music, what led you to switching to bass and playing jazz?
I started playing violin when I was about four years old, and a decade later, I was the concertmaster of a local orchestra. As a violinist, that is a very prestigious position because other than touring as a soloist, that is the highest position you can attain. After I held that job for awhile, I realized I had gone about as far as a person can go as a violinist, and it just wasn't as exciting as I had always thought it would be. A short time after I decided to quit playing violin, I found an upright bass in the band room at my high school. I was goofing around when my music teacher walked in and asked if I wanted to learn the instrument. I fell in love with the bass the first time I played it because it felt like I was communicating with other musicians on a much higher level than I ever had during the 10 years I played violin. I had a feeling that there was much more potential with the bass, and now looking back, switching from the violin to the bass was one of the best decisions I have ever made.
Who has had the biggest influence on your development as a bassist?
In the beginning, I wasn't a huge bass fanatic because I wasn't listening to any bass players in particular. I was really into bands like Stan Kenton and Joe Henderson. Surprisingly, it wasn't until several years later that I really started checking out specific bass players. I didn't know that I was supposed to be listening to bass players. I just thought the music was great. I always liked Slam Stewart's playing and solos but not because he was a great bassist. His solos were as hip as anything I was hearing. I've never really been someone who has checked out lots of bassists just because they play bass because if you do that, you'll never understand why the lines they are playing are great. You have to look at the music as a whole. If you are a horn player and you only listen to Charlie Parker's playing, you are missing out on everything else that is going on.
Can you tell us about your self-titled release and how this project came together?
Dave Love, the president of Heads Up International, saw me performing with some Concord artists, and he liked my playing. Eventually, he contacted my manager to see what I was interested in doing, and I sent him some of my music. Our goals were a little different in the beginning, but over the course of the recording process, I learned a valuable lesson which was just to be quiet. Sometimes people in the business world don't have the same vision as artists or know what is best for the music, but I learned that you have to remain calm. In the end, I was able to do practically everything I wanted creatively on the new recording so I'm very happy with the results. I have an amazing manager who has really helped me achieve the creative goals I have set for myself.
Most of the music that is featured on the new recording is material that I have been playing with my group for over the past year. We had most of the music together so we just needed to figure out which songs we wanted to record. We had so much music to choose from that it became a process of editing the options down and figuring out what would fit on this project. For the past year, I've been playing with a trio, but we are now a quartet with guitar. I've been playing with the same musicians for years because I like being used to having a certain feel in my music and the way musicians play. All the members of my band know exactly what I'm going for with my music.
Having achieved so much at an early age, what do you believe has contributed the most to your success?
Finding good management is crucial to achieving success, and I have been really blessed to be associated with all of the great people that work with me. Plus, there aren't many female bassists with a unique look who lead their own bands. There are so many phenomenally creative musicians around the world that are capable of delivering cutting edge and high quality music, but nobody knows who they are because they aren't marketed properly. I've been very lucky to have met the right people who have helped propel my career in the right direction. There are so many people who have helped me advance my career in the way that I want.
What were the most significant concepts you learned as a student at Berklee?
Berklee is an unbelievable institution of music. The most significant concept I learned was to figure out what I needed to do and then find my own way to do it. Through all my years as a student, I was never a fan of formal academics or the conventional school setting. I feel that I spent too much of my practice time working on material that teachers told me I needed to learn without those instructors really understanding my ultimate goals. I acquired so much information as a student, but it wasn't always relevant to what I was trying to accomplish. You have know what it is you need to work on, set goals, and then figure out the best way to achieve those goals. You have to analyze your playing and recognize the types of things which are causing you to experience problems. No one is ever going to understand your playing as well as you so you have to figure out things for yourself. The sooner you are able to do this, the faster you will reach your goals as a musician.
Could you tell us about your experience as being one of the youngest faculty members in the history of Berklee?
It has been a great experience. I think learning how to teach requires as much time as learning how to play an instrument. Teaching is challenging because you really need to have an appropriate amount of time set aside to prepare for lessons in order to demonstrate everything you want to cover. I took this semester off from teaching so I could focus my attention on the release of my new recording, but I look forward to returning to teach at Berklee in the future. I really admire full-time instructors because it takes a serious amount of energy and patience to teach properly. In my private lessons, I have students keep a journal of everything they practice. I also have them create a weekly list of several different things they need to improve in their playing. During lessons, we go through that list and try to prioritize those items. I try to guide my students and show them how they can seek out the answers to all of their questions.
Did you find it difficult to overcome the challenges of playing the acoustic upright?
I really admire the methods of Francois Rabbath. In his teachings, he says that instructors should never tell their students that something is difficult because that will immediately alter your mentality towards practicing so I never think of something as being difficult. Many bassists have a hard time dealing with the physical requirements of playing an acoustic upright bass because they approach it with the idea that it is going to be difficult to play. As a result, they have one strike against them before they even pick up the instrument. The bass has been around for hundreds of years, and you don't have to think about it as being difficult to play. When I practice, I just try to think of how I can make something as easy as possible to play. I don't want something difficult to come between me and making music. I try to practice things really slow while remaining extremely relaxed because practicing shouldn't have to be stressful or strenuous. Contrary to what many bassists might believe, the acoustic upright doesn't require a lot of brute force to play. You just need to take your time and develop your muscles. You can teach your muscles exactly what they need to do in order to play any instrument in a non-stressful manner. From this perspective, I don't feel like I have had to overcome much because I never really approached the acoustic upright as being difficult to play.
One of the main principles I've spent time working on is having no preset fingerings for anything that I play. On a fretless instrument like acoustic upright, you need to have a thorough understanding of intervals or the relationships between notes so I spend quite a bit of practice time just working on approaching notes from different angles. I learned very early on that using specific fingerings to play something doesn't work because when I travel I can't always bring my bass. I have to rely on the instruments that are provided for me at gigs which sometimes differ greatly in size. If you have spent years practicing the Simandl method which requires the utilization of specific fingerings and then are placed in a situation where you have to play a different instrument, the relationships between the notes are going to be completely different. You need to have a method that will teach you how to adapt to those changing relationships, and I think Rabbath's approach addresses these problems perfectly. For example, there are hundreds of ways to play scales, and I don't think you should learn only one of the possibilities. It is a very slow practicing process to make sure that every note you play is perfectly in tune, but with practice, you will be able to immediately adjust your hands to any bass regardless of its scale length by playing a few scales or arpeggios. I highly recommend checking out Francois Rabbath's methods. Not only do you need to play with good technique on your instrument but having a well trained ear is crucial as well in order to tell when a note is slightly out of tune.
How do you practice singing and playing simultaneously?
Playing a bass line is half of counterpoint, and good counterpoint tells you everything you need to know about the harmony. As a bassist, everything you play works contrapuntally with other lines. Even though the lines might be going in two completely different directions, they have to be related in some fashion in order to sound good. I work on this aspect of my playing really slow. In fact, sometimes I will continually repeat just two notes on the bass to make sure that I can play those notes perfectly in time and in tune while I sing some kind of melody on top of that. It is a painstakingly slow process that involves working with each part independently from one note to the next, and then you put those parts together. You have to practice each part well enough so that you can achieve a certain level of freedom to adjust each part independently during live performances. It's really not all that different from what a pianist does. The biggest difference is having to deal with the intonation of your voice and the bass. I've been singing since I was very young so playing bass and singing simultaneously seemed like a natural evolution.
What kind of advice could you share as a role model for young female bassists that might help them take their playing to the next level?
Most importantly, people aren't going to be honest with you regarding what you don't know, especially if you are cute. Most musicians won't be brutally honest if you are a female and tell you when your playing sucks. If you can't play very well, people will just stop calling you for gigs, or they will use you just for the novelty of being a female. This is why you need to have the ability to assess your playing like we were discussing earlier. Sometimes people won't come right out and say that your playing is terrible. You had better be able to figure that out for yourself or else you won't be playing with serious and professional musicians. Make a list of the things you really need to work on and then get to work. Record your playing and compare it to other players. If your playing doesn't sound good, you should be able to tell rather easily during the playback of that recording. Seek out instructors that give you a hard time because they are the teachers that are going to help you improve the most. Don't get upset about having your feelings hurt or not receiving enough attention because it's about the music. If you are playing a gig and no one is complementing your playing, that is ok. You have to maintain inner strength. Don't depend on people to tell you what you need to do because most men aren't going to be harsh and critical to a young female.
Most of the gender issues that existed 50 years ago are no longer present today. Women musicians can really do whatever they want. I know many young female musicians, and I see dangerous patterns develop regarding their interaction with other musicians. It is very easy to allow personal dynamics to enter into a learning or playing situation, but you have to always remember that you are there to play music. As a woman, there is a tendency to put out a sexual energy and allow that energy to come back at you so women have to learn how to present themselves in a professional manner. It can be hard to do, but you shouldn't be playing just to attract attention. We often see an over-sexualized image of women behavior which might be fine for television, but it can really hinder your growth as a musician. If you want to be a professional musician, treat music as your job.
Where do you see yourself going in the future?
I want to keep getting better at everything I'm currently doing including becoming a master bassist and vocalist. I really want to improve my arranging for strings, large ensembles, and big bands with horns. I also want to play and record with all of my musical heroes.
What do you enjoy doing when you aren't playing bass?
I'm really into studying renewable energy and sustainable agriculture. I'm always reading, and I love to watch comedy movies. I'm also trying to understand how electrical engineering works so I'm currently taking some electrical engineering courses.
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