Monday, October 8, 2012

Doghouse in the house.

My old roommate once described my modus operandi as "Run Fast, Stand Still." It's taken from a Ray Bradbury article that likens fiction writing to how geckos move--long periods of complete immobility, followed by sudden and blindingly quick movement. It was meant as a reassurance, as I was going through an extended period of dithering, indecision, and unproductive farting around that was causing me, in my late twenties, to question the directions I had chosen in life and my suitability for a career in the creative arts. He meant to say that I spent a lot of time "doing nothing" but when I did get to work--drawing comix, writing screenplays, cutting and assembling photomontages--it happened all at once in a highly productive burst.

In practice, since I ended up leaving the ranks of the Creative Class and he stayed, maybe RFSS isn't the best approach. Patrick--the marathon runner to my sprinter, or perhaps the R2-D2 to my C-3PO--was a sedulous grinder-out of plays, rewrites and rewrites of rewrites, writing every day, filling shelves with text that grew incrementally better with every draft and, by the sheer volume and perseverance and doggedness, became an excellent writer who (against all odds) now makes a good chunk of his living through creative writing.

In any case, when it comes to creative stuff, I'm still prone to lots of dithering--followed by sudden, precipitous leaps of Just Doing Stuff.

Last week I bought an upright bass off Kijiji. This is one of those things I've been wanting to do for at least a decade. I played electric bass in high school, part (and, it must be said, the weakest part) of a teenage loogan band banging out Stones covers, but gave it up in university. But since then I found genre after genre of music--jazz, jump blues, mid-century R&B, and rockabilly--that I really wanted to play and that all called for the distinctive, resonant sound of an upright bass. The electric bass just doesn't cut it.

To tell the truth, I would have done this a long time ago... if not for the Left Handed Thing.

The Left Handed Thing is the bane of all naturally left-handed would-be musicians. (Well, not all, but anyone seeking to play something with strings anyway.) If you're left-handed, your natural tendency is to want to finger the strings with your right hand and pluck or strum with your left. This means most instruments are "backwards" relative to how you'll be playing.

If you're a lefty, you know it right off the bat, the first time you play air guitar and find yourself mirroring the motions of the right-handed player on TV.

Some lefties end up learning to play right-handed, generally at the behest of music teachers who insist that they go against their instincts. Some of them succeed in doing so, though it's a lot of extra work in what is already a bit of a learning curve. I can see the practical benefits of this, since most instruments are right-handed and in the long term learning to play that way will make life easier. But on a philosophical level it bothers me--like those de-queerifying camps run by the religious right, who, if you're concerned your kid might be, you know, you can send them there and they'll straighten him right out.

When I started playing in high school, I started by just turning my second-hand flea-market right-handed bass upside-down and playing it that way 'cause, well, I didn't know any better. But after awhile, a friend recommended that I get it restrung, making it a true left-handed instrument. The reasons for this were and remain unclear--something to do with being able to make chords. But I did it and was henceforth a left-handed player--an early instance of what would prove to be a lifelong habit of outsmarting myself in various arenas.

It's relatively easy to take an electric bass and reverse the strings and nut to make it left-handed. And there are plenty of reasonably-priced left-handed instruments available in music stores. It's inconvenient but manageable.

But when you decide to play an upright, all that goes out the window. Upright basses are expensive--orders of magnitude more expensive to begin with. You spend thousands of dollars, not hundreds, for an entry-level instrument. And while I'm sure they make left-handed uprights, the cost must be crazy.

You can get a right-handed instrument and get it reversed, but this involves going to a luthier--a master craftsman, applying woodworking techniques and a sophisticated understanding of acoustics and resonance and tone established on an intuitive level at least in ancient Greece and refined over generations with a quasi-monastic dedication to keeping ancient knowledge alive--in short, a cat who knows what the hell he's doing.

Plus, if you're a true lefty player, you face what I call the Marty McFly Problem. What if you learn to play left-handed on a left-handed instrument, and you're somewhere and for whatever reason you want to sit in on someone else's (almost certainly right-handed) instrument? (Answer:  Well, if Marty McFly had been left-handed, he'd'a been fucked, now wouldn't he?) And the bigger the instrument, the more likely that's how it's going to shake out. If you're a flautist you can casually bring your flute to the party and if everyone's just playing Monopoly or whatever, no problem--but you can't cart your doghouse across town on the bus just in case, not if you don't want to be a complete tool, one with a slipped disc in your back to boot.

So this all bounced around in my head for years, leaving me paralyzed like a robot with a bad piece of code, Program A Says I Must But Program B Says I Must Not, does not compute, error error 00111101011101001010 (smoke).

But in the past six months I learned--and this is kind of the point of this post--you can actually pick up a right-handed bass and learn to play it backwards. Unless you're planning to become some kind of virtuoso classical musician, if you just want to play for fun, you can do it. Actually, it's kind of odd how long it took for me to find this out, given the Internet and all. It's part of why I wrote this post, so that if someone Googles a string like "can I play a right-handed bass backwards" or "left-handed upright bass can I play backwards" or "why does God hate me" they'll arrive here.

After seeing several left-handed players whale on a right-handed instrument (including the left-handed lead guitarist for the Space Cadets, borrowing his brother's right-handed upright at Viva Las Vegas 15, and Paul McCartney in this video) it occurred to me that it's just not that big a deal. This was confirmed a few weeks ago by my friends Randy and Symphony, who are two-thirds of the RV-dwelling, guitarist-kidnapping psychobilly trio The Living Deads. These two assure me that there are many, many left-handed rockabilly bassists who just picked up a right-handed instrument and play it goofy-like.

So that's what I'm doing. Since it's been forever since I've played, I sort of have to learn all over again anyway. But it's been a lot easier than I expected. I'm looking forward to a long winter of practicing and making up for lost time.




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