Why Is Music Important? (uncut version)….

I did this interview almost a year ago, and I am seriously grateful to Brent-Anthony Johnson for the opportunity. The published version is online here.

The original interview I typed out was almost 10 pages long….way too much for an interview online and shorter attention spans. However, a few folks saw the original copy and enjoyed it…at their urging, I’m publishing an “uncut” version on my website. This is in no means intended to undercut or diminish the opportunity and article offered by Bass Musician Magazine and Brent-Anthony Johnson. Some folks simply felt that the answers in the original doc were engaging, interesting, and revealing, thus an “uncut” version was worth offering.

Who are you, and what do you do?

I am Brittany Frompovich, and I’m a performer, clinician, and music educator. As a performer, my shows range from booking myself as a solo artist, to working as a bassist in a wide range of ensemble situations. I also teach private lessons at various locations and online via Skype.

Who are your primary musical influences?

There’s a real mashup of genres and artists that influence me. In my teens, I was into bands like Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Joe Satriani, Van Halen, Steve Vai, Queen, and Extreme. In college, as a classical bassist, my ear tended to gravitate towards Baroque pieces. This was a period where I also began gravitating towards singer songwriters. Jeffery Gaines, Jim Croce, and David Wilcox were huge influences on me. I would say influences in later life include Bill Frisell, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Eva Cassidy, Edgar Meyer, Michael Manring, Michael Dimin, Steve Lawson, Adam Nitti, Bryan Beller, and Anthony Wellington. I’ve also find myself inspired by what Darren Michaels, Aaron Gibson, and Scott Varney do as singer songwriter/bassists. I’ve always been drawn to world music as well, and that influence can show up in my music.

Can you tell us about your earliest musical listening and performance experiences?

My earliest listening experiences were being exposed to my family’s musical tastes. My mother was into a mix of genres. A good sampling of what she likes includes Johnny Cash, Frank Sinatra, Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul and Mary, and Arlo Guthrie. She also has some classical albums that we listened to from time to time. Dad liked country and some rock and roll; Kenny Rodgers, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, and the Beach Boys for example. My grandparents also lived with us. My grandmother had a stereo cabinet up against the wall that was common to my bedroom. So I’d hear artists like Patsy Cline, Glenn Miller, and Benny Goodman.

I got a portable radio as a gift at some point. I would stay up late and listen to a variety of radio stations until I fell asleep. I discovered all kinds of great stuff there; metal, classic rock, early 80’s pop, and Motown on the oldies stations.

Early performing experiences? I had my dad’s clarinet, a toy guitar, a small synth, and a toy piano in grade school. I played clarinet in the elementary school orchestra, and was in a few school plays. In middle school, I got a better guitar. I was self taught for quite awhile, but eventually, I was able to get lessons. And then I ended up in a rock band in high school. That was the beginning of really getting the bug and getting serious about understanding music.

Also, what projects are you participating in lately?

There has been a variety of things. I have a few tracks I am working on for various people and projects right now. Additionally, a local TV station filmed and produced a documentary about myself…that was a huge honor. The doc followed me through different aspects of my life…teaching private lessons, teaching group classes, playing solo bass shows, playing in ensembles, and leading/teaching student ensembles. I was pleased that many of my students were also able to be included in the filming. That’s all in the works being edited.

The last two months has largely rehearsals and shows playing bass in the pit for a local production of the musical Avenue Q. I get to play both electric and double bass for that show. It’s been a blast.

What are you listening to musically, in the past 12 months that has enhanced the way you think about music and your craft?

Everything affects you…even if you dislike what a musician is doing, you’ve learned something about what your preferences are. Here’a a small sampling of artists that have had an impact; Michael Manring, Aaron Gibson, Steve Lawson, Darren Michaels, The Aristocrats, Trip Wamsley, Donovan Stokes, Annie Lennox, The Bad Plus, Black Country Communion, Chickenfoot, The Meters, Victor Wooten, Johnny Cash, Michael Dimin, Trey Gunn, Rob Wasserman, Scott Fernandez, Evelyn Glennie, Rench, Squarepusher, Dixie Dregs, Michael Hedges, Morphine, and Esperanza Spalding.

I’m also listening to a lot of classic rock because I’m working on material with a student rock orchestra. I’ve had to think about how some pieces would have to be arranged in the context of that group. A sampling of that listening includes Queen, Led Zep, Heart, The Who, The Black Crowes, Rush, The Stones, Apocalyptica, Jethro Tull, Mountain, Zoe Keating, the Hampton String Quartet, Miles Mosley, The Section Quartet, Kronos Quartet, and the Vitamin String Quartet.

If we wanted to listen to you, which recordings would you suggest? Along with that, which recordings are your proudest of, and why?

There’s several recordings over at my Reverbnation page at https://www.reverbnation.com/brittanyfrompovich. And there’s video from live shows over www.youtube.com/user/ladybassmusic. Proudest? I don’t gravitate towards any one recording in particular. I’m always thinking there’s room to grow and improve.

How does your personal musical voice directly relate to the function of the basses? Also, what are your main instruments?

I play many different instruments, and I think that comes out. Many folks have commented that my approach on the electric is still very influenced by my upright training. My note choices on passages can be upright-like; moving linearly along one or two strings versus moving across several strings staying in one or two fretboard positions. It’s not even something I had given a lot of thought to until folks pointed it out. A lot of guitar techniques cross over into my bass playing. For a specific example, I definitely quote Rory Gallagher in the ways I use pinch harmonics at times. Chording on bass is a welcome concept to me because of the guitar background. But the most important thing, in regards to function, is that first and foremost I listen and try to play in a way that serves the musical situation. A friend heard me play in an ensemble setting for a show I was hired for. They were very surprised that they did not hear my “signature sound” all night. (I’m using their words to describe it, not mine.) They are familiar with what I do as a solo artist, so I think they were expecting a certain tone. I explained that at this particular show, it was not my job to express a “signature tone”, but to be versatile, supportive, play the pocket, and to fit in to what the group needed. For some tunes, I needed to have a cello-like voice in the upper registers of my upright to support a ballad. At other times, I had to play Motown grooves on electric. My job was to blend and to be a good foundation for the group. That’s how I approached and played the gig.
Being appropriate to the musical situation I’m in is the biggest factor that will shape my voice and the function of the bass.

My main basses are; a Spector Euro 6LX, a NS Radius CR5, a LightWave Saber VL 5 string, an NS CR5M electric upright bass, a Syme/LightWave fretless 5 string bass, an Eastman 605 double bass, and an older Czech built double bass. I also have an Ibanez Ashula that I’ve been playing around with for altered tunings and other ideas. I’m using Warwick amplification.

Describe your musical composition process.

Various things can happen here. Usually, I start by getting the idea captured quickly with the nearest recording tool. And the idea isn’t always coming out on a bass; I’ll write using a guitar, a cello, the drums, hand percussion, or even sing the idea. Usually the closest tool is my iPhone or my tablet. I’ll capture the idea as an audio file and possibly as a video file as well. If my looper is nearby, I will record the idea with the Boss RC-300. After that, the idea may be worked with further using either the looper or my laptop. In some situations, I will sit down and compose more formally using Finale or another piece of notation software. Really, the method I use depends on what I am hearing in my head.

How does music affect your culture and immediate environment?

The physical manifestation of my relationship to music in my immediate environment is hard to ignore. One of my adult students paid a visit to my home studio recently, and commented that it was amazing to see how my home has been taken over so completely by music. I often jokingly say “Residential music store is a good look in home décor these days”. And for most folks, it’s a rare thing to see a house so taken over by music.

I was watching part of a documentary about Evelyn Glennie on YouTube. I related to how extensively her instruments had taken over much of her living
space and her office. So I get all kinds of interesting reactions from people who come over. Some people are very inspired when they see the level of engagement and commitment…that music has literally taken over my environment. Some people are put off by it, and don’t understand it. Some people have even said my “she-cave’ trumps their “man-cave.” Some people come in and immediately feel the urge to engage in creative activity. I love how it hits folks; it makes them react in various ways.

What would you be, if not a professional musician?

I could see myself in a few careers. I know I would enjoy a career that involved working with my hands; woodworking, being a luthier, a potter, or some kind of craftsman/tradesman. Another good option is working in a science or computer related field. I was interested in studying marine biology for a time when I was younger.

What is the greatest sacrifice you’ve ever made while in the practice of being a musician, and how did that sacrifice affect you?

Hmm. Sacrifice is an interesting word. You give something to get something. I’ve given, and I’ve gotten a lot back, but it was never felt as a sacrifice. It felt more like I made a choice because I had to prioritize. My priority was to be a better musician.

People make sacrifices all the time to get through life. Look at the sacrifices parents make to raise their children, or when people start a small business. Some of those choices might be tough, and we might not like doing them, but that’s part of navigating the consequences of a choice. We make choices based on our priorities. The difference is you can choose to view those choices you make as “sacrifices” or you can choose to view it as part of aligning yourself with your priorities. Have I made “sacrifices”? Yes. Do they feel like sacrifices? Not really. They felt like choices, not sacrifices. I simply made choices that lead me to the things I wanted. That means giving up something that wasn’t as important. If it wasn’t that important, it probably wouldn’t have made me that happy anyway.

Describe your standing practice regimen. Also, what technical (and musical) aspects of your playing are you currently working on?

This changes over time for a variety of reasons. Sometimes good projects show up with short timelines and hard deadlines. Two recording projects of that nature showed up last week actually. And sometimes you have a long term project that becomes very time consuming for various reasons. So, practice can become very strategic at times between teaching, gigging, and the nature of the projects you get involved in.

I would say early on in my life, “practicing” for me was learning songs for shows, concerts and recitals. As I’ve gotten older, I still feel a pull to do that…there’s a definitely real joy in that. That’s why we play after all. But I try to use an approach that focuses on three areas to keep my growth better balanced.

1) Repertoire – This goes back to playing songs. Reviewing challenging tunes I haven’t played in awhile to keep them fresh in my hands. Going over pieces on the upright. Sometimes I’ll pick out tunes from the Real Book. Sometimes I pick a song out that I like and learn to play it by ear.

2) Technical skills – There are exercises that are frequently repeated in this category; drilling the notes on the fretboard so they stay hard wired, doing a variety of finger permutations with the metronome for speed and dexterity, picking out a scale and drilling it, sight reading, ear training, and putting in time in working on the upright to keep intonation skills and physical strength up.

3) And then spending time working creatively….trying to write or arrange material, improvising, and working out any song ideas that came up. This isn’t really practice, but some of this always seems to happen as a result of practice. Creative ideas may evolve out of some part of your practice.

I keep a journal of what I am working on so I can come back to areas and ideas that need further work. This is REALLY valuable when you go down the rabbit hole because a good project showed up with short deadlines or a huge time commitment. I can pick up that journal, read my last entry, and I can get back to work on whatever items I put aside. The journal helps me recall details of practices, but I even find it helps me even recall and re-enter the mental space I was in while I was getting that work done.

We call it “practice”, but at the end of the day, practice is really a form of problem solving. You are taking time to work on areas of your playing that you feel dissatisfied with; making a new and desired skill permanent (and consistent) upon execution, improving a technique, working on your tone, and developing speed. Yes, practice maintains what you already built in your skill set, but ideally, you are growing because you solving the issues that come up in your playing.

What does music, and being a musician, mean to you – at the deepest level of your being?

It’s a multi-faceted gift. It gives me a medium to give back to others in a very unique and personal way. For example, we were performing some shows during the weekend of the recent terrorist attacks. I approached the shows that weekend with a real hope that our performances would help folks in the audience have a better day; even if only by getting folks to disconnect from the stress in their lives for awhile. Enjoying live performances improves quality of life; performing during that recent weekend was a huge reminder of how valuable that gift is.

Music has been the medium to grant me some great experiences. It’s given me some opportunities to travel and allowed me to meet some wonderful teachers, students, friends, and peers. But it’s a gift that needs to be respected and nurtured. There’s always so much to learn…it can be both overwhelming and inspiring at the same time.

Music helps me process the experience of living. And the study and performance of music has been insightful, metaphoric, and often informative to approaching other aspects of life. It teaches lessons about time management, mastery, patience, listening (what relationship doesn’t improve with more listening?), mindfulness, being present…the list of skills literally goes on and on.

It’s a calling. It’s a gift. It’s a relationship that requires work and respect. I’m grateful for it.

How important is it to understand the Language of music?

A non musician approaches music with virtually no education about music and still understands the emotive content of what the music is saying. They may not be able to tell you what a tempo marking means, but they can tell you if a song is slow or fast. And they can certainly tell you what the song invokes for them. So there is communication happening there.

However, it is essential for musicians to study….to get inside the language and develop fluency. It’s developing the skill set so one can express oneself fully, with ease, and have all the nuances and inflections that add depth and authenticity.

Are you involved in educating others?

Yes. I currently teach from four different studios located around NoVa and Richmond, Virginia, and online via Skype.

What is your teaching philosophy?

I try to get people addicted to music. It doesn’t matter if they want to be recreational musicians or if they are aspiring to have a full or part time career in music. In everything I do with them, the goal is to deepen and further their relationship with music. I also want people to have a relationship with music beyond just being a listener and a consumer of music. I want them to get a handle on being able to create it for themselves and express their own voice.

For all students, no matter how deep their commitment level, I really try to create a sense of connection and community. That’s essential. I want to get them involved in the culture of music as much as they will permit. Part of that is having concerts, clinics, and recitals on the local level. That expands from there to taking interested folks to concerts, clinics, and other events that happen all over our region. It’s very important to get people out of their houses and connected with a larger sense of music community. It can be a real struggle sometimes because people are so over-committed these days, but it makes a big difference. Having those community experiences is a huge factor in helping them staying committed to studying music. Community building is a very important part of my teaching philosophy.

Also, if you could change one thing about the way music students learn, what would that be?

Making sure ALL school music programs were properly supported, well equipped, and running on appropriate budgets. There are school music programs out there that run on a yearly budget that is less than an average household spends on groceries for one month.

It would also be great to see music programs scheduled in a way that demonstrate that music is a priority and not an afterthought. There are school
districts that have scheduled their orchestra programs to meet before school even starts….so these kids are getting up earlier than their classmates to go toschool in order to have the experience of being in orchestra. What message does that send to the orchestra director and the kids? Not to mention what message does that send about the value that school places on music?

I’ve also seen some school districts schedule their honors and AP classes in a way that forces students to drop ensembles in order to take the honors classes. The students often don’t want to quit the ensemble classes. And parents become concerned about their child losing interest and quitting. This also puts an ensemble director in a difficult situation when they are trying to build a strong program; strong students are forced to drop out due to schedule conflicts. These problems are not happening in every district, but it is happening.

How do you collect the series of seemingly random influences and articulate them through music?

It’s not so random. It’s really just part of processing the experience of living. Something inspires me or influences me…it may be a conversation, an emotion, an interaction…something I experience. As part of processing the experience, the idea wants to come out as musical expression. The process helps make sense of the experience. It’s the common thread shared by painters, poets, writers, photographers, sculptors, and any other folks with a creative streak. No matter what the chosen medium is, one is just processing what you what you need to express. Sometimes you get to process that reaction in your own time. Sometimes it hits you all at once and you have to work with it immediately…as in drop everything and get it recorded as quickly as possible before it is gone.

Can music ever truly become commercial? Why, or why not?

There are many talented people who are making money in various music related careers; artists, songwriters, session musicians, and composers for film, games, commercials, and TV scores. Thus, there is an industry where music is a product that is bought and sold. That industry has changed over time, and that can be another lengthy conversation all on its own.

Not all music created is going to be an ideal “product” for the established industry, and that’s fine. Connecting with a listener is what makes music ultimately successful. There are plenty of musicians who strive to create music without having to worrying about the pressure of commercial success. Charles Ives is a perfect example of this, in that he worked a career in insurance so he could create exactly the music he wanted without financial pressure. And some musicians are balancing creating the music they want to express while working to attract an audience that supports their authentic expression.

Thankfully, independent musicians have many more avenues now to connect with their audiences and independently attract patronage for their projects, if they choose to do so.

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