We found the groove. Make sure your seatbelts are fastened and have a good time.
-- From the song "20th Century," by the band Brad
Okay, so I'm dead center. I should be. I ran my tail off to get to this spot. This particular show was first come, first served. It's the middle of the afternoon. The Dave Matthews Band rarely plays afternoon shows: the concerts I've attended usually begin at dusk and jam away into the night. And that's when my dancing feet start to shuffle and kick. I wouldn't want to disturb the other concert-goers with my ghastly two-steppin' in broad daylight, now would I? However, this time, I had no choice. I had to do it: I danced in the daylight.
Now, it wasn't bad at first. I was amped up on bravery and excitement; I blended in with the crowd (kind of). And in the midst of my slaughterhouse jive, something happened that I didn't expect. I've heard it called "The Click." Some people call it "The Light Bulb." It's the moment of understanding, I guess. Many moons after the show, a friend, a very dancy friend, told me I'd "found the bassline." Her phone number is not listed in my phone as "Jenny Jams" for nothing.
And that day, I clicked. Riding the bassline is like floating on swells in the ocean. You can't fight them. You need to become one with the wave. Let it take you where it wants to take you and you'll be fine.
The same goes for dancing. Fight the bassline and you look like you're encased in a full body cast. Let it move you, and you'll at least be proficient. Hey, it got me through my wedding.
When I started to dance, verbs appeared in my head to describe the movement. They were big, strong muscley verbs. I like to call them Buff Verbs. I guess my teacher instincts never dim, even at a rock concert. The words stuck with me. The bass rubbed them into my brain like vocabulary moisturizer. Soon after the show my students learned to dance and learned some Buff Verbs too.
We all know that the verb is the beating heart of the sentence. It allows the sentence to live. Put down your adverbs, adjectives, and fancy-shmancy vocabulary. If you really want to strengthen your students' writing, go verb crazy. Strengthen the engine. Author Barry Lane states that a weak verb is like a weak engine and will not propel a story forward with any strength.
Learning to write is hard. It takes time and a lot of energy just to become a proficient writer. Most adults never get to a comfortable level of literacy. I believe all people can write. They just need to find their own style, genre, and voice from the beginning of writing instruction. They need teachers who, in the words of Ralph Fletcher, "...are alive to the tiniest breakthroughs their students make." And ignore the tiniest mistakes they make. They need teachers who spend time on relevant, individualized instruction.
This is a lesson about using music to find verbs. It will not help everyone. But it might be a tiny tool that you give some of your students the next time they click play on their iPod. If you are breathing and have a pulse, you can't deny that kids have changed. And teachers need to exploit the energy that students bring to the classroom. We need to get off the high horse and recognize that students value Sci-Fi, Fantasy, potty humor, and music more than ever. Don't be afraid to ride the lightning, brutha'.
I can't read music. I learned how to play the guitar from very patient musical friends and trained my ear to hear the guitar in songs that I enjoyed. Of course, you want to play the songs you love when you learn an instrument. It's magical when you finally play a tune that is actually recognizable. I'll never forget the first little riff I learned to play with precision. It was Blind Melon's "No Rain." You know, the video with the Bee Girl? I played it over and over again. Then I moved on to Pearl Jam's "Alive." I bet my mom can tell you the same. She had to deal with the licks, the good and the ghastly, filling the house. Thanks Mom.
At first you'll need to help the students single out the bass just like I trained my ear to single out the guitar. Try this: Draw or build a huge bass guitar. Make sure the strings are nice and plump. It gives the kids an idea for what they are listening. Big fat strings equal big fat sound. Heavy sound. The one major advantage the bass has over the other instruments is that you can feel it and hear it. Bass gives the song that heavy feeling. The bass has weight. Gene Simmons sums in up beautifully: "Take the bass out of the mix and see how heavy the guitar is. It sounds broken up. Without bass, you ain't got heavy."
Feeling the heaviness helps the brain conjure up the word to match the bassline. Have the students focus on the bass while you spin the tune. Have them stare at the bass and visualize the fat sound. With practice and time, the intended sound (instrument) will reveal itself.
Songs and Bass Players
Not all songs rock the verby bassline. I'm not going to lie, you will have to listen a little more closely the next time you click play on the iPod. And you will also need a good bit of music. A good bass player won't hurt either. The better the bass player, the more distinct and versatile the basslines will be. Here's a personal list of bass players and songs to get you started.
Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers)
Victor Wooten (Bela Fleck and the Flecktones)
Les Claypool (Primus)
Ray Brown (American Jazz Double Bassist)
Bootsey Collins (Played with George Clinton and P-Funk and James Brown)
The Dave Matthews Band - "#34" (Under the Table and Dreaming) This song demonstrates a good waltzing bassline.
Tea Leaf Green - "Warmup" (Living in Between) This galloping bassline enters the song at about 3:40 into it. Horse around the room.
Bela Fleck and the Flecktones - "Flight of the Cosmic Hippo" (Flight of the Cosmic Hippo) The plod, slog, or trudge blinks in neon lights during this tune.
Jamiroquai - "Traveling Without Moving" (Traveling Without Moving) If there ever was a bassline that exudes scraping, racing, and clawing, it's this one.
Okay, you've researched bass players, dug deep into your music library, and even purchased some songs. Now what? You can do this two ways that are very simple. This isn't brain surgery or sending a rocket into space. The formula is quite easy: Bass+Movement+Verbs= Better Sentences= Better Writing.
1. Shake it: You can have the kids get up and move to the bass. Simple as that. Their movements should reveal a verb. If not, I suggest giving them the verbs at first in a list or on flash cards for them to slam on their desk when the bass vibrates that brawny verb out of their gullet.
2. Sketch it: For the kids who might be a little shy, you can have them draw the bassline. I usually have the kids draw a straight line then begin to make small or large humps matching the pattern of the bass. Is the bass making short, choppy note changes or long, slow sustained notes? Is it popping or slapping? Whether the students find the bassline or not, it does make some cool, curvy art.
Go do it. You've got all summer. Listen up, listen for those verby basslines, and find some Buff Verbs. Your students will thank you for shakin' up their bones. Charlie "Yardbird" Parker once said, "They teach you that there is a boundary line to music. But, man, there's no boundary line to art." Go ahead, step over the line. This isn't bowling. It's teaching.