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Music and One’s Gender - by Kim LaCoste
As a female musician, the best thing that I can do for myself is not make my gender an issue. I want people to see me as a musician, not a female who plays an instrument. I’ve been told to “take advantage of the fact that I’m a woman.” Who cares?! I want people to see me as a musician and a musician only. For me, gender is dead! There are men (and women) who gradually talk women into quitting a career in music – the reason being because they’re women, figuring that they just don’t have the right stuff. On the other hand, I’ve seen men who have allowed demands by the opposite sex to deter them from their music in favor of a more “stable” life, such as toiling behind a desk or some other godforsaken job, making them age by the hour. To you folks who have to deal with jerk-filled situations with people, who if they could, destroy your aspirations, let your abilities take you forward. Don’t you dare let someone make you disbelieve in yourself! Forget about your gender – that’s “non sequitur” in the true scope of life. What you can “bring to the table” is of importance.
Before I go further, I’d like to apologize for the couple of typos in my last article, “The Musical Mind”. I feel like a Homer S. when he says, “DOH!”

Ok, I’ll proceed:
Depending on the musician, he/she will go to any length to achieve the mastery over an instrument. For instance, playing the acoustic-bass involves getting calluses. If you want to play the instrument with any power, it is necessary that the index and middle finger(s) of your right hand have tougher skin in the area where you have to touch the strings. With a man that’s considered normal. I haven’t seen as many women playing acoustic-bass in jazz as I’ve seen other females in R&B, pop or rock groups. I guess the idea of “roughing up” your fingers to play a bass-violin is a turnoff for some. When it comes to women, it seems that we’re supposed to be “better off” if we choose to play an electric-bass - with a pick. Please… I must add here though, that some women I’ve seen playing jazz on an acoustic-bass had a tendency to play mainly on the D and G string(s). These strings have less tension and therefore do not make your left hand work as hard. When I began to play the acoustic-bass, I did the opposite: I developed my fingers to get used to playing on the E and A strings first, especially in the first position. Male players would tell me that the E and A strings have greater tension, but they also have more “meat”. They’re right. Get control of those two strings and the other two are gravy. True, in the beginning, playing on the E and A strings will hurt, but once you get the control, it’s great when you can play low notes with gusto and make the bass roar. Of course, there is a part of acoustic-bass playing where you hold down the thumb in the upper register and play notes above it. It’s called the “thumb position”. It is difficult and it WILL make you feel like you’re going to sever your thumb at any moment! But hey, when I get control over that, I’ll be one happy person. I’ve seen men (some famous) who would take solos using just the D and G strings. Whenever I saw that, I couldn’t help but wonder why a person would neglect the fingerboard in that manner. There are notes all up and down the bass. Why not go after all of them? So as you can see, there are instances where males and females have taken the same route on that instrument. Gender has nothing to do with it. An acoustic-bass is not something that you can just pick up and start playing easily. That’s why you see more electric-bass players than acoustic-bass players.

In my early days of playing electric-bass, I learned that for me, my fingertips had to have a certain dryness right before playing. This may sound nuts, but if I had to, I would go outside of a club and rub my fingers against bricks for a few seconds, not hard as if to pull my skin off, but just enough to get the dryness that I needed to “attack” the strings right before I had to play. What can I tell you? Soft skin will play “soft” notes. You won’t find dainty fingers playing intense fusion pieces by jazz musicians or highly-electrified music written by a rock group. Some of you folks may see that behavior of mine with bricks as being on the “nutball” side, but it was what I was willing to do to develop my skill on the instrument. I’ve never wanted people to describe me as “sounding like a girl”. That description was always equated with being weak. I see growing calluses as “medals” because I went through years of, “So you’re a bassist? Let me feel your fingers.” Oh, brother… The public and/or other musicians would want to know if my fingers had gotten tougher for playing the bass. Without calluses, most people assume that you must not be very good because your hands aren’t physically exhibiting any strength or toughness. Since I’ve been playing the acoustic-bass, the calluses are beginning to emerge. However, you have to be careful with callused skin. You can’t let the layers of skin get uneven because it will have an effect on how you sound. As a remedy, I use extra-fine sandpaper to smooth the skin a little. To some of you, using sandpaper on skin may seem crazy too, but how my notes sound is very important to me. Mind you, I do know what the product called “lotion” is, so that I don’t irritate anyone while in an affectionate mode!

There have been men who didn’t have a “tough” technique. Take the late jazz pianist Red Garland, the king of block-chords. He didn’t play hard and intensely on the piano, but no one gave it a second thought. He had a unique skill which was great to listen to and that was sufficient. I’d love for someone to try to talk that “soft” crap regarding pianist Joanne Brackeen. The piano is at HER mercy, not the other way around. She is powerful and very talented. She can play notes with as much gentleness and also with so much strength; you almost wonder whether the keys are going to pop right off! Not every male musician has hands that feel like concrete. It’s something how some of them can play like they’re shooting out thunder bolts, yet when you shake their hands, they don’t feel like you expect them to feel. On the other hand, I’ve met male musicians with soft hands and they didn’t have any prowess whatsoever; nor were they willing to “do battle” on a gig. This is where one’s attitude has a strong influence on his/her approach to music. I play with males because I like the intensity that male musicians bring to a performance, granted that they’re not jerks. Unfortunately, I don’t meet many women with whom I can play music, which is why you won’t see me volunteering to be in an all-female group. I encounter a lot of cattiness among women, whereas when it comes to guys, I can just be myself and have fun. I don’t come to a gig to be looked at; I want to be heard. Not every female musician wants to get “into the trenches” so to speak, either. Being “in the trenches” involves playing hard, e.g., playing at a breakneck tempo for 20 minutes. All I can say folks, is that you’re missing out. “Musical telepathy” among energetic musicians at a highly-charged level is what I live for. When the telepathy is shared, it transcends the music.

The musical director for a show I was a part of this year told me that the principal bassist for the orchestra in Milwaukee is a woman. Anyone who’s ever played classical bass parts will tell you that it’s not a simple task. It is an inspiration to me that a woman holds that position. She’s a friend of his and I told him that he just had to find a way to arrange it where I can meet with her! She’s a mentor and I want to pick her brain so that I can get as much knowledge out of it as I can! You have to know that the woman probably had to overcome obstacles, but she overcame them. I can bet that she didn’t think of the fact that she was a woman when she sought that brass ring. When she competed for the principal bassist position, she used the best tool that she had: her abilities. If you have the tenacity required playing music on a more intense/complex level, it will come out, whether you’re a man or a woman. In a previous article, I mentioned that in order for a female to truly get stronger on an instrument, I suggested that she play with males. People can disagree with me about this until the moon turns blue. However, because I chose to play with males from day one years ago, they “gave” me strength, for which I am eternally grateful. Males are naturally stronger, so why not tap into their energy/power and make some of it yours?

A part of dealing with the issue of gender is all in the mind anyway. If you think that you can’t handle playing with the guys, then you won’t be able to do it. If you think that you’re too macho to appreciate something “light” like a nocturne by Chopin, then you’re depriving yourself. I’ve found that the best composers and musicians find a way to combine feminine and masculine aspects of music and incorporate them into their compositions/playing. Also, there is some logic to being a tomboy. For instance, take basketball star Cheryl Miller or soccer champion Mia Hamm. Ms. Miller used to play against her brother Reggie – and beat him. Maybe Ms. Hamm had to tackle playing guys at some point in her career; if nothing else, for fun when she was younger. And if she did, with her talent, you have to assume that at some point, she gave them something to think about! So, to you female musicians out there – do the same thing! It’s okay to be “nice” and all that, painting a picture of the “lady with an instrument”. You know what I mean: the persona of just being a gentle instrumentalist with no fire at all. But - come on! ALL women can’t be like that! Some of us have to be stronger! Some us have to play as if the world is coming to an end, otherwise, what’s the point? As for males, it’s great to be able to play as if you’ve just blown up the Rock of Gibraltar, but if you don’t try to learn about other musical nuances that can be less harsh in nature you’re preventing creative ideas from coming through. Not every song has to sound like it was written with nails. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have love songs that have been written by men. However, I love it that there have been men who composed music that sounded as if you could use the power in them for nuclear warheads! Life would be absolutely boring without those composers of classical, jazz, rock or any other kind of musical idiom.

Develop your skills and let them speak volumes for you. If you play well, your gender will be the last thing on a person’s mind.

BY Kim Michele LaCoste

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