Big Ears

Sean O'Bryan Smith

What up gang ? Well, it is that time again. Yes, one of the masses of bass players without any hair conversing on who knows what. For this month’s survival tip from the front line, I wanted to talk about the principle of “big ears”.

No, I’m not talking about the relevance of iconic cartoon characters on the planet’s current events, but the ever important art of listening. This single natural function is indeed the most important thing you can perfect in your career as a working bassist. Big Ears can take you from never having any work as a player to being the “first call” guy or gal in your chosen market. So sit back and see how this worked for this particular low-ender.

For me, it started back in 1999. I had recently re-located to Nashville and was trying to de-tox from a 6 year stint with my own fusion band. As I started to learn about my surroundings, I realized I was going to need to dig in and understand the local scene – especially this whole country music thing. Let me just say, going from jazz/fusion to country singer/songwriters is a culture shock like no other, especially since, in ’99, I really didn’t listen to or (dare I say it?) LIKE country music. Yep, this was not the easiest concept to grasp for the self-proclaimed jazz snob. Of course, reality soon reared its ugly head when I quickly realized that doing my best Jaco imitation in the middle of a George Strait tune wasn’t putting food on the table. Yes, my babies, you know what is coming next don’t you ? A Life Lesson.

After feeling obliterated by the Nashville scene, I started listening to that little voice in my head about my musical approach. Yes indeed, my fellow-groovers, the first lesson in listening for me was to listen to my inner voice as he was going “Hey Dumb #$@ !!! You know you might cover the gig better if you actually LISTENED to the style of music you are trying to play !”

I was now faced with having to entertain the voice in my head. To achieve this I practiced my “two step program” because twelve steps was just too many for me to deal with ( bass player, you know ).

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Step One – I took every radio station I loved and listened to constantly, and I TURNED IT OFF !! This allowed me to cleanse my ears and get a fresh perspective on listening.

Step Two – I then changed the station and really started to listen to what else was being played. This was especially effective when I found genres that were totally foreign to me and opened my mind to new ways of playing. Plus, this can also be highly entertaining due to the fact that it is fun to watch the expression on people’s faces if you drive by them with Beethoven CRANKED. (Yes, you can head bang to Bach and Beethoven. Try it; it’s a blast!)

When I began to actually listen to country music, it was a real challenge. I honestly couldn’t hear anything that really grabbed me. But I knew a huge part of that was my own ignorance to that style of music, so I pressed on. I continued to listen, and before I knew it, I caught myself humming a few tunes. What ? Could this supposed “hick” music actually not be that bad ? I still wasn’t sure but, either way, my new found listening habits were starting to make sense – especially since my preferred form of listening for work is to constantly listen to the work tape for a number of days before I actually sit down and learn it. That way the feel of the tune and the changes are in my subconscious and I can then just groove. By better educating myself on this, I was now much more comfortable and it was starting to feel right. It was working !

The second phase of listening (and the one for me that has proven to be the most important) is to listen to the people around you. This can be especially trying if you’re on a six week run with a guitar player who wants to talk about how great he is but, hey!, it’s a small price to pay for the Almighty Groove. The main thing to remember is this:

Listening to those around you can take many forms and it is extremely beneficial to embrace all of them.

The first is the obvious choice of listening to all aspects of the music and the players around you. As bass players, we have the very unique role of being the “glue” on stage for all of the different instruments/vocalists/etc. Whether you are “dropping the one” right on top of the kick drum, picking up a line into the chorus with the guitar player, or leaving space for the singer’s big number, be sure to keep those ears open. This is where the entire Big Ears concept derives from, and will make your musical journeys much more rewarding when people compliment you on how well you listen.

Mmmmmmmm……..compliments good.

Now for another life experience interlude by the bald guy. Not long after moving to Nashville, I had the opportunity to audition for country music legend Lee Greenwood. This audition with such a powerful music presence was a great experience because of the opportunity and more so the affirmation on my approach to listening. The audition was unlike any other I had experienced because it was just Lee, his Musical Director, and me – and I was playing along with tracks instead of with a band. Now, I mentioned earlier that I like to listen to work CDs for days and I had luckily received the demo tape very early on. I had spent hours upon hours listening and studying this CD. I didn’t realize how important that was until I went through this audition. It was apparent that, by osmosis of having the tracks engrained in my goofy noggin, I was playing not only the original bass parts, I was also integrating with the other players on the track as though we were performing live. I didn’t actually know I was doing it, but it just felt right because I was now

are you ready ?

“listening” to my heart and grooving my booty off. When finished with the audition, Lee looks at me and says “You have Big Ears kid !” At that moment it all made sense. Yes kiddies, Renaissance moment # 423 in the life of the bald guy had arrived and again I spoke with myself and said, “Self, you might have stepped in something cool here.”

Just then, the clouds parted, birds started singing, and I realized I had actually learned a valuable lesson. I had actually — LISTENED !!

All right, class, believe it or not, this all has a point. So let’s review:

First – listen to the actual form of music you’re working on at whatever point in time. This will help you truly get a feel for what SHOULD be happening musically.

Second – listen to what the other people are saying and doing around you, whether musically or not. This can provide valuable networking and musical skills as well as help you make some great friendships.

Third – listen to that little voice in your head about important decisions. Unless of course, he’s telling you to put on a clown suit and – dang, I got nuthin’. Let’s move on.

Finally – listen to your heart and play what feels true to you. If you have indeed embraced all the prior aspects of listening, you will not only improve your playing but you’ll also play the right bass parts!

The next thing you know, you’ll be listening to the phone ringing with the steady line of gigs for your unequaled grooviness.

Well, that’s it. Hopefully, all of you had your Big Ears on and were able to hear something of value in this. Until next time, keep on groovin’ — and listening.




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Sean O'Bryan SmithAbout the author: Sean O’Bryan Smith is an Internationally acclaimed solo artist, producer, composer and freelance writer. His skills have taken him from stage to studio with some of the top artists in the world including Larry Carlton, Randy Brecker, Keith Urban, Kenny Rogers, Wynonna and many more. He’s currently part of the jazz supergroups Polcat, TST and Kazhargan World in addition to producing artists for his contemporary jazz label Groove Therapy Records. For more information check out

2 Responses to Big Ears

  • Wow Sean. Love your article!! Thanks for imparting such great wisdom. I have learned the same lessons. I remember making a comment that I was tired of playing a crowd favorite, than the “inner voice” spoke to me, too….that it’s not about you! Ok, back to listening!!

  • Elmeaux:

    Thanks, Sean!! Good stuff.

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