Joe Bentley

Performer – Educator

The official website of Providence bassist Joseph Bentley

Not-So-Happy New Year: How to navigate the doldrums of winter freelancing

Like most freelancers you’ve probably had a busy December.  If you were lucky, that busy stretch extends all the way back to September and before.  Not only did you get tons of gigs for Christmas, but your wallet (and maybe your belly) is probably a little bit heavier and you’re happy to spend the first few weeks or so of January recovering from the loss of every weekend to the all-consuming holiday hustle.

My first winter out of school, I was so bored I didn’t know what to do with myself.  I had just moved back home to Providence from London, and didn’t have enough work to keep myself occupied in the busy seasons, let alone in January and February.  I was living with my parents again after two years of living on my own, and to top it off I was broke.  Maybe it was the darkness, maybe the cold, maybe it was just boredom.  One way or another, it took the warm weather to snap me out of the funk and back into a solid routine.

These times, these inevitable and sometimes anxiety inducing spells of too little work or too little play or too little money can work themselves into something truly fearsome without some planning.  Here are a few tips to help you make it through the winter:

1:  Have Some Fun!

You spent most of the holiday season working.  You love your job on the nights and weekends, but don’t like that it takes time away from the people you care about that don’t share your wildly inconvenient schedule.  Spend time with the people you can’t during the busy season, and do it on their schedule.  Be a good friend and a good son/daughter/sibling/cousin/etc.  Oh, and visit your mother!

2:  Explore your musicianship

No solo recitals coming up?  No work with a top tier orchestra in the next few months?  If you’ve had enough of family and friends, to last you until next December, then that means you’ve got plenty of time to explore your technique and work on a slew of other things you’ve always wanted to!  Transcribe that fiddle tune you’ve always liked.  Put on a metronome and try some improvising.  Try singing and playing (more on this in a later blog post).  Winter is the perfect time to lock yourself up and solve whatever puzzles you’ve been working on.

3:  Get some exercise

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a big proponent of physical and mental balance.  I believe wholeheartedly that dedicating yourself to a sport or activity, specifically one that encourages technique and mindfulness (e.g. yoga, gymnastics, power lifting, etc.) not only improves your body, but also trains you to account for the whole body in terms of wellness and awareness. 

Not only does exercise provide many long-term benefits, but it also gives you a short-term mood boost and can help counteract the lethargy brought on by short days and long, dark nights.   A healthy body is a sign of a healthy mind, and getting exercise is often just the jolt you didn't know you needed to spur your motivation.

4:  Read

Your creative output is directly related to your creative input.  Reading is one of the few art forms where the audience is required to actively participate throughout the entire work in order to consume it, and it will both increase your vocabulary and keep your critical thinking skills sharp.  It’s one of the best ways to keep your brain exercised, and is a great cure for creative blockage.  My current recommendation is Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy.  Or anything from Cormac McCarthy, for that matter.  The man is my favorite practitioner of the English language.

5:  Explore your local music scene

Go to concerts.  Try different venues.  Go somewhere you’ve never been, and try out a place where you don’t think you’ll fit in.  One of my favorite venues in Providence now is a place where I took my bass to an open mic, not knowing what to expect as a classical double bassist performing in a venue well-suited for alt-rock bands and plastered with hilariously vulgar street art.  I was received very warmly, went back for two more open mic performances, and was asked to open up an evening showcase just less than a week before writing this post.  You never know where you will find a local gem, or some new friends.

6:  Make a snow fort

Sledding is also a viable alternative.

7:  Make some time for your instruments

Been waiting until life dies down to change your strings?  How about that setup you’ve been waiting on for a few months now?  No better time to take the children to the doctor than when they’re out of school.  Besides, if you haven't had your instrument set up for the winter, you could be greatly limiting its potential – or possibly risking damage!

8:  Create

Whether it’s transcribing, arranging, improvising, writing, blogging, cooking, welding, or whittling, there is something profoundly satisfying about making something where there was once a pile of spare parts, or maybe where there was nothing at all to begin with.  Creating something, anything, is the ultimate test of your neuroplasticity, and a great way to keep yourself fresh.

One way or another, there are many things we can do to fill the time in which we are not doing something career-related.  Any musician who’s been around for any amount of time knows that he or she’s got a whole lot more practicing to do, none of you reading this need me to tell you that.  Some musicians, though, do need to be told to take a moment’s rest.  You’d be surprised at how much good it will do you to do something else, even just for a little while.

Feel free to comment or shoot me any of your other suggestions.  Happy winter!

Art Is Not Important.

Hi everyone!

So as I was sitting in Coffee Exchange, one of Providence's many great coffee shops, contemplating the content of my very first (well, not counting the AOL homepage that 13-year old me had... eek.) blog post, I had a thought.

Presenting yourself to the public is hard.

So why do it?  Why present anything, really?  A website?  A blog?

A performance?

I mean, we can just get the same satisfaction playing our instruments in the basement, right?  Go get your day job, earn your cash, and then play when the night comes and it's time to wind down.  That's where music and art belong.  Leisure.  Pleasure.

The great cellist Anner Bylsma said something to a similar affect during a masterclass with bassist Edison Ruiz:

I hate all this talk about dumb musicologists who of course have studied it a little bit, or some dumb journalist that looks up in some book and then gives you a couple lines in that book and it’s all about famous and talents and rich and important – music is of course, never important. It’s made for pleasure.
— Anner Bylsma

Lest I be accused of taking Mr. Bylsma out of context, take a listen to him yourself.  He says it in this video: https://youtu.be/aAGFDk0szwI?t=2m47s.  The quote starts at 2:47.

When I first started teaching at the Portsmouth Abbey School, I posed that quote to my students as a challenge.  Some were dumbfounded, some nodded in agreement.  Some were left wondering why, on my first day of class, I would undermine myself by saying that what I do for a living is of no consequence and has no value.

I posed more challenges to them.  If you had to cut funding for a hospital or an orchestra, which would you choose to cut to save the other?  What do we produce that is of tangible use to others?  Why invest so much into something that is little more than a hobby?

Why the hell do we do this?

There was no one answer.  Some were forced to play an instrument by their parents.  Some were doing it to pad their college applications.  Some signed up so they didn't have to play a sport (a neat arrangement at the Abbey).  Some admitted that they love music and can't live without it.

So why go through all of this trouble?  You've got your reasons to do it, I prodded them.  But why deal with all of this?  All of this practicing and learning and printing sheet music and rehearsing and marking your parts and going to lessons and buying and maintaining instruments and auditioning and why, for the love of God, would a young person – or a person of any age for that matter – sit down after a long day with his clarinet and play scales, or go to the piano and set the metronome, or pick up the bass and figure out how to hold the damn thing?

Music – Art – is not important.  It is inevitable.  It is an unavoidable byproduct of human existence, one that is both a reflection and a result of our time on this earth, and the art we create is our own carbon footprint into the souls of whomever is listening.  Or watching.  Or reading.

It is the artist that understands beauty, and in beauty understands living – for what better way to figure out who you are than to study your reflections?  

So why share this with the world?  Why perform?

Well... have you ever discovered something so exciting that you couldn't wait to tell everyone?


Thanks for reading everyone.  Till next time.

Joe