Having the privilege of being editor of this book has allowed me to read my colleagues’ thoughts on string playing and music making before having to finalize my own contribution to this book. It has been inspiring, reinforcing, and enlightening to read all their views, which represent such a broad spectrum on the teaching and playing of music (on stringed instruments). I parenthesize “on stringed instruments” because so much of what they say applies to teaching and music making on any instrument.
Most meaningful for me, as a bassist, is to find that these ideas correspond to and reinforce my own attitudes on performance. I have spent most of my playing and teaching years in very close musical association with violinists, violists, and cellists. During my twenty-two years at Indiana University I have been the only double bass instructor, and that has certainly created a much closer relationship with other string players than I might have enjoyed as an orchestral bassist.
Other roads that life has led me down have also resulted in this type of association, which is not a usual one for a double bassist. For example, I spent two years of my military service as the only bass in a chamber orchestra of twenty-seven players. When I was initially assigned to this unusual unit, the group had only nine persons. It was in its formative stages and was inactive, awaiting the assignment and arrival of sufficient numbers and types of instruments to begin its official activities.
That original group consisted primarily of violinists and violists plus a pianist. They were all fine musicians, members of professional quartets and of several distinguished radio symphony orchestras. They were very eager to do some playing, and of course chamber music was the only likely medium, but there was no cellist. Naturally when I was asked if I would like to try the cello parts on the bass, I jumped at the chance, for it was an unusual opportunity to play works by masters who otherwise wrote little or nothing for the double bass in small chamber ensembles. By playing an octave higher when possible and staying very “tuned in” to the practices of performance used by those I was playing with, I consciously and instinctively began to become “a string player.”
As the only bassist after the group was formed, and having superb string players, wiser and more mature than I to learn from and blend with, I developed a consciousness of ensemble playing that has been invaluable to my total musical development and attitude toward the double bass. It eventually made me realize why it has taken the bass longer than the other strings to develop to a level of performance standards equal to theirs. Our poverty of literature, lack of attention paid to the bass outside the orchestral ensemble, and the archaic and unscientific method books written by probably very talented but unscientific teachers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have all resulted in our second-and third-class citizenship within the string family. With the coming of a more intellectual approach to pedagogy by men like Frederick Zimmermann and the success of contemporary virtuosi like Gary Karr and Ludwig Streicher, there was suddenly a realization of what bass playing could and should be, and that teaching needed to be an organized intellectual science, not just an instinctive passing-on of traditions.
Still vivid in my mind is the situation in New York when I was a student. There were “camps” of students. The camp you belonged to was determined by the teacher you studied with and his approach to sound and performance. It was not an interplay but more of a friendly polarization. Although traces of this era linger on, today there are regional conferences, bringing together teachers and students interested in each other and seeking to learn what is going on outside their own particular learning circle or class. In a way, perhaps we double bassists are doing more “reaching out” and “tuning in” than are the other string players and teachers. However, their heritage of pedagogy and literature automatically binds them in closer communication than we have ever had. Their method and etude books, written by truly great pedagogues; the great master-works for their instruments; their multitude of great performers, documented from the inception of recorded sound—all allow a communication that we are now only starting to develop.
At this point I have several concerns about where we are going as teachers and performers on the double bass. One is this same matter of communication. In our numerous efforts to achieve it through conferences, special schools, and recordings of solo double bass literature, we are inadvertently losing contact with other string players and their progress in music making and teaching. No orchestral instrument can become an entity unto itself. We must all work in full realization of what is going on in the world of music, but we must move with the family from which we came to prevent our falling behind, as we have in the past, or becoming insulated, polarized, or isolated in the future.
I would find it tragic if my students had no interest in attending the master classes of other members of the string faculty. The art and science of making music are too complex and vast for any one person to have it all figured out. Going to a master class given by a piano teacher and learning one thing about music you never realized before is an experience that may never be duplicated, for we all have different ways of expressing ideas. Understanding does not come from hearing an idea or a thought expressed, but from hearing that thought expressed in a manner that communicates the idea clearly to you. Often a student will report that he has learned something “new” I thought I had already taught him, but apparently it did not take hold in the same manner as it did in someone else’s master class. Another student who had attended the same lecture may come back and say, “You know, so and so said the same thing you have been telling me.” He picks my ego up from the floor, where it had fallen following the first student’s report. The truth, however, is that the first student did learn something that I had not properly communicated to him when I “taught” it to him originally.
Communication at least with players and teachers of all stringed instruments is essential to our development of broad concepts of musical understanding and performance, but we must also expose ourselves to as many “successful” concepts of performance on the double bass as we possibly can. The realization that no one knows it all should make us reach out, so that we never stop growing (which is learning, is it not?). The most important musical word I know is humility. It is the word that keeps teachers from getting stuck with tradition and makes them seek concepts that are based on intellectual comprehension and the science of pedagogy and performance. It is the word that fosters communication and matures an artist’s performance. It is the word that was so beautifully expressed by Arturo Toscanini, when he was in his seventies. At a rehearsal during the time when I was with the N.B.C. Symphony he said, “You remember when we did this symphony three years ago? It was not right. The tempo was wrong, the balance was not right in the second movement. . . .” He added several other criticisms, all of his interpretation. Then he concluded with, “But now I am three years older and now know better.”
Toscanini’s well never ran dry. He made a continuing effort to find the composer’s intent. We have all known conductors and soloists whose wells have “run dry,” in many cases because they unconsciously stopped the search along the way, believing they had already found the composer’s true meaning and intent. Others have imposed interpretations on the music that were never intended by the composer because they “knew better” how the work should have been written. Some have stopped the search and have contrived a means of establishing their own identity in the music, losing interest in the music itself, and in the process also losing humility.
Of course, we can question minute aspects of the scores of almost every composer, no matter how great his genius. Among the hundreds of thousands of notes required to produce the literary output of a Haydn or a Beethoven there is bound to be an erroneous stroke of the pen or an unclear notation. There are certainly places to be questioned, but only in the search for intent, not to create our own vision of what “it should have been.” To this day, I am not certain why Beethoven wrote grace notes for the basses in the beginning of the Marche Funèbre of the Third Symphony and then wrote out similar figures as regular notes several bars later. I think I know why, but I am not perfectly sure, and I will always wish I really knew.
Similarly there is a place in the first movement of the Seventh Symphony where Beethoven marked the last eighth note of the measure piano, leaving the preceding sixteenth forte. It is impossible to have an entire section play this passage piano, yet the theme itself starts with the sixteenth note of the same dotted eighth, sixteenth, eighth rhythm. It would seem that the p was carelessly written and seems to occur under the last eighth rather than under the sixteenth note preceding it, where musically it would coincide with the thematic statement and technically it would be playable by all. It is this sort of search for the composer’s intent in which we all must involve ourselves, not in order to put a different face on a composition because “That’s the way I like it,” or because we are bored with the work and are looking for a new dimension, one not intended by the composer. This latter attitude creates our own “spectacular,” for our own intent, and is the first big step toward losing humility. I have heard great technical artistry but no great musical messages from a performer, conductor, or student who gives in to egotistical musical fantasy at the cost of humility. Although humility does not insure our finding the truth, it will at least insure an honest search for it.
In view of the influences that shaped many of my attitudes toward teaching and performance, it is only logical that I seek a sound compatible with the string family. When I am playing chamber music, in which the doubling of the cello is so prevalent, I will “shadow” the sound of the cellist. For me there is no greater compliment than to have an educated listener comment, “The sounds of the cello and bass were balanced to the point where I could not separate them when they played the same line.” I consider this as mostly my achievement, because I know I am doing my best to accomplish this balance. The cellist reaches out in many ways to achieve uniformity but does not try to match the sound concept of the bassist. The cello has one of the most beautiful voices in solo and ensemble literature; thus it is vanity to expect a cellist to change his tonal colors to blend with the bass. So it is my responsibility to find a way of blending and bending without losing the depth and personality of the double bass. I simply think of it as the deepest sounding instrument in the string family. It then becomes an extension of the cello, just as the cello is an extension of the upper strings in building the complete range of pitch, tone colors, and sonorities peculiar to the string family.
As a member of the Baroque Chamber Players, I played the only stringed instrument in consort with harpsichord, flute, and oboe. Here my role was more that of the cellist, since to have the continuo line, and sometimes solo lines, sound in the register written, it is naturally necessary for the double bass to play an octave higher. Finally, like most bassists, I have also played solo works with orchestra, and that experience has made me aware of the problems in yet another phase of performance.
All these involvements have only strengthened my long-held conviction that the bass is an integral member of the string family both pedagogically and musically. Our sound must be produced according to the same principles all the other bowed strings use, and it must blend with any of them. The means we use for bow articulation must also be based on the same principles used by the other strings. Of course there will be adjustments and modifications necessitated by the greater length and thickness of our strings. Their resultant resistance is proportionately much greater than the difference in weight between a bass bow and those of the upper strings. Most bass bows weigh barely twice as much as a violin bow, but if their weights were in the same proportion to the resistances they deal with, the bass bows would be clubs, unyielding, too heavy to handle and best used in battle, not in the performance of music.
Our efforts and training must parallel almost every aspect of string playing in general. We must know how to start a sound or tone with or without an attack; play with a slow or a fast bow; at the bridge or near the fingerboard and everywhere in between; off the string and on the string and all gradations in between. I am concerned about polarization of approaches to the use of the bow, caused by exaggeration of certain practices advanced by teachers of the double bass and/or misunderstandings on the part of students. I have in mind the excessive concentration on the “slow bow,” the “fast bow,” playing primarily at the bridge, avoiding playing near the bridge, starting every note with an attack, achieving attacks only with the rush of bow hair over the strings without sufficient pressure at the beginning of the stroke. Most of these techniques are part of the total usage of the bow. One needs experience with and control of all types of bowing in order to have a full range of colors and textures. A truly great artist on the bass (or any other stringed instrument) must include all concepts in his performance. Many talented bassists display only a partial spectrum of musical expression because their training and/or thinking has limited their exploration of the traditional bowing techniques. That is a luxury we cannot afford on the double bass. In view of the control we need to parallel the expressiveness of the cello or the violin, we need every color and texture available, plus subtle exaggeration to get similar results.
Our results must be compatible with the sound of the other strings, not extraordinary to the ear. The greatly exaggerated paths we sometimes take to make up for our inability to perform as other string players do constitute evasions of our responsibilities to sound or misconceptions of our potential. If one were to start a scale in the violins and descend gradually into the register of the double bass, via the violas and the cellos, it should not be apparent when each section stops and the next lower one begins. This should hold for all types of bowings—legato, staccato, spiccato, etc.—and for all textures and nuances.
In the end, sound is energy. This energy is created by the pressure, speed, and resistance we use in producing sounds with the bow. It emanates from the body as we draw the bow, maneuver the bass, and work the left arm and hand. If you look at a performer carefully, you can see the subtle play of these forces, and even if you cannot hear the notes you can almost imagine the kind of sound that is being produced. Imagine an explosion: the greatest energy is released in the first stage; afterward things set in motion by the initial burst of energy diminish in their thrust. To visualize an explosion is also to visualize a violent attack with the bow, after which there is a sustaining of a forte. The first inch or two of bow exerts great speed and pressure, but then speed is replaced by pressure and resistance to maintain the forte. To leave out any aspect of the three forces is to leave out some of the energy required to give an attack its proper character. At a point in a phrase where the intensity increases, perhaps for a climactic effect, the energy level also increases. Conversely, in achieving placidity in a phrase, the energy level is low. Thinking this way should allow one to see the correlations between the use of pressure, speed, and resistance and the levels of energy required in the different functions the bow has to fulfil.
Loudness is not always commensurate with depth of sound. Nor is clarity commensurate with forte or piano; it can be part of either. Excess resistance does not provide the fullest sound if the bow speed is severely restricted. In the first long E in the recitative of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, after the articulation (attack) of the E, speed decreases almost immediately and gives way to resistance in order to sustain the note for four beats. However, the substitution or realignment must still result in a dramatic and moving texture, not in a static character.
One can do many things in writing, but unfortunately one cannot adequately describe sound without actually producing it. I can only say what is uppermost in my mind in the production of sound. I seek the deep sonority or fundamental of each tone I produce, for I play the bass of the string ensemble. I seek in each sound a resonance so that there is a sense of the instrument, not just the string, vibrating under the bow. I usually seek a string reaction that provides resistance to the bow, so that I can feel the bow sinking into that “ledge of resistance” under the hair and on the “bridge side” of the hair. once that “ledge of resistance” is realized for almost any volume, the bow will not skim over the string but will find control through resistance in sync with the speed and pressure being used. I also seek the feeling that I am projecting. finally, I seek the color in ensemble that will be an extension of the prevailing sonorities being produced by the rest of the strings. even if they are wrong, I must match them, for if I do not, no matter how right I am in my personal concept, I will neither enhance the community sound nor project a meaningful quality to the ensemble or to the audience. my refusing to conform to the ensemble will not correct anything, and if i am not flexible enough to adapt and blend with the others i will not learn anything.
Performance involves athletic activity. Behavior in performance demands that we achieve balance for that physical activity. When playing an instrument the size of the double bass, which is too large for most humans to deal with, it is essential that we make the best use of the body. We face the unnatural situation of the right arm and the right side of the body reaching down while the left arm functions on a higher plane. This configuration alone is enough to take its toll on our skeletal-muscular structure over the years, without our getting into other, unnecessary positions of imbalance.
Instinctively as well as through training, a fine athlete will support every motion by a balanced position of the body. There is a proper pedestal (position of legs-feet) that supports every gesture from the thighs on up. In tennis, Ping-Pong, batting a baseball, all aspects of football, or any sport where both sides of the body are involved, we can assume a position that will support the various movements of the upper body. In playing the bass, the ever-shifting torso, resulting from the execution of a full bow stroke and the ever-shifting left arm, requires constant adjustment of the supporting mechanism. That does not mean ever-shifting legs, but it does mean one should anticipate the need to rebalance and choose a stance from which one can do so as quickly as possible and as often as necessary. The moving upper torso is rebalancing even when the stance seems to remain intact. One may also be unconsciously shifting the weight from one leg to the other.
I see a boxer in his position of readiness assuming the pedestal and balance similar to that needed for playing in thumb position. When we visualize the stances necessary for balance we might liken the act of pulling a chest expander apart to drawing a down-bow to the tip, and the feat of compressing a large coil spring to returning a full up-bow to the frog. Rebalancing is always taking place somewhere in the body, and the pedestal must be able to support all these motions without putting strain on the lower back. The feet must be placed so they support the torso, wherever it is going, with the head leading. But if the head extends beyond the pedestal, the lower back will have to bear the brunt of the support. With few exceptions, an athlete whose head goes beyond his pedestal and whose legs are together and straight is an athlete in trouble.
When the bass is played in the seated position, part of the pedestal is the stool. Even then the placement of the legs-feet is crucial, and it is essential that the entire pelvis be supported by the stool. It is not necessary to sit well back on the stool, just make sure that both buttocks rest on it. If only one rests on the stool, the unsupported side will tend to drop, while the supported side will be pushed up, causing an imbalance that may affect the spine. Sitting often causes other problems. In trying to achieve better access to thumb position, one tends to ignore the needs of the bow arm and to place the bass more in front of the body, instead of keeping it along the left thigh with the back corner of the bass into the left side of the crotch. This forces the bow arm to reach out much farther for the G-string, and in the process the torso is twisted. As the G-string is so predominant in solo playing, if this behavior becomes a habit, in time it will be damaging to the back.
Every instrument has its occupational hazards. The bass is such a large instrument it is best played by one well over six feet tall. For the violinist the problem is not the size of the instrument but that the left arm is constantly up in the air. For the flutist it is that both arms always go toward the right side of the body. In all these cases, as with the double bass, we should make the best use of the body through proper positioning and balance, much as athletes do.
Naturally each instrument has its own personality and textural possibilities. That is what makes each stringed instrument fascinating for the performer and the composer. The subtle use of different textures and articulations makes possible unique tonal and expressive characteristics not only for each member of the string family but for every individual who has learned how to express through his or her instrument what is in the “mind’s ear.” For me it has always been a thrill to be a member of that most versatile family of instruments, in which my involvement is a constant challenge and reward.
Despite all that we have already learned about the problems of playing the double bass, there is still much to explore. We must not accept blindly the teachings of our double bass ancestors, but we must know why we are doing what we are doing—physically, musically, and intellectually. Tradition has not misled us so much as it has not provided all the answers. We must accept what has been passed on to us until we understand enough to confirm or deny its validity. Unfortunately, no one of us knows all the answers, and total comprehension lies farther up the road than we can reach in the time life allots us. Thus, as in all things, it remains the challenge for those who follow to continue the quest.